Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tom Stanton doesn’t come off as the executive director of a nonprofit organization called Mel’s Charities. For one thing, his name is Tom (Mel is a nickname). But what’s more unusual about Stanton is his unassuming attitude. With a long bill baseball hat on his head and chewing gum in his mouth, Stanton looks like he would feel more at home at a baseball game than a fundraising gala. But the lack of pretense is part of what makes Stanton stand out from other nonprofits. Donors tell him they like his humble approach, and that he supports local initiatives in Ozaukee County. His approach seems to be paying off. In the past two decades, he has raised more than $1 million for Ozaukee County causes, including more than $350,000 for Ozaukee County nonprofits, $350,000 for special needs programming and $400,000 for memorial scholarships.
A man he met on the golf course was so impressed by his story that he decided to make a short documentary about him. The 25-minute documentary will air at the Rivoli Theatre in Cedarburg on Dec. 28.
Mel’s Charities has been quite a success story, considering its first fundraiser was whipped up, spur of the moment, at a Cedarburg bowling alley. Stanton, an Ohio native, was watching his Cleveland Browns play the Packers with about 50 of his friends at Cedars III bowling alley in 1995 when he learned that his friend Blaine Bergmann’s 47-year-old sister had just died of bone marrow cancer. Worse yet, she was a single mother to a 22-year-old woman with special needs. In that moment, Stanton said a light bulb turned on his head. He went out to his car, where he found two mini Packers helmets autographed by Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. He quietly collected bids on the helmets, and then sold them for $350. At the request of the family, Stanton donated the money to Special Olympics. Stanton said it was a feeling he had never experienced before. “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t thinking about me,” he said. “It changed me.”
After that 1995 season, the Browns moved to Baltimore. Stanton’s friends urged him to host another party the next year. If the Browns ever came back to Cleveland, he said, he would throw a pig roast. Four years later, when the Browns returned to Cleveland, Stanton held true to his word. It was just supposed to be a simple pig roast with a small bit of fundraising. Stanton had no idea it would turn into Mel’s Charities signature event, continuing on for the next 20 years. Mel’s would eventually add a whole series of events, including bowling, run-walks and a Grafton concert called Melapalooza. Stanton said his events bring all sorts of people, who could be donating anything from $30 to $3,000.
After several years of raising money for other local organizations and causes, Stanton decided to make Mel’s Charities its own nonprofit in 2006. It was at the pig roasts that Stanton first met Special Olympics athletes Ross Rintelman and Andy Peterson, who have been active in Mel’s Charities for more than a decade. Stanton said he developed a close friendship with Rintelman and Peterson by attending their Special Olympics basketball games. “I guess what keeps drawing me in is that they live in the moment,” Stanton said. “I’ve seen them experience heartbreak on the field or in life, but they move on, like ‘What are we doing next?’ We all internalize what’s happened in the past and worry about the future, but they just live in the moment.”
One year, Rintleman Rintelman made a cross out of clothespins and gifted it to Stanton for Christmas. For the past two years, individuals with special needs have created more than 500 “Ross’ crosses” per year through the Pigments art program — a pun based on Mel’s signature pig roast event. The crosses are sold for $10 a piece, with all proceeds going to support local causes and organizations. In addition to Ross’ crosses, the Pigments group also makes pig ornaments, collages and greeting cards for Mother’s Day and Christmas. The original three participants — Rintelman, Peterson and Alex Parker — are now joined by more than a dozen individuals from Balance Inc., an Ozaukee County nonprofit serving individuals with developmental disabilities.
The idea to create scholarships in the name of Ozaukee County residents who passed before their time came after the death of 17-year-old Niki Doedens in 2004. Doedens, who was second in her class and a star basketball player at Cedarburg High School, was killed in a car accident after a day of fundraising for an organization that assists sight-impaired skiers. A scholarship in Doedens’ name continues to this day at Cedarburg High School. It’s just one of many memorial scholarships organized by Mel’s Charities.
More recently, Mel’s Charities and Ansay Associates donated $230,000 to help build a $290,000 Grafton Little League field in honor of Grafton High School senior Matt Malkowski, who died after a car crash in 2010.
Mel’s has also become more official since its humble beginnings, with a board of directors and an office space at the Family Enrichment Center in Grafton. For the past three years, Stanton has drawn a salary. He works alongside his nephew Kevin Winter, who is disabled. The job at Mel’s Charities has taught Winter about graphic design, which he uses to produce materials for the organization.
Stanton has been focused in recent years on making Mel’s Charities a sustainable organization that will keep giving long after he’s gone. Stanton has established a “farm team” of future leaders in the 300 Fund Team, a group of people who give $300 per year for three years. Mel’s is also receiving major legacy donations. Stanton’s college roommate, Cedarburg native Jamie Trenter, told him that he and his wife, Kim, have included a $1 million bequest to Mel’s Charities in their wills.
Stanton has many stories he can tell of random people he doesn’t know offering hundreds, even thousands, of dollars because they are inspired by his work. One time, a man handed him the phone number of a friend who was dealing with adversity. Stanton called the person. The next week, the man who asked him to make the phone call sent Stanton a check for $600. A short while later, Stanton was approached at the dog park by a man who introduced himself as the donor. They went out to breakfast, and he said he would match up to $10,000 in donations over the next month. The man insisted upon remaining anonymous. Stanton was able to raise the $10,000 and then some. Then, when a longtime Mel’s donor died, the donor’s wife donated an additional $10,000. Mel’s ended up raising $44,000 in a month’s time.
Although the money makes a lot of good things possible, Stanton said he will never let fundraising distract him from the organization’s mission. “For me, it’s not about numbers. Some places are obsessed with numbers,” he said. “I’m obsessed with empowering people and changing lives. The best part is we’re just getting started.”