by NATHANIEL NELSON
It may only be February, but local nonprofit organization Ready Set School (RSS) is getting set for the upcoming school year with a new leader at the helm. Mandi Olson took over last November and now that 2019 is going strong, she is ready to start moving the organization forward. This Saturday, she will help host the organization’s 25th annual Chili Cook-off, kicking off a new year of fundraising with warm food in a cold climate.
RSS is a nonprofit organization which provides vouchers to eligible students in Winona County to purchase the school supplies and clothes they need for the school year. The 25-year-old organization, which started as a county-run program, now helps more than 600 students every year get ready to be successful in the classroom.
Olson graduated from Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wis., in 2006 with an associate’s degree in marketing, and a year later began working at Winona ORC Industries as the director of development, though that job was nothing like she expected.
“When I first applied, I thought it would be about soliciting donations over the phone,” she explained, but instead, the job forced her to get on the ground and get out into the community.
In 2010, Olson joined Cotter Schools, and over the past nine years has served as the centennial coordinator, admissions associate, assistant to the president, alumni and events coordinator and eventually as the director of international admissions, which is her current role. In her work at Cotter, she ended up in a community-oriented role with an emphasis on event planning. First it was surprising, but the more she thought about it, Olson realized she was a good fit.
“Looking back to high school, I was always the friend overseeing homecoming activities, or planning prom. It was funny how I fell into it,” Olson explained.
With her newly minted directorial role, Olson said she’s excited to continue the strong work of RSS. She described the board as “energetic” and ready to work, but she could “tell that they want to do more and want to be more hands-on, but they didn’t know how to do it.” Over the next few months, Olson said she hopes to provide more goals for the organization and give everyone the support they need to both continue what they have been doing, as well as expand.
Olson would like to continue the good work RSS has done in the past, along with making the organization and its mission more visible in the community.
Some of that will come through events and fundraising, which is where her past experience will come into play. She said she hopes to get more families thinking about school supplies earlier to make sure they sign up before the organization’s May deadline.
“Families are missing things because they don’t always check their email, or they’re not thinking about supplies until the school year is there,” Olson said. “At the end of the day, it really benefits the school, too.”
When asked what she brings to her new role, her answer was simple.
“I have a really strong background in community management and event planning, and I have a love for the Winona community,” Olson said.
RSS Board President Jenny Baertsch explained that her love of the community is what drove her to join the nonprofit.
“She applied because she wanted to be more involved with the community,” Baertsch explained. “On behalf of the board, that falls right in line with our mission and our vision for RSS. She seemed to be the perfect fit for that.”
Though she has only been in her role for a few months, Olson has already made some waves in how the board operates, Baertsch said. She has set goals and a new direction for 2019 and helped restructure the group’s committees and subcommittees, helping both streamline the process and move things forward.
“I’m excited to have a fresh set of eyes on the things we have always done. She will be able to bring those things to a new level,” Baertsch said.
This weekend, the community will have a chance to see RSS’ event planning in action with its 25th annual Chili Cook-off, sponsored by WNB Financial. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 9, at the Winona Middle School and will feature different chili recipes judged by a panel of local celebrities. All proceeds will go directly to RSS as the kick-off of its annual fundraising campaign.
“It’s a great way to come together in the winter when it’s so cold and eat some good food,” Olson said.
Tickets for the cook-off are $10, and guests are encouraged to bring school supplies for donation to local schools and the Winona Volunteer Services Food Shelf. For more information about the Chili Cook-off or RSS, contact Mandi Olson at 507-429-3362.