OSHKOSH — Jon Doemel believes anyone can be a hero if given the opportunity, and his “Heroes of Oshkosh” Facebook group provides just that.
Heroes of Oshkosh was launched Dec. 11, 2019, as an online community that focused on kindness with neighbors helping neighbors. It originated from Doemel’s work with the Oshkosh Kids Foundation and a house fire that devastated several families.
Doemel anticipated that maybe 300 people would join and within the first two days they had 3,000. Now that number is nearing 8,000.
The kids foundation wanted to make sure students were ready for school, that they were able to have breakfast/lunch, had bus passes and jackets, said Doemel.
“We realized we had to get kids shelter and some other things first,” he said. “There were more than 150 children in the Oshkosh Area School District that were defined as homeless — whether that’s sleeping in a car or on someone’s couch.”
Through the foundation they bought families hotel rooms for immediate shelter, mentored them and found them apartments. “A place to live is great,” said Doemel. “But they’re coming out of homelessness and they don’t have anything. No kitchen table, no couches, no beds.”
While they were trying to provide for those needs, there was a house fire in Oshkosh and those families lost everything. Doemel organized a Facebook fundraiser through his restaurant, ZaRonis. “Within a matter of two weeks, we were able to put two families in two apartments with full furnishings. It was really amazing. Just by asking people to step up and do the right thing,” he said.
He enlisted a team of volunteer administrators and moderators for the Facebook page to develop a “Bill of Needs,” check every post and comment, and ensure civility in all discourse. “We don’t allow any negativity at all,” said Doemel, a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish. “One of the big things with us, besides mercy, is human dignity. We don’t allow judgment.”
They also prefer using the word “missions” over “cases” due to the potential negative connotation to those who have been through the system. “Hero Advocates” assess the families with a bit more need, “Hero Haulers” (volunteers with trucks and trailers) pickup and deliver, and transfer items to storage facilities that have also been donated.
Another facet of Heroes of Oshkosh is the Board Room, a private Facebook group of resources in Oshkosh that includes people from ADVOCAP, Inc., Forward Services, Day By Day Warming Shelter, and Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services.
“If a mission comes up and we’re kind of stuck, we can share what’s going on with this family, how many kids they have, their income threshold, and then these agencies let us know how they can help,” said Doemel. “We’ve been able to find people free legal advice, get enrolled in pantries, get cars fixed — things they just didn’t know existed out there.”
The program’s success is also based on the recipients, he said.
“We’re willing to work with the family as hard as they’re willing to work on themselves,” explained Doemel. “We’re trying not only to help them get through the week, but how to make next year better. That’s really the goal.”
He also noted that Heroes of Oshkosh is not an organization. “It’s just an idea, so there’s no limitations to who we can help,” said Doemel. “If I were a food pantry, I couldn’t bring you chicken noodle soup that I made; there’s laws against that. But a neighbor can. It’s not a business or an entity, it’s just kindness. It’s mercy.”
Heroes of Oshkosh is open to and accepting of all, regardless of faith, said Doemel. “A lot of the people we’re helping out have lost faith,” said Doemel. “I want them to see the good deeds and to see the word and the walk and then maybe restore some kind of faith — and if it’s God today, awesome. If not, maybe it opens up that door just a little bit. Ultimately, would I love them to realize? Yeah, but that’s not the purpose.”
Doemel said kindness can be contagious, and Heroes is spreading. Within two weeks of Oshkosh’s group, a friend in Fredericksburg, Va., began a group. Another pizza shop owner he knows started one in Sault Ste Marie, Mich. Locally, there are Facebook groups for Heroes of Omro; Heroes of Waushara County; Heroes of Ripon; Heroes of Fondy; Heroes of Menasha; and Heroes of Berlin.
“We don’t have a Heroes group in Green Bay — yet,” said Doemel with a twinkle in his eye.