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Boreal Community Media

Who’s WISE? A look at the Cook County non-profit and its commitment to Classroom Grants and other community support

Jun 17, 2024 08:01AM ● By Content Editor
WISE members frying fish cakes: Gwen Mattice, Martha Rosbacka, Kathleen Johnson, Gwen Lenz, Joanne Smith. All photos provided.

By Ann Marie Mershon for Boreal Community Media - June 14, 2024

Would you call yourself wise? Cook County boasts a plethora of wise folks, but we have a group of over forty local women who call themselves WISE, the Women’s Initiative for Service and Education (formerly the Lioness Club). 

In 2018 Lions Club International terminated their relationship with Lioness Clubs, encouraging their members to join local Lions Clubs. Grand Marais Lioness members voted almost unanimously to create their own independent organization, and WISE was born. Their mission is “serving needs and encouraging opportunities in Cook County.” Although the name indicates it as a women’s club, men are more than welcome. In fact, men have helped with the fundraisers. Current WISE president Laurie Spry welcomes anyone interested in supporting children, families, and education.

 Ginny Padzieski and Judi Barsness, co-chairs of the first Buffet in a Box.

WISE members raise funds through two annual events. Buffet in a Box is the fishcake and meatball meal prepared and distributed by WISE volunteers (and friends) the Wednesday before Fisherman’s Picnic. Prior to the pandemic, this fundraiser was a buffet dinner at St. Johns Catholic Church. When COVID made that impossible, WISE member and chef Judi Barsness guided the organization to a new format, with volunteers working three days in the CCHS Culinary Arts Facility to prepare and distribute safe meals. Buffet in a Box has been a sellout for three years. The second WISE fundraiser is an annual online auction, drawing donations from members and local businesses, with items ranging from art and clothing to food and gift certificates. WISE Auction 2024 will be live from November 9th to the 17th. If you have items you’d like to donate to this auction, please contact Ann Marie Mershon, auction organizer.

WISE members & friends preparing Buffet in a Box: Dean Hedstrom, Mary Sanders, Barb Heideman, Sandy Jacobson, Jerry Wilkes.

Since its inception, WISE has tripled its annual donations to the community. Last year they donated $7000 to thirteen local organizations that serve children, families, and education in Cook County. They also funded $5000 in local scholarships: $4000 for two graduating seniors and $1000 for adult education. Their biggest program, though, is a collaboration with the local Lions Club: Classroom Grants. The Lions Club matches WISE funds to make $8000 available to Cook County teachers for classroom projects and materials. This program took a hit during the pandemic, most likely because teachers were stretched too thin to even consider completing a grant request. 

This year, Sue Nelson came to the rescue, revitalizing the classroom grants program. Nelson, a recently retired English teacher, joined WISE in order to coordinate the grants. Her enthusiasm for giving money to local teachers has spurred the program. “I want to help them fund curriculum and classroom projects not in their budgets.” Nelson has been teaching for the past thirty years and knows all too well how difficult it can be for teachers to get additional funds for innovative projects. She knows budgets in the schools are tight, and funding for new expenditures is slow. WISE classroom grants make such projects possible in a short time. “I received a few grants from WISE for my classroom,” she said, “and I wanted to pay it forward.” Thanks to previous WISE grants, she was able to purchase video equipment for her classroom, fund a computer program for her students, and expand middle school exploratory day activities. She feels strongly that the WISE Classroom Grants demonstrate respect for local teachers and professionals who deserve everyone’s support.

 Sawtooth Elementary Primary class thank-you note for their six Wobble Stools.

This spring Nelson’s efforts brought in applications from sixteen teachers, who have been granted a total of nearly $9000 to fund their projects (including carry-over funds from previous years). Classroom grants are available to both public and charter school teachers in the county. Each school can access a pro-rated amount based on enrollment, and most of the schools have received this year’s allotment. There’s no deadline for applications; they’re accepted year-round, though funds may be depleted early in the school year if many teachers apply. Teachers can also apply to be reimbursed for purchases they’ve made for their classrooms (two of this year’s funded projects were reimbursements). 

This year’s approved projects were all impressive:

  • Wobble stools for k-2 students to help them focus

  • ELA Learning Centers to build phonics skills for primary students

  • A Kimochi system to help preschoolers improve their social/emotional development

  • A set of Finch Robots to incorporate science into the primary classroom

  • A variety of steel items for welding practice in the high school

  • Lab materials for a longitudinal study of local soil health (grades 5-6)

  • Age-appropriate toys for preschoolers

  • Decodable books to address phonics concepts for struggling readers

  • Spot feelings books for preschoolers with special needs

  • Light table manipulatives for math and reading

  • Materials for students to craft kites

  • Costumes for an abolitionist history simulation (reimbursement)

  • Tuition for student visits to the Ely Wolf Center

  • High-interest reading books for students with reading difficulties

  • Supplies for cultural cooking for the Spanish class (reimbursement)

  • Phone tripods and microphones for a news communications class

Because Sue Nelson understands all the expectations laid on teachers’ shoulders, she’s worked with web designer Molly Larson (a former student) to make the application simple and seamless for teachers. They can access the application form on, and once completed, it goes directly to Nelson, who then forwards it to her committee members for their approval (or denial). Projects are rated on their educational value, uniqueness, and the number of students who will benefit from the project. The program does not support teacher stipends or capital improvements.

Nelson has this advice for teachers seeking support for their innovative project: 

“Go for it! Look at the website, see what has been approved in the past, peruse the user-friendly grant application, and then use your creativity and ingenuity to purchase non-capitol items to enhance your lessons. Know that the application comes directly to me and I take care of the rest. I’ll personally deliver the check to you at school.”

WISE is committed to supporting young people in this community, and its members enthusiastically support this program. As Nelson says, “We appreciate teachers! We respect teachers! We are your biggest cheerleaders!”

 Gwen Mattice and Martha Rosbacka scooping fishcake batter.

If you’d like to support WISE programs, please purchase meals at Buffet in a Box, donate or purchase items in the WISE Online Auction, or make a donation on the organization’s website. If you’d like to join WISE, check out or contact Karen Blackburn, WISE Membership Director.

It’s clearly wise to get involved with WISE.

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