Living History: Donna Juris, altruism in action

Donna Juirs holds the Epsilon Sigma Alpha book journaling Alpha Sigma Madison Chapter activities from 1989-1990. (Photo by Julie Henning)

Nominated by her peers for this month’s Living History column, you might find 81-year-old Donna Juris at the Sunshine Place Emergency Food Pantry on a Thursday afternoon. Go to the west side Shopko on Palm Sunday and she will gladly sell you a lily for the Easter Seals.

Of course, that’s after she returns from Memphis, Tenn., for the annual board meeting of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading pediatric treatment and research facility focused on children’s catastrophic diseases. Juris currently heads the St. Jude Children’s Research hospital fundraising initiative for the entire state of Wisconsin.

In the comfort of Juris’ Sun Prairie apartment, memorabilia, awards, photos, literature, and a Christmas card from Barack and Michelle Obama cover her kitchen table—a museum’s worth of material for a life of altruism and community service. Apologizing for a lack of homemade muffins, Juris was up before our 10 a.m. interview pulling together budgetary reports and educational material for an evening meeting of the Women’s Club of Madison where she’s the current program director and philanthropic chair.

 Considering herself retired only three years ago, Juris has already logged over 300 volunteer hours since March 31 of last year. The mother of three children, Juris ran a home-daycare for over thirty years, returning to the University of Wisconsin in 1965 to complete a degree in nursing. Wife to the late retired World War II Army officer John Juris, Donna is still active with the Sun Prairie chapter of the American Legion Auxiliary.

A member of the Alpha Sigma Madison chapter of the international Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority since 1981, Juris first learned about St. Jude’s Research Hospital through a fundraiser for the sorority. “When I joined the sorority, our chapter had a photo contest and all the proceeds went to St. Jude’s. What touched me the most about St. Jude’s years ago was learning that anyone with a problem can go to St. Jude’s and they will take care of you,” she said. “They put the families in hotels and I learned later that they will even go to your home and take care of your other children so the parents can be with their child.”

When asked to pinpoint a particularly touching moment in her career, Juris offered, “I will say [volunteering with St. Jude’s Research Hospital] is very rewarding and when we went down to Memphis another time, we met some of the patients that were able to come out and meet us. We weren’t in the intensive part of the hospital, and I’m not sure I’d want to be there. We just pray that everyone makes it. One little girl gave me picture she drew and I never heard what happened to her. They take children up to the age of 18 and that’s very good.” Juris has the picture framed and keeps it with others she’s received from other children over the years.

Fourteen years as a facilitator of a Battered Women’s shelter, Juris remains hopeful, even as she sees numbers rise at the emergency food pantry. “I answered the crisis line every Friday night for twelve hours. At that time I lived on the west side of Madison and sometimes we had calls from Sun Prairie,” Juris said. “The police officers from here were the nicest, most helpful people to work with.” As a result, she is a ten-year member of the Sun Prairie community.

As we continued to talk, Juris leafed through a scrapbook of activities with the Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority spanning just one year (1989-1990). Several hundred photos documented inductions, ceremonies, fundraisers, and social outings. Quite honestly, I could barely lift the book when she asked me to hand it to her.

Inquiring about how she keeps up with the meetings, planning, reporting, and volunteering, Juris said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t volunteer any more. I’d go crazy in this apartment and not doing things. I have to be involved. I play bridge three or four times a month and that keeps me active too. What I would like to do is be a mentor at one of the schools or down at Head Start [Association], but I wouldn’t dare, my heart would break. My kids say, ‘Mom you wouldn’t be able to take it.’”

To raise funds for the Veterans Affairs hospital, look for Juris and other members of the American Legion Auxiliary selling poppies outside Copps, Walgreens, or Sentry on Memorial Day.  Giving this last bit of advice on the best way to get involved with volunteering in the local community, Juris said, “If you have time to volunteer, then heavens yes, do it. But you can’t cut your family short either. You need to be there for them too. Somewhere someone needs help in Sun Prairie – no matter what’s going on.”

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