You start with the “what,” and the list is enormous.
From the other end of the phone, Denise Graff Ponstein shyly tells you as much as she can remember. She starts with the Rotary Club of Woodstock: she became the first female member in 1987. She served as the first female president in 1994-95. For that, the local club honored her as Rotarian of the Year in 1996-97. A half-decade later, she won the highest national honor a Rotarian can receive.
There’s also her commitment to Gavers Community Cancer Foundation, which she’s been a member of since the beginning. With Graff Ponstein serving as a vice president, the foundation has raised about $5 million in 15 years – money she tells you comes second fiddle to stressing the importance of early detection.
“If we can make one person get checked early and get treatment early, we’ve accomplished a lot,” she said.
There’s more: She directed Christmas Clearinghouse for several years and still helps. She served on the District 200 Education Foundation board. She’s helped with Groundhog Day festivities. Two years ago – she slides this into conversation as if it’s a footnote – she and another person started Woodstock’s version of Oktoberfest.
She’s served on committees for the city, like the 2020 vision committee and the one that selected Roscoe Stelford as the new city manager last year.
Those are just the things she does. She also co-founded a newspaper in 1987 – The Woodstock Independent – and now owns her own business, In Depth Graphics & Printing.
That’s the “what,” at least as much as is readily accessible by memory. The “who” is easy: it’s her. The “where:” Woodstock. The “when” is sprinkled within the “what.” So you move to “how.”
The newspaper, for one, introduced her to all kinds of opportunities to volunteer. She learned the community and got involved in the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
She let her interest in volunteering grow. Instead of staying home from such commitments with her son after he was born, she took him along and, as he grew, had him help.
“I just love Woodstock,” she said. “If everyone would give a few hours of volunteering, I can only imagine how much greater Woodstock would be. And I try to lead by example of doing that.”
Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager, one of five people who nominated Graff Ponstein to be an Everyday Hero, calls her the “quintessential community volunteer.”
“She does manage to keep the candle burning at all ends,” he said. “And she always does that with just a joy and spark of enthusiasm that is contagious for the rest of us.”
Eventually you get to the “why.”
Why does she donate her time to the Rotary, specifically? She’d won a vocational scholarship from the service club in high school and made a silent pledge then to some day give back.
Why Gavers? Beyond her passion for the cause, Steve Gavers, the man who beat cancer and started the foundation, is a high school friend.
Why, more generally, does Graff Ponstein give so much of her time?
She tells you this: “My philosophy is that I want to give back to the community that basically raised me.”
And this: “I get more out of it than I put into it. It’s gratifying. I think anybody, if they put time into volunteering, they’d get the same satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished something, knowing you’ve helped somebody who may be less fortunate than you.”
But maybe the truest “why” starts when Graff Ponstein mentions her son, Jake Graff Ponstein, who’s been coming to these events since he was young, and now volunteers his time at Marquette University, where he attends school.
She mentions her mother, who used to take her to church events, who was named Wonder Lake Woman of the Year by the Woman’s Club of Wonder Lake, who won the state’s volunteer of the year award.
You get off the phone and soon your email dings. Graff Ponstein has sent you a scanned image of a Northwest Herald article from Nov. 7, 1993. It’s about her mother.
“My mom was and continues to be my inspiration,” she wrote. “She passed away a little over a year ago. Up until her death, my mom always helped the underdog and continued to volunteer at her independent living facility.”