By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN Towards the end of each year, the Cokato Chamber of Commerce recognizes individuals who demonstrate exceptional community service with the Outstanding Citizen of the Year Award.
This year, the award was given to Ann and Joe Harmala, who have both actively served in the school system, their church, and the Cokato community.
Ann and her family moved to Cokato when she was 6 years old, and she credits her experiences growing up to her spirit of volunteering.
A World War II bride from Italy, Ann’s mother arrived in the US at the age of 18, unable “to speak a word of English.” Being widowed at the age of 24, with four children and without citizenship, Ann’s mother had the opportunity to either return to Italy or remain in the US.
“But she realized that America was a wonderful country,” stated Ann, “and that education is important, even though she never went beyond the second grade in her own country.”
Choosing to stay, and realizing she needed help, members of the American Legion Auxiliary in Howard Lake came alongside Ann’s mother and provided childcare so she could attend citizenship classes.
“I saw that as a young child, and I realized the importance of people helping people, and that’s how we grow. That’s how we learn, and that’s how we do what God wants us to do in this world,” stated Ann.
As the second oldest among her eight siblings, Ann also believes her need to pitch in and help her large family whenever needed also inspired her work ethic to help others.
Joe’s service to the community began in 1965, when he arrived to teach business and coach baseball at Cokato High School at the age of 21. He continued to teach in the district for 34 years.
Ann was actually a senior in one of the first classes Joe taught, though in thinking back, he often refers to her as just being “another grade in the book.”
They re-met a few years later at the Cokato tennis courts.
“Over the years, we’ve played a lot of tennis together,” Ann commented, “and while that has changed, God continues to encourage us with opportunities to work on our ‘service game.’”
While working at the district, Joe spent time serving as the vocational coordinator, the intramural director, and the boys’ and girls’ tennis coach.
Joe also helped start the DC Saints baseball team in 1967. Many of the first players were community school teachers, and they became the state champions during their second year. They continued to go to state eight times out of the first 11 years they existed. Joe continued to serve the team on its board, being co-chairperson for the 2005 state amateur baseball tournament, and the board’s its co-treasurer.
Save and Share
While Ann has volunteered as a Sunday school supervisor and teacher, and has served within the school system, Joe believes her “real cornerstone” of volunteerism is the Save and Share Thrift Shop, located on Cokato Street.
The business runs entirely on the work of volunteers in order to give as much of the proceeds as possible to missions.
Ann is one of its founders, and president of its board.
“Even though the shop is only open Thursday, Friday, [and] Saturday, I’ve had to say sometimes, ‘well you’re not married to the shop, you know,’” remarked Joe. “But you can’t just open the doors on Thursday. Someone’s got to take in [the donations] and sort through the stuff.”
Joe also comes alongside Ann to help with the cleaning so they do not have to pay someone to do it.
“He runs a mean vacuum cleaner,” commented Ann.
Even though receiving the Citizen of the Year Award is “really an honor,” the Harmalas state “There’s a lot of people who do a lot of volunteering.”
“Ann couldn’t run the thrift shop all by herself,” explained Joe. “I mean, we’re dependent on these other people showing up and doing that.
“When we run those [state amateur] baseball tournaments, we had over 300 volunteers in 2005 helping us run the tournament, and we probably had another 200-250 this year. It’s not a one-man, or one-woman, or one-couple operation. I think a lot of it has to do with our commitment to God,” he continued.
“It’s what He’s called us to do,” Ann added.
A few of the other areas the Harmalas have helped out with include delivering meals on wheels, being Salvation Army bell ringers, working the Cokato Corn Carnival corn stand (2016 was Joe’s 50th year doing it), and being members of the Dassel-Cokato Education Association.