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Witte honored as 'outstanding volunteer'

You won't see volunteer Michelle Witte out excavating on the site of the new community arts center at East Ridge High School, but in a way she has laid the groundwork for the center as much as any contractor will.

Witte, who played an integral role in fundraising for the new center, was honored by the Washington County Board April 20 as Washington County's 2010 Community Volunteer of the Year.

"A theater is one place where the whole fabric of a community comes together," said Witte, a Woodbury resident. "We're connecting the community through the arts."

In February of this year, Witte told school board members that Arts Connection will receive $2.3 million when Dorothy K. Merrill's estate is settled this fall. The money, in addition to $300,000 already raised, will go toward building the theater, expected to open in October of 2011.

It will be a small theater for productions, rehearsals and other events and have display space for local artists in addition to storage.

But there's still work to do as the arts center is on a journey to reality.

The Arts Connection, with members from all communities in the south Washington County area, needs to raise about $500,000 as an endowment to keep the Merrill center operating.

Now that plans are moving ahead, Witte expects more people will pledge money for seats to be named for them and have their names on a permanent naming wall in the center.

Witte's passion for volunteering began at an early age.

She recalls organizing her third-grade classmates in Columbia Heights to buy a gift for their teacher.

Being a hospital candy striper came next along with becoming a therapy aide and working at a camp for children with autism.

Currently, in addition to getting the arts center off and running, she, along with her husband, Eric, and daughters Libby, 14, and Kate, 10, have opened their home to foster animals not yet ready for adoption.

Michelle and Eric are co-leaders of their daughter's Girl Scout troop and the family volunteers at Feed My Starving Children.

Witte also runs a vacation Bible school at her church.

She credits Eric for helping to support her "volunteer habit."

Witte's business, Health Consumer Solutions, helps hospital pharmacies, for example, lure customers to use in-house pharmacies.

"There's no greater skill set than successfully organizing," she said.

Most of us don't get to be the boss, she said. But being the boss is not as difficult as being people with no power trying to get something done.

Witte's "getting something done" started five years ago when she joined the drive to build an arts center.

At first, supporters of an arts center, including the Woodbury Community Theater and later, Arts Connection, believed a free standing theater would be best. But at $10 million, that didn't seem realistic to Witte.

After many starts and stops that included a proposed center connected with Woodbury's Central Park, Witte knew a partnership with School District 833 could work.

"It's a unique facility that will be attached to a district building," District 833 Superintendent Mark Porter told the school board in February.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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