Hands across the water

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Biz O’Mara, left, John Baird and Brian Beedle, all from Stillwater, hold a United Way banner as they walk off the Lift Bridge Saturday morning after a joint promotion coordinated by United Way of Washington County-East and United Way St. Croix Valley in Hudson, Wis., to promote the annual United Way fall fundraising effort. (Gazette staff photo by Erik Sandin)

United Way event spans Lift Bridge with some last-minute help

Stillwater resident Biz O’Mara did not have a deja vu moment standing on the Lift Bridge sidewalk with about 170 other area residents for a United Way fundraising promotion.

Yes, O’Mara and the other volunteers got lunch after the event, just like the group O’Mara was among 24 years ago at a similar event.

However, Saturday’s event did not have a band or balloons, and lunch was at Stillwater Junior High School, not a picnic in Lowell Park.

But O’Mara and the nearly 170 others stood and held hands on the Lift Bridge sidewalk from the Minnesota to Wisconsin shorelines of the St. Croix River in a joint event coordinated by the United Way of Washington County-East and United Way St. Croix Valley in Hudson to repeat a similar promotion done almost a quarter century ago.

According to event organizers, O’Mara and John Baird — both of Stillwater — participated in the bridge promotion 24 years ago. Although volunteers were excited to participate in Saturday’s event, O’Mara recalled a more festive atmosphere two decades earlier.

“It was more of a community celebration. We had a lot of residents in the community come down to the event. It was a huge agency affair,” she said. “We went out on the bridge and released balloons. It was a sign of hope.”

“There was a marching band (at the event) at the time,” added John Coughlin, executive director of UWSCV in Hudson.

Coughlin said Saturday’s event repeated the same event 24 years ago coordinated by United Way agencies in Stillwater, Hudson and New Richmond, Wis. Since then, the UW organizations in Hudson and New Richmond have combined into one western Wisconsin group, he added.

UWWC-E Executive Director Angie Lien said Saturday’s bridge promotion and photo opportunity was designed to do two things.

“We feel like joining hands is a good way to show how the two organizations support each other,” she said. “We do need community support. And we’re hoping to create some buzz.”

“There was a lot of energy,” O’Mara said about participants at Saturday’s event. “This energy really brings the two communities together. The energy with the last one was more of a picnic.”

The event on the Lift Bridge not only attracted volunteers, it caught the attention of many visitors in downtown Stillwater’s Lowell Park. Several people used their cell phones to take pictures of the UW group on the bridge. And five park visitors were convinced to join the line of people on the bridge so it could stretch shore-to-shore.

“We almost made it all the way across,” Coughlin said. “People holding hands did make it to the Wisconsin side. Then we came back in the middle for the picture.”

What will the two United Way agencies do next year to promote their annual fund drives? Coughlin said local UW officials are mulling a couple of ideas.

“Maybe we have to have a boat parade (on the river) next year,” he said. “We talked about some other ideas. One of them was a classic car run from Stillwater down to Hudson.”

Contact Erik Sandin at erik.sandin@ecm-inc.com

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