Dialing the number of a Green Bay Packers legend at three in the afternoon, Wayne Bisek received a “What do you want!” from the other end of the line.
Undeterred, Bisek used the names of two former Packers who are on the Buckets for Hunger “celebrity board of directors” to try to get Ray Nitschke on board with his charitable intentions.
Once he mentioned Jim Taylor and Jerry Kramer, Nitschke cooled down, Bisek said, and he asked Bisek to call him back in a couple days after he’d had a chance to talk with his former teammates.
The next time they talked, the former linebacker calmly asked, “What would you like me to do for you?”
Bisek and his wife Vickie Carroll have been forging relationships like this for nearly 25 years, auctioning signed sports memorabilia to help them raise money for food pantries.
Married for the past 38 years, the Oregon couple’s nonprofit “Buckets for Hunger” has collected more than $2 million for charity since 1995, and on April 30 Bisek and Carroll received a community volunteer award for lifetime achievement from the United Way of Dane County.
Nominating each other for the United Way award, they said they only pursued the recognition to secure the $1,000 donation that came with it.
“I love being able to help other people and it’s when you think about two and a half million dollars that the two of us have raised over 24 years, that just boggles the mind,” Bisek said.
Bisek credited the success of Buckets for Hunger to volunteers, board members, donors, buyers, bidders and sponsors.
Bisek is a financial advisor and Carroll works as a nurse, but they “make the time” to work on their charity, Carroll said.
“We get it done somehow.”
Bisek got the idea for Buckets for Hunger while working for financial services firm American Express in 1995. Through its Charge for Hunger program, the company would donate a fraction of customer credit card purchases to hunger relief and match dollar for dollar any money raised for food pantries, Bisek said, which inspired him to start his own philanthropic efforts.
Bisek and Carroll started Buckets for Hunger with a celebrity basketball game between Wisconsin Badger basketball alumni and Oregon Area High School alumni and soon followed up with a raffle of about 25 items.
“I did not know at the time that we would just continue and continue and continue, but we enjoyed it enough, my friends and associates and family, that we just kept on doing it and it grew,” Bisek said.
In the early days of the charity, when professional athletes could be found in phone directories, Bisek called the business of retired Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas hoping for a donation of items to Buckets for Hunger. Bisek thought he would get a secretary but would instead receive vital advice that would shape the success of his budding nonprofit.
“Phone rings and a gentleman picks it up and I said, ‘Hello. I’m looking for Johnny Unitas.’ He goes, ‘This is Johnny Unitas. What would you like?’” Bisek told the Observer. “10 minutes later I told him all about what we were doing and he said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing raffles, Wayne. You’ve got to start doing auctions.’”
Bisek and Carroll would take that advice and the auctions proved much more successful fundraisers. Buckets for Hunger would also assemble an all-star team of Wisconsin sports legends including John Brockington, Jerry Kramer, Jim Taylor and Michael Finley who would serve on an honorary “celebrity board of directors.” This group has grown to include the likes of former Badger Ron Dayne and former Milwaukee Brewer Paul Molitor.
The charity’s most successful events combine the effectiveness of auctions with this star power. One such event featured former Packers greats such as Bart Starr and Paul Hornung.
“We were charging $200 a seat and we sold 300 seats at the Monona Terrace Convention Center,” Bisek said. “We raised $100,000 in one night, which was amazing.”
As of May 10, Buckets for Hunger has raised around $2,330,000, and with a staff of volunteers, every cent goes to charity.
An effective tandem
Buckets for Hunger has a “local” board of directors in addition to the celebrity board, many of whom have been with the charity since the beginning, Bisek said. Bisek and Carroll’s children Melanie, AJ and Cole have been involved since the start as well.
The core duties for Buckets for Hunger, however, fall to Bisek and Carroll. Bisek said he does a lot of the work while his wife is on one of her 3-11 p.m. nursing shifts.
Bisek writes the newsletter and initiates fundraisers, and Carroll later proofreads the material and works out the logistics of events.
“Nothing leaves this office without her looking at it for me,” Bisek said. “I like to write but she’s great at finding the little details that I miss.”
Carroll said Bisek is the “creative energy, idea guy,” giving an example of how he would introduce his latest fundraising schemes.
He would tell her, “‘Jerry Kramer is coming to the golf outing in Bergamont in a month. How about if we have a meet and greet on that Tuesday night,’” Carroll said. “Now I get to find a place to do it and people to work it.”
She said she donates her time because she enjoys helping others in need, something Bisek saw from others firsthand when he was young and his family struggled to make ends meet.
“I grew up not having food on the table all the time,” Bisek recalled.
When he was nine years old, a man delivered groceries to his family on Christmas Eve, said “Merry Christmas” and left.
“And I never forgot that because I thought, you know, there are people out there that care about me and hopefully we can do that for someone else,” Bisek said. “It’s very rewarding to know you’re helping someone you’ll never meet and maybe, just maybe, you’ll give them a sense of hope for their family.”