Young Leaders of 2017: Nick Wendell

By Denise DePaolo

Images by Elizabeth Lucille Photography

It’s time to recognize those who stand out and show great promise for the year ahead. Each year, 605 selects a group of young leaders from a pile of nominations – all qualified for recognition in their own way. This year’s honorees each bring something amazing to their community and state, through their tireless belief that they as individuals can make a difference.

“Outside of the fact that Nick Wendell is a warm, engaging, and empathetic individual who is just enjoyable to be around, he also is the founder of a non-profit organization in Brookings called The Big Blue Birthday Box.” – From the nomination for Nick Wendell  

Nick Wendell knows that birthdays are a magic time when you’re a kid. Nothing can compare. And since 2015, more than 700 children in Brookings County have been able to celebrate their special day with the arrival of a “Big Blue Birthday Box.”

“I started thinking about how hard it would be to celebrate your child’s birthday if you didn’t have the means to buy a gift or a cake or plan a party,” Wendell recalled. “It’s just one more step in a year where, as a parent who doesn’t have the means to provide for your child, it can be really hard. So that idea rattled around in my mind for a while. I knew I could be a part of the solution. I just didn’t know how to connect the two. Then I started to talk the idea out loud. I started talking to sponsors who would be willing to help me put together a celebration to deliver to kids on their birthday.”

Luckily, Wendell is a well-connected guy in the city of Brookings. The Gregory native and father of one is an SDSU graduate, who now works as the university’s director for student engagement. That means he and his staff work with thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations to ensure students have the richest possible experience. And, as of 2016, he’s also a member of the Brookings City Council.

Wendell’s idea for bringing birthday celebrations to children in need touched a lot of hearts, and sponsors signed on. It all starts with a box custom made at Clean Slate Printing. Next, it is filled with a present from the child’s wish list, purchased with money donated by First Bank and Trust. A cake is donated for each box by the Hy-Vee bakery. Party Depot provides party supplies, and a fresh helium balloon that floats out as the lid is removed. Also included in each box is a new book, and a fresh pair of socks.

“That came from a wish list item in the first winter we were doing the program,” said Wendell. “An 8-year-old boy had socks on his wish list. I thought, ‘Most kids are asking for Legos and he’s asking for a new pair of socks.’ Nothing is more comforting than sliding on a warm, new pair of socks, so I decided I didn’t want any more kids to be asking for something as basic as socks on their wish list. We just put pair in every box. Every box gets delivered to their doorstep with those items in it.”

The Big Blue Birthday Box covers the same territory as the Brookings Department of Social Services. The agency helps connect the organization with families, although parents within the county can reach out directly through Facebook. Between shopping, packing, wrapping, and daily deliveries, Wendell relies on an army of dedicated volunteers, including student organizations and church groups, to ensure every single child on the list gets they birthday they deserve.

“I have forms the families fill out to indicate where they live. The month leading up to the birthday, I call to make sure they’re still in that location and the child is still in that home and they still have a need for a box on that day,” he explained. “I don’t ask a lot of questions. I just know that if a big blue birthday box delivered to your doorstep is going to make your child’s birthday celebration more complete, then we are happy to do it.”

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To read the full profile, pick up the January issue or click here.