Serendipitous donation kick-starts Kansas Guard unit’s fundraising efforts

By Maj. Margaret Ziffer
105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Kansas Army National Guard

HIAWATHA, Kan. – The headquarters for the Kansas Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 130th Field Artillery Brigade sits about 15 miles south of the Nebraska-Kansas border in the town of Hiawatha. Like many small towns in Kansas, Hiawatha has retained a distinct historic feel, with many original buildings and brick roads around the town square. Across the street from the Brown County courthouse, the Citizens State Bank and Trust has operated for over a hundred years; the 1963 version of the building still stands today, an American flag proudly displayed out front.

It was here, several weeks ago, Maj. Nick Carlson, battalion administrative officer, and Staff Sgt. Alicia Young, battalion medical readiness noncommissioned officer, came, based on the recommendations of the state Family Programs Office, to open a new savings account on behalf of their unit’s Soldier and Family Readiness Group at the request of Lt. Col. Shawn Plankinton, battalion commander.

Maj. Nick Carlson, 2nd Battalion, 130th Field Artillery Regiment administrative officer, Staff Sgt. Alicia Young, battalion medical readiness noncommissioned officer, Aimee Plankinton, battalion Soldier and Family Readiness Group senior advisor, and Lt. Col. Shawn Plankinton, battalion commander, stand with Theodor Starr, center, chairman and president of Citizens State Bank and Trust in Hiawatha March 4. Starr made a generous donation to the SFRG account being initiated by the unit, which will help kick start fundraising efforts that support battalion events and community initiatives. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Margaret Ziffer)

“In the next 18 months or so, we’re going to ask the battalion to go forward to Southwest Asia,” Plankinton said. “At some point, we’ll want to do care packages. The post office is awesome, but they don’t deliver them for free. So there’s always, at least, postage involved, even if everything else is donated. We needed an account where we can accept donations and do fundraising.”

Soldier and Family Readiness Programs exist for a multitude of reasons, acting as a mechanism to get information to military families, connecting Soldiers and families to the chain of command, helping make military families aware of available community resources, and offering a network of mutual support within a military community. Programs can also conduct fundraising on behalf of the unit, so having an approved bank account established is necessary to ensure any funds are properly secured.

“It takes time for any of this to get going,” said Aimee Plankinton, Shawn’s wife and SFRG battalion advisor. “The Soldiers have to have training to even open an account. Volunteers also have to be trained and have background checks before they can interact with our families.

So it can’t just happen in a day. This isn’t something that we want to just be starting at the beginning of a deployment because the Soldiers would get halfway through the deployment before the programs get stood up.”

Carlson said that establishing the account early was a high priority for the Plankintons, so he gained the proper approvals to initiate the account and set out to coordinate with the bank.

“I’m kind of old school,” Carlson said. “When they said we could apply online, I asked if we could come down there and do it in person.”

Although initially apprehensive due to COVID-19, the bank agreed to set up an appointment for them to meet with a bank representative.

Things went smoothly at the meeting, except for one small problem: the unit did not have the minimum required funds to deposit into the new account. The bank representative told him they could have up to 30 days to come up with the minimum required funds. Carlson said that, as one of the few full-time employees in the unit, he had a feeling the initial deposit would likely have to come out of his own pocket.

Fortunately for Carlson and the 2-130th SFRG, worrying about how to secure their initial deposit didn’t last long. Just a few days later, the bank representative called back with some unexpected news.

“She told me the president of the bank saw two uniformed Soldiers and wondered what they were doing,” Carlson said. “She must have told him the back story.”

The bank representative told Carlson that the president himself had decided to make a donation to help get their SFRG fund started, and invited them all to come back to the bank on March 4 to accept the check.

“They didn’t have any money, and I knew they needed it,” said Theodore Starr, chairman and president of Citizens State Bank and Trust. “I figured if you didn’t have any money to start out, you needed to create that momentum going forward to get your program off the ground. If you don’t have anything, you can’t build upon it. So that’s what I wanted to supply.”

Starr’s military connections run deep.

“I was raised by two Army officers – there was a lot of discipline in my house!” Starr joked. “Dad was a licensed pilot when he enlisted. He was in Army ROTC at K-State. He thought he could fly, but he was deaf in one ear from childhood polio and they wouldn’t let him fly. So he [joined the air defense artillery and] shot down enemy planes, instead. My mother was with 119th General Hospital in England. That’s where my parents met after the war.”

Starr’s grandfather and three uncles also served in the military. Although he did not personally spend time in the military, his patriotism is apparent.

“I keep graves for all the family members, and one other gentleman, here in town. I keep flags on all the graves 365 days a year.”

In the board room, the bank has a display highlighting all of the bank employees who have served in the military over the years.

The board room walls, lined with portraits of previous and current board members, including both his parents and his daughter, suggests that the 2-130th and the Starr family have something else in common: their history as staples of Northeast Kansas.

“Citizens State Bank and Trust has been in the family for 84 years. The Starrs got to Jackson County in 1874. We just can’t seem to move away. I’ve really enjoyed raising our family here.”

“We appreciate the Guard here, we really do,” he continued. “I’m very familiar with that facility. Growing up here, I could probably still walk around the armory with my eyes closed.”

Starr and Plankinton, whose father grew up in the town of Holton just south of Hiawatha, reminisced about events that were held at the Hiawatha armory, like the Boy Scouts racing in the pinewood derby.

Now, everyone in the room had come together in an effort to continue the tradition of the Hiawatha armory being a place of community.

“We have a family where the hits really just keep coming for them right now,” Aimee said, explaining how small events can compound into significant challenges, made even harder when a family member is away from home supporting a National Guard mission. “These are the kind of thing we can be prepared for. We work to bring families together so that when someone needs help, they have the support that they need.”

Having the SFRG account in place is integral to that mission.

“We want to get momentum among the families,” Plankinton said. “We want to have everything in place, so whether a unit is deploying or not, if they want to do an organization day, or do some family activities, we’ve got the framework set up.”

“Most people think that going overseas is the only time Soldiers are doing something, but we have folks doing missions locally, we have folks out in D.C. that went out to support the inauguration,” Plankinton said. “So what we do to support the Soldiers and the families isn’t just one weekend a month, or every three or four years when we deploy them, it’s something we want to be able to do year-round.”

One of the first initiatives the 2-130th SFRG hopes to get off the ground with the help of their newly funded account is a project to recognize the children of the 2-130th Soldiers.

“We had a logo made for our family support group and we’ll order those as patches for our children,” Aimee said. “April is the Month of the Military Child. So every April we want to do an annual Month of the Military Child ceremony, where each child, when they reach a certain age, will receive those patches and a certificate as a way for us to show our appreciation for what they do as children of Soldiers.”

“It is about the kids, but it’s also a reason for our families to get together and see each other,” Plankinton said. “Getting them together now is important, because a year or 18 months from now the Soldiers aren’t here. Now’s the time to start building that community.”