CHILTON — For the past 11 years, Don Knaus has approached Christmas with a spirit of giving.
“It’s very fulfilling,” said the Chilton resident and member of Good Shepherd Parish. “This is what Christmas is all about — giving.”
During December, he obtains and delivers gifts to dozens of people who might otherwise be overlooked on the day.
Knaus is well known in the area as an artificial insemination (AI) technician for North Star Select Sires on more than 50 dairy farms. On Jan. 1, Knaus marks 37 years as an AI technician.
Before this anniversary arrives, however, Knaus will have spent many hours during the weeks before Christmas preparing for what he loves to do in the spirit of the holy day.
He works in two phases: a shipment of personal hygiene items, board games, phone cards, batteries, newspaper comics, puzzles and food treats to area military service members who are stationed overseas; and the distribution of bags of fresh fruit to local elderly residents and those coping with various challenges and disadvantages.
Knaus was inspired to send care boxes to military members after the death of 21 year-old Chilton native, Kyle Hemauer, of a non-combat injury while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan during May of 2005. Knaus titles this project “Christmas for Our Troops.”
The 2016 military recipient is Oscar Castillo, who is serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan. His mother, Janet, is a waitress at the Seven Angels restaurant in Chilton, where Knaus often eats breakfast.
A year ago, the recipient was Taylor Schultz, an Army specialist who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He is the grandson of Chilton residents Tom and Candy Roberts, who are also active members of the Chilton Optimist Club, which picks up the shipping costs for the materials.
Knaus relies heavily on fellow Optimist Club members for contributions of materials sent to military members. He prefers to have several recipients, sharing items for which there are two or more contributions. If he doesn’t have enough recipients in a given year, the remaining gifts are taken to residents at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King in Waupaca County.
Within the Optimist Club, Knaus is active in projects benefitting youth. He is also a former Optimist board member and was honored as the club’s Member of the Year for 2015-2016.
On the Wednesday morning before Christmas, several Optimist Club members help Knaus prepare the bags of fruit after the group’s weekly meeting. Then, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, he is almost as busy as Santa Claus, delivering the fruit bags which contain two apples along with grapes, an orange, banana and pear. He gets the bags, along with Christmas cards, from an area Dollar Tree store.
Knaus began this practice about nine years ago as a Christmas gift to his cousin, Patty Boehnlein, who was blind and living at a group facility in Chilton. While doing that, he met another couple (one of whom was also blind), and spent a portion of Christmas Eve with them.
Although Boehnlein died in 2015, Knaus continues what has highlighted his approach to Christmas. He’s resolved to “making a difference by doing something special.”
From starting the fruit bag gifting with just a few “Secret Santa” helpers, the project has grown. Knaus made new friends and added more locations to his distribution route. In addition to Century Ridge, where his cousin lived, Knaus also makes the rounds at Stanton Place (a residence for the independent elderly), Libby House (an assisted living facility), and The Atrium (a nursing home). He also visits a few elderly at their homes.
At times, Knaus has had an elf assistant accompany him on the deliveries. Seeing the expressions on the faces of the recipients “tells it all” about what continues to motivate Knaus.
Knaus has nearly 175 recipients on his list for this year, having added the local nursing home to his Christmas itinerary. An additional reason for doing so, he said, is the chance to share the karaoke singing that he also enjoys.