One hundred homeless men, women and children got the experience of a lifetime on Saturday, Feb. 28, with a little help from a dozen local businesses, students at Marquette University High School and a new charitable initiative called North Star Providers.
For one night, the MUHS cafeteria was transformed into a swanky event venue, complete with dramatic draping, white linen tablecloths, custom decor and fine china. The guests of honor: dozens of homeless families that had been bused in from the Milwaukee Rescue Mission just a mile away.
Greeting and serving the guests were a team of 20 MUHS students clad in white shirts and bow ties who ferried plated dinners of filet mignon and chicken Kiev to and from the glamorously appointed tables. Guests were also serenaded by a piano player and treated to an interactive comedy show.
“This far surpassed anything we could have dreamed up,” said Jan Neis, founder of the North Star Providers. “My goal was to create an experience for others, and in turn they created an experience for me. The people we thought we were serving were uplifted, and they served us in return.”
The dinner was the brainchild of Neis, who saw a YouTube video in October of a similar event held in California.
“Someone sent me this video, and I just started bawling,” she recalled. “People were so moved by being treated with such respect and being treated so well. Comments like, ‘I never had tenderloin before, no one’s ever treated me like this.’ I replied to that email and said I am doing this in Milwaukee – who’s in?”
Neis formed a core group of several friends, including Reg Harris, Pat Foran, MUHS director of campaign gifts, and Ward Shampine of Dierks
For more information on North Star Providers, visit northstarproviders.com.
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Waukesha Food. By December, the group was planning for the inaugural event of North Star Providers. Marquette’s cafeteria seemed like the perfect place to host the dinner, and the high school was happy to get involved.
“MUHS welcomed us into their home and for the most part they only knew how to say yes to whatever we asked,” said Harris.
As a 1972 graduate of MUHS, Harris said he wasn’t surprised by the generosity of the school.
“That’s part of being a Jesuit institution – that’s part of their mission, and it’s literally part of the curriculum for the students to do outreach,” he said. “The athletic director and football coach came to me and said, ‘How many boys do you need?’”
Several local corporations also helped make the evening possible. Shampine and Dierks Foods provided and prepared the meals free of charge; Target donated gift bags containing gloves, caps and toiletries for the guests; Arena Event Services gave more than $3,000 of drapes, chairs, tableware, room decorations and place settings, and Saz’s Catering provided deluxe linen tablecloths and napkins.
The Milwaukee School of Flower Design created 16 custom floral centerpieces for the tables, donated by the Salvation Army, and Hartwig Exhibit and Display donated thousands of dollars worth of new carpeting.
Private donors also contributed. Several MUHS alumni heard about the event, said Harris, and are donating more than $1,500; total cash and in-kind donations will be about $25,750, with proceeds to be split equally between the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and the Luke Homan Foundation.
Though only about a third of the rescue mission’s clients were able to attend the dinner, the remaining 250 were treated to a takeout pizza party with cheesecake for dessert, courtesy of North Star Providers.
The group will also treat the rescue mission’s clients to a root beer float night on March 14, and hope to stop in to stage similar events every few months.
Neis, Harris and the rest of North Star Providers are planning next year’s dinner event. They want their organization to signify honoring the dignity of all individuals, especially those who are members of an at-risk population.
“When I go anywhere and I’m treated kindly, I feel good. And when I saw that video, it just hit me how these people – no matter where they go, it’s almost as if they’re wearing a sign on their heads: ‘I’m homeless,’” said Neis. “And to walk into a place where everyone greets them with a smile, a handshake, even a hug – to give that buoyancy of spirit – there’s nothing like it.”