By Molly • 

It's about community and giving

Playing, laughing, enjoying life. It’s not what typically comes to mind for most people when they think about a job in manufacturing.

But for those lucky enough to work at Freelin-Wade, a McMinnville company that produces plastic tubing, those aspects — plus a passion for giving and community — have become entwined in both their personal and professional lives.

The efforts the employees put in helped the company earn the 2012 Oregon Governor’s Outstanding Business Volunteer Program award, presented earlier this month.

Sherl Hill, vice president and general manager, was joined by the chairs of “The Force” employee team in accepting the award at the Salem Conference Center. “It was very humbling to be in that group of people,” she said.

Hill said today’s main community fundraising program, where a local nonprofit entity is selected and funds are raised for them throughout the year, started about 10 years ago when staff members got together to participate in Relay for Life. They expanded the fundraiser and started having events throughout the year, raising $11,000 in 2008 and $10,000 in 2009.

As the years went on, a decision was made to apply a more local focus, put more structure into the program and get more serious about the fundraising part.

In 2010, the designated beneficiary was the Give a Little Foundation, which specializes in emergency grants for Yamhill County residents facing financial crises. The foundation’s average award is about $250, and “The Force” raised $13,000 for it that year. 

Hill said time was spent discussing the types of charities they wanted to help. 

“We wanted to work with charities that would work with us,” she said. The goal was to have the charities participate in the fundraisers.

That offers a two-part benefit. Not only do Freelin-Wade staff members get to know the individuals’ who operate the charities, those involved in the charities get to know those at Freelin-Wade.

Staff, according to Hill, has really taken ownership of the program. “It’s an amazing thing — good for them and good for us,” she said.

She said it offers employees experience they can’t always get at work and helps develop the community connections. They stage friendly competitions through fundraisers such as in-house Hot Wheels tournaments and the Civil War Chili Cook-off, which is open to the public.

The program has been developed where a steering committee from The Force takes nominations from employees and narrows it to three.

A popular vote of the entire staff selects that year’s designated charity. Last year it was Juliette’s House, a child abuse assessment program, and this year it’s the Willamette Valley Cancer Foundation.

Kelly McGraw, executive director for the cancer foundation, has been attending monthly meetings and fundraisers. 

“It’s really nice to see the program they’ve set up to have all of their employees active in the fundraisers,” McGraw said. At the events, she said the staff is “excited and passionate about giving back to others and the community.”

Ellen Summerfield, president of the Give a Little Foundation, said their partnership with Freelin-Wade in 2010 was very rewarding.

“We learned that this company is a very special place, where the spirit of volunteering and caring thrives,” she said. “We were impressed to see how widespread and genuine the commitment is.

“Giving back is part of what this company does. Many people — management, employees, their families and friends — pitch in to make good things happen. Week after week, year after year, the company raises money for the community through a series of creative, enjoyable events.”

While the focus may be on that individual charity throughout the year, December is reserved for a food drive collection for the Yamhill Community Action Partnership in which 100 percent of the employees participate.

Hill said there has been no end to the creativity used to develop fundraisers. The staff has staged silent auctions, ice cream socials, a salad bar lunch, pop can drives, garage sales, a middle school dance and even a wreath-making effort.

The chili competition and a steak barbecue, both open to the community, have been the most popular.

Freelin-Wade is now 32 years old.

Fred Plews started the company from his garage in 1980. Hill was hired in 1987, when there were just 11 employees.

The company really expanded in 1988-89, leading to its acquisition by Coilhose Pneumatics of East Brunswick, N.J., in 1990. For the past 15 years, employment in McMinnville has topped 100.

Hill noted, “We suffered like everybody else did in 2009. We had layoffs for the first time in our history, and I hope it’s the last.”

But she said the company decided to embrace lean manufacturing techniques and came roaring back. She said, in fact, that 2010 was a record year for sales.

“We have everything to be grateful for,” she said. “We have incredible employees.”

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