'Smallwaukee' brand makes big difference for Riverwest Food Pantry

NOW: ’Smallwaukee’ brand makes big difference for Riverwest Food Pantry

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- "Smallwaukee" is word you may have heard to describe Milwaukee. It's the concept that we live in a big city with a small town feel, and everyone has some kind of connection.

One woman decided to harness the power of Smallwaukee to help others.

Cheryl Kuhnmuench trademarked the word and is creating a space to share stories, as well as raise money for the Riverwest Food Pantry.

Isabell Guerrero, Claire Gorman and Maria Fuller have all spent nearly the last two years as mission interns at the food pantry.

"This community just really made a huge impact on all of us, individually," Gorman said of her experience so far.

The program is typically one year of service. That turned into two years for the three women, when the pandemic started.

"I loved the work. I loved the people that I'd met here and so I was sort of thinking about staying for a second year- it was an option, but then Covid hit. Everything changed," Fuller said.

The three recent college graduates decided to stay on at the food pantry, opting into a bubble that had gotten small, as executive director Vincent Noth explained.

"If you stay, you're going to have to get in this little bubble with us and quarantine and we don't know for how many months," Noth said he told them.

They were up for the challenge.

"I just kind of knew this is where I need to be right now," Guerrero said. "This is the way I'm going to help serve my community."

They live together in the Riverwest neighborhood, and have really gotten to know their neighbors.

"Oh my gosh, I've received so much love, so much strength from the people that we serve," Fuller said.

It really became their community.

"They get to know all the moms on the block," Noth said. "And people are sharing, having them over for meals."

So, when you bring up the concept of Smallwaukee to them, they get it.

"It definitely is a thing," Guerrero said. "And I think it's really endearing because yeah, you can't go anywhere without somebody knowing someone you know somehow."

And that's where Kuhnmuench came in.

"It's a very Milwaukee thing to do," she said. "You're kind of automatically a friend of a friend."

Kuhnmuench harnessed the concept after hearing many friends talk about it.

"We'd meet people and start talking, and the next thing you know, they knew somebody, who knew somebody that we knew, and we'd kind of laugh and go, small world. And then we'd go, Smallwaukee," she exclaimed.

She's created a variety of Smallwaukee merchandise and T-shirts.

"Which has the 'Where there's one degree of separation' on the back," she said, showing off the shirt.

She also launched a website where people can share their Smallwaukee experiences.

"So I thought wouldn't it be fun to have a forum where people could post their stories and share that fun," she said of the idea.

The money raised from the merchandise sales will go to the Riverwest Food Pantry. Noth said community support helped them feed thousands of people during the pandemic.

"Last year, we fed 20,000 people right out in this parking lot here," he said.

It's that feeling of connection and community support that keeps them all going.

"I have it really easy because of the generosity of people like Cheryl, of the whole community," Noth said.

It's giving and receiving that can be summed up in one word -- Smallwaukee.

"There's something about your roots in Milwaukee that is your center," Noth said of the city where he grew up.

Guerrero, who grew up on the city's south side, agreed.

"It means really investing yourself into the community in a variety of ways," she said. "Like we work here, we attend church here, really take ownership of our community here."

If you'd like to find out more about Smallwaukee, you can visit the website at www.smallwaukee.net.

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