- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

STERLING, Ill. (AP) - They are mighty, mighty, mighty big shoes to fill.

Russ Siefken Jr., United Way of Whiteside County’s executive director for 24 years, is retiring March 1.

In his time at the helm, Northwestern Steel and Wire closed and local manufacturing declined in general. Like others in the Midwest, Whiteside County’s economy tanked.

Through it all, though, United Way stuck to its mission: “We never had to drop any agencies, we always had enough money to help everybody out, and we even added new programs,” Siefken said.

The “we” Siefken is talking about are all the people he’s quick to credit for the agency’s success: His administrative assistant, a bookkeeper, and a hoard of volunteers who’ve helped the agency keep on giving, and growing.

Today, the 72-year-old oversees the distribution of $720,000 to 21 agencies - six more than when he started - and runs several programs, many that he created.

For instance, under Siefken’s leadership, United Way launched the Let’s Feed Our Children free summer lunch program, created after Northwestern Steel and Wire closed in 2001. For 15 years now, it has filled the gap for children who get free and reduced meals during the school year.

In 2003, he started Literacy is Fun for Everyone, which, through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, provides free books to children from birth to age 5; the Back to School Supply Program, and the Pharmacy Assistance Program, which helps people in need pay for medications.

Siefken also was instrumental in bringing the 2-1-1 services line to Whiteside County in 2013. The free, confidential information and referral line helps connect people to necessary local services, such as finding a food pantry, helping pay utility bills, or suicide prevention services.

Siefken also is a past United Way of Illinois Directors Committee chairman, a past Sterling Area Chamber of Commerce president, a P.W. Dillon Award winner, and a Phillip Merriman Staff Leaders Award winner.

In addition, he has been and still is active in many community organizations, including Sterling Noon Rotary, Sterling Mural Society, Sterling Bank Commission, the Whiteside County Crimestoppers board, the Relay for Life - Whiteside County committee, Royal Neighbors Rock Falls Camp 100, and the Illinois Alliance for Information State of Illinois Committee.

He’s not the only career do-gooder in the family, His wife, Carol Siefken, 74, runs the Sauk Valley Foodbank - another United Way of Whiteside County success story, created in 2003.

She has no plans to retire, he said.

Even after his retirement, Siefken will still be giving something to the United Way: His legacy - and for the person stepping into his shoes, that’s a pretty good way to get off on the right foot.

“Russ has dedicated 24 years to UWWC’s development, growth and progress,” board President Elizabeth Klahn said in a news release Monday announcing his retirement. “In doing so, he has impacted countless lives throughout our area. He has left a tremendous legacy that we are excited to capitalize on as we begin the search for a new executive director.”

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Source: Sauk Valley Media, https://bit.ly/29POgyX

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Information from: The Daily Gazette, https://www.saukvalley.com

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