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Walshes give the arts to a generation in Kaukauna

Joe and Marian Walsh of Kaukauna are symphony season ticket holders, Broadway fans and the parents of two musical daughters. It pained them to think that some local school children might grow up without an opportunity to appreciate the performance arts.

They’ve been doing their part to prevent that for 11 years now.

Through the Walsh Family Fund established within the Community Foundation in 1999, they have been offering a free trip to a live performance annually for every third-, fourth- and fifth-grader in the Kaukauna Area School District – whether in public school, private or home-schooled.

Averaging 900 students per year, the Walshes have given about 10,000 youngsters experiences with theater, music, storytelling, opera or dance. They believe there’s a power in the arts.

“I just think every child needs exposure to the arts. They’re better people for having had the experience,” said Marian, who is retired after 27 years teaching first grade, 20 of them in Kaukauna. “It’s an experience that enlarges their hearts. They have a little more feeling for expression, and for respecting other people and being tolerant of differences in people.”

Students have attended everything from Shakespeare to ballet, mostly at Bernie Hupperts Theatre at Kaukauna High School, with a couple of trips to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. They are assisted in selecting the performances by an advisory committee made up of Kaukauna-area residents Bill Banks, Faye Binsford, Sheldon Niquette, Arlene Trettin and Mary VanDerLoop.

For annual expenses of between $1,500 and $5,000, the Walshes have hired the buses, bought the tickets and sent a generation of Kaukauna children into the world of the arts.

“We really have gotten so much joy out of this,” Marian said. “Whatever we spent is well worth it.” The “tons” of thank you notes and thanks from parents they see at the grocery store or in church are their return on investment, they said.

The couple insists that instruction on how to behave in the theater be part of the experience. In 12 years, not one child has had to be removed. “They are well prepared and they are learning what is the responsibility of an audience,” Marian said.

They can’t be sure that the exposure made a difference in the lives of all of those students, but they’ve heard from enough of them to make it worthwhile.

Like the little girl who studies violin and told them that after attending an Oshkosh Youth Symphony performance she knows what she’ll be able to do if she works very hard. Or the hearing-impaired child who was invited to join a Mexican dance troupe on stage and feel the rhythm through the floor.

“She was just thrilled to death,” said Joe, retired owner of the Hartjes-Walsh Insurance Agency.

The Walshes had identified their charitable passion, but they needed someone to handle investing the money and administering the payments for the various expenses involved.

“We really couldn’t have done this without something like the Community Foundation,” Joe said. “We were able to donate to (the Foundation) and have the benefit of the money management.” He praised an advisory committee that helps to select the performances as vital and the performance venue staffs and bus provider as very cooperative.

“We have had just an excellent, excellent experience with the Foundation,” Marian added.

This coming March, Kaukauna students will go to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center to see “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” an African Cinderella tale with a strong moral.

They have designated their daughters as successor advisors in making recommendations for the family fund – since 2006 part of the KEEN (Kaukauna Education Enhancement Network) family of funds within the Foundation.

“We want this to be perpetual,” Joe said. “It’s built up to the point now that it’s self-supporting.”

That assures that, even after the Walshes are unable to oversee them, the curtain won’t come down on these annual field trips for the arts.