An elderly couple walks into Kip’s Inn and hands bar owner Kim Engebregtsen a plastic bag with a Barbie doll in it.
“Oh, thank you!” Engebregtsen said. “I needed this. This was the last thing on the list.”
She hugged the couple and directed them to the bar to enjoy some drinks with other folks from the neighborhood.
The list to which Engebregtsen referred was given to her by Catholic Charities with the Christmas wishes of five families, 27 people total.
“Whatever their wish is, we honor it,” she said, adding that since the bar started collecting gifts for Catholic Charities six years ago, every wish — and more — has been fulfilled.
Engebregtsen said one year a child asked for a bike, and through her collection, got a bike and a helmet. Another asked for a basketball, and he was given a ball and a pump.
“Once the ball goes flat, it’s no good,” she said. “These are kids that don’t have anything, so whatever they ask for, we get.”
Kip’s was generous in donating gifts that weren’t on wish lists for the five families — and $300 to purchase gifts for families without sponsors, according to Sharon Brumer, communications manager of Catholic Charities.
“They just continue to really embrace the giving program for the holidays,” Brumer said. “I think it enables the patrons to really participate, whether their kids are grown or they don’t have kids, whatever it is. They are just so generous and the bartenders, too; they work really hard and they’re always so energetic.”
Brumer said she can always depend on Engebregtsen and Kip’s Inn, located at 837 S. 108th St., West Allis.
“She embraces sharing and giving to others, and that always rubs off then on the people that come
to your establishment,” Brumer said. “If you’re cheerful and happy about what you do and what you’re doing for others, it’s very contagious then for everyone else. … She and her bartenders certainly embrace that spirit of Christmas giving, because they are just always so excited.”
Engebregtsen’s motivation for gathering the toys stems from having been one of five children in a poor household.
“When we were kids, we were pretty poor,” she said. “We benefited from people’s generosity and actually through the Catholic Church.”
Engebregtsen and her family attended St. Peter Parish, Oshkosh, and she went to St. Peter School.
“We were able to attend the school without paying tuition,” she said. “The parents of our classmates, they were very generous. They exposed us to things that we wouldn’t have been otherwise exposed to.”
She was grateful for gifts her family had received when she was a child and after growing up, she fell into this toy tradition by accident.
“The first year we collected for Toys for Tots and when I went to go drop (the gifts) off, they said the deadline had already passed so I took them to Catholic Charities and they were really happy to get the gifts,” Engebregtsen said.
Shortly after that, she received a call from then-Archbishop of Milwaukee Timothy M. Dolan, now cardinal, thanking her and asking if he could come to the bar to pick them up.
“It’s exciting that he’d go out of his way to stop at a small neighborhood bar to thank us for what we’ve done,” she said.
On that day she remembered Cardinal Dolan sitting at the bar and ordering a Budweiser.
“He told my bartender not to tell anybody and she said ‘Why? You can’t have a beer?’ And he said, ‘No, don’t tell anyone it’s Budweiser,’” Engebregtsen said, laughing at the memory.
The tradition of the archbishop coming to the bar to receive the toys continues with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki.
“They’re very charismatic members of the church,” she said of Archbishop Listecki and Cardinal Dolan. “It’s exciting for us, (but) we don’t do it for that reason.”
For Engebregtsen and the patrons at Kip’s Inn, it’s all about the families.
“My customers ask me two months before we get the list, ‘When are you going to get the list from Catholic Charities?’” she said. “They’re really excited about it.”
Anna Rollo, frequent customer at Kip’s Inn, “adopted” three people for whom to buy gifts.
“The person wanted a pillow and a blanket; I ended up buying them a four pack of pillows and blankets,” Rollo said, adding she did the same for another person and bought a shaving kit for the third person.
This was her first year being involved in the tradition.
“I was raised Catholic and this is my neighborhood watering hole and I know they got this here and it’s a big thing to do,” Rollo said. “This (bar) seems to be one that draws from this particular segment. It’s working class people. A lot of us recognize each other; we’re all from the neighborhood. We kind of look out for each other … there’s a lot of giving people in here.”
Salvatorian Fr. Dave Bergner, executive director of Catholic Charities, appreciates the bar’s outreach.
“We are so grateful to the patrons and staff at Kip’s Inn for their enthusiasm for our Christmas Giving Program. Their generosity is truly a wonderful example of how one good deed can have a ripple effect within our community,” he said in a Dec. 5 press release, referring to the organization’s “Make a ripple” campaign.
Engebregtsen realizes some might be surprised that a bar is doing business with a Catholic organization.
“What we do is we try to serve responsibly,” she said, adding the bar provides free taxi vouchers to customers who shouldn’t drive, doesn’t allow gambling, and warns customers against using offensive language.
“Obviously it’s not a church, but I want to be proud of my bar,” Engebregtsen said. “If my friends are sitting there, I want them to be proud of my bar.”
Throughout the year, Engebregtsen said she raises funds for hurricane relief and other charitable causes at her bar. But she doesn’t think of her efforts as anything special.
“It’s not like in some saintly way, it’s really kind of an everyday way,” she said. “The way you lead your life sets an example for other people.”
Engebregtsen was hesitant to do the interview with your Catholic Herald, preferring to let her actions speak for her.
“I don’t like the spotlight,” she said. “I don’t want the credit. I don’t want the praise…. I really just do it because it feels good.”