Making the most of it

Furloughed employee finds joy in volunteerism

MARQUETTE — “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

One might say this common phrase epitomizes the approach of Katie Koch, a furloughed federal employee who resides in Negaunee. She’s been actively volunteering in the community during the government shutdown as she aims to make the most of her time away from her position at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For Koch and many others in her shoes, the shutdown has led to an array of harrowing experiences and emotions. Koch described it as “feeling really isolated, depressed — demoralized as a public servant — even vilified, feeling really helpless about everything that’s happening, feeling really stuck.”

However, Koch, who spoke to the Journal in an unofficial capacity about her personal experiences with the furlough, has worked to find a bright spot in the midst of dark times.

“I can feel all of this happening in me and I remembered the saying that ‘the cure to depression is action’ so I decided a couple weeks ago to put out a call to action (on social media) and offer to volunteer,” she said. “Because every day, my overall personal goal is to help people on the planet. That is what I strive for every day. And that need to be directly connected with people and making a difference; I didn’t want to let the shutdown take that away from me.”

Koch, an active member of the Marquette Breakfast Rotary, was able to volunteer with the group at Northern Michigan University recently, cooking a full Thanksgiving-style dinner for college athletes and coaches who were on campus in early January while meal services remained closed.

“Continuing to stay involved with Rotary provides regular opportunities for volunteering and connections, and I would say it’s the connections in Rotary that have led to the unique volunteer opportunities I’ve been able to have,” she said, noting that she’s volunteered with or plans to volunteer with Superior Alliance for Independent Living, the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter, local schools and the Trillium House.

Koch emphasized many other furloughed federal employees have been working to give back to their communities during the shutdown, as well.

“There are other folks out there who are lending their time and talents to a variety of organizations until they’re able to get back to work, and I think it’s really wonderful,” she said.

While Koch has been working to make the most of an uncertain time, it’s undoubtedly a difficult situation for her and 800,000 other federal workers to face.

Financially, Koch said she and her husband have worked toward building a “savings and a safety net” over the past few years and have been eating from their vegetable garden and freezer to save funds during this period. However, they’ve had to be “very cognizant of spending,” she said.

“We’ve worked really hard to create a small savings just to help us float for a few months if we need to,” Koch said. “We’re OK right now, but in the foreseeable future — if it stretches on for months — it gets pretty challenging.”

While Koch knows firsthand how difficult the situation has been for the many federal employees impacted by the shutdown, she wants her fellow federal employees to know there is hope.

“Just please know that you’re not alone, know that there’s a supportive community here and that if you ask, people will help you through this time,” Koch said. “And just by being here and showing up in the world, you can make a difference.”

She encourages her colleagues to take good care of themselves by staying active, keeping in touch with family and friends, eating healthfully and doing the things they love — and maybe even volunteering if they’re able.

“Don’t be afraid of the opportunity to explore your curiosity or try something new and see where it leads you,” she said.

For community members who wish to show support for federal employees during the shutdown, Koch recommends treating those who are working without pay with some extra kindness and appreciation.

For individuals, businesses or organizations that have the means, Koch encourages them to reach out and show their support to federal employees who are impacted by the shutdown by offering whatever they can, be it a meal, financial assistance, a gym membership or even a sign outside showing their support.

“I would challenge organizations to be creative and think about a way that they can do something that is meaningful for them,” Koch said.

While the shutdown has been filled with challenges, Koch is truly grateful for the chance to engage with her community and learn new things, she said.

“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to branch out and get involved in more things,” she said. “And it’s just really broadened my perspective and awareness of needs in our community.”

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.