COKATO, MN Each year, the Cokato Chamber of Commerce recognizes an individual who goes above and beyond excellent community service with the Outstanding Citizen of the Year Award. This year, Mike Lhotka was the deserving recipient due to his long list of service to his church, school, and community.
Originally from Silver Lake, Lhotka and his wife, Barb moved to Cokato in 1981, where he would spend the next 28 years teaching Dassel-Cokato High School students physics, chemistry, and physical science. He was also a cross-country coach for 22 years, in addition to coaching track and football.
Volunteering was something he learned from seeing his parents help out in their own community, which resonated with him even as he went off to college.
For Lhotka, it’s about “giving back and doing things that need to be done for others and the community,” he said.
He also said he feels one of his strengths is organizing, plenty of which he has done in his 35 years of service in the Cokato-Dassel Lions Club.
In addition to holding several officer positions, including past president, Lhotka and his wife coordinate the club’s Silent Santa program, collecting and distributing gifts each year to children who are less fortunate. Because of the good he sees from this program, Lhotka said this particular volunteer endeavor has meant the most to him. To provide a level of privacy to the roughly 50 families benefiting each year from the program, Mike and Barb are the only ones there when the donated gifts are distributed. He is able to see firsthand the appreciation from the recipients and will oftentimes hear their intentions of someday paying it forward.
Though it takes a leader to organize such programs, it also takes a servant heart, which fellow Lion Abe Abrahamson described Lhotka as having.
“Mike is one of these guys who gives and gives,” said Abrahamson, who has served in the Lions with Lhotka since the early ‘90s.
“He takes a lot of ownership in giving back to the community,” he said, adding what a wonderful job both Mike and Barb do with the Silent Santa program. “It’s one of the most rewarding projects we have in our club.”
It’s for these reasons and more that Abrahamson said Lhotka is “very deserving” of such an award.
As for Lhotka, volunteering isn’t something he does for the recognition, though receiving the award “in a lot of ways, is humbling,” he said.
Anyone interested in donating to the Silent Santa program can do so at participating locations through Friday, Dec. 11.