Gays Mills pool ‘friends’ look to make waves village-wide

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Some of the Friends of the Gays Mills Swimming Pool members stood proudly near their fundraising thermometer upon hitting their $100,000 goal in July. Pictured (from left) are Kayla Fortney, Kim Knutson, Harry Heisz, Marla Heisz, Amanda Knutson, Tara Heisz, Rebecca Eby, Roseanna Gunderson and Heather Mulholland.

Families enjoyed hanging out at the Gays Mills swimming pool this summer on hot days, leisurely, and during pool parties. (Submitted photos)

Getting the kids involved with raising money toward the pool overhaul project was important to the Friends of the Pool group. Pictured are Brandi Knutson and Denisis Schaller advertising the walking taco food stand at Applefest last year.

By Correne Martin


Raising $100,000 in a community of 500 people may seem like a monumental task. But the Friends of the Gays Mills Swimming Pool did it in 15 months. They helped the village fund critical repairs to the mid-1950s pool. 

Now, the modest organization is plunging into becoming the Friends of the Village of Gays Mills, with its focus dedicated more broadly to projects that could make some waves around town. 

In March of 2019, the Gays Mills Village Board put a call out to its citizens that repairs were needed at the swimming pool—specifically work such as sandblasting, crack filling, redoing concrete, painting and creating stairs for safer access into the water. The board took out a loan for the undertaking, so the work could be done in 2019, but then pledged to find a way to cover the costs. 

Several residents stepped forward wanting to support the board’s desires and commit to raising funds toward overhauling the local family hangout. 

Amanda Knutson, Friends of the Pool member, was one of the volunteers who saw the importance of the project and devoted her time and energy toward fundraising for it to happen. 

“The floods year after year really devastated our community and our families. This was a way to bring people together and foster a sense of community pride again,” she said. “Seeing my family invested, generations getting involved, was so great.”

Fellow member Rebecca Eby described the incredible interest and loyalty to the pool project. 

“It was almost like people exploded with enthusiasm,” she stated. 

After a few initial organizational meetings, the Friends of the Pool made a splash in the community with their first fundraiser. It was a shoe drive, through which they collected 2,500 pairs of new or gently worn shoes. By reaching that threshold of donated shoes, they received a $1,000 contribution. 

In the beginning, the friends also held a letter-writing event involving local businesses, groups and individuals. 

Over the months that followed, the Friends of the Pool hosted food booths at two of Gays Mills’ largest community occasions, the Stump Dodger Bash country music festival in July and Applefest in September. They held a successful Halloween party, painting parties and attended parades to spread the word and gain supporters. 

“I think everybody (in the friends group) was open and willing to at least try some of the ideas for raising money,” noted Tara Heisz, one of the core friends. There were about eight residents who were consistently part of the organization’s key drivers, while plenty of others lent a hand when they felt passionate about one of the events.

The friends also took advantage of Christmas time to plan one of their most unique functions, which ended up being a huge hit: Gays Mills’ first ever Mill House Christmas Lights in Robb Park downtown. On numerous evenings in late December and early January, strings upon strings of holiday lights spread cheer to all who attended the free offering. Donations of cash for the pool endeavor as well as the food pantry were accepted. 

Knutson said hundreds people came from out of town to enjoy the beautiful Mill House Lights.

Then, in February, the Friends of the Pool waded into further uncommon fundraising territory when they threw an Adult Prom at the old community building on Main Street. This was another popular activity, complete with food and drinks, a DJ, photography and a photo prop booth as well as a prize drawing for a special hair updo to add to their fancy dress for the night. Tickets were sold and many people came out for a lovely time. 

“We had one couple that was traveling and got lost here, heard we had the Adult Prom, and stopped by,” Eby shared.

Once the coronavirus tread its way into communities everywhere, fund-raising events became more difficult to arrange. However, the people of the Gays Mills area—current and past community residents—were quite generous in their cash donations. According to  post on the group’s Facebook page, even people from outside of Gays Mills contributed to the cause, being inspired by the efforts. There were also a few matching funds opportunities that increased the total.

By early July 2020, the Friends of the Pool arrived at the tremendous milestone they figured would take years to accomplish. 

They hit $100,000. 

Managing such a high caliber of fundraising isn’t slowing the friends down however. 

“We feel like this has really energized us,” Eby said.

At a meeting last week, the Friends of the Gays Mills Pool unanimously voted to become the Friends of the Village of Gays Mills.

A Facebook statement said, “This will allow us to tackle some new projects while continuing to support our beloved pool.”

All future funds raised by the organization will not only help fulfill a variety of projects around the village, but also, Heisz said, 25 percent of the funds collected will be put toward preserving the swimming pool in perpetuity. 

“We feel there’s a whole different set of people out there who didn’t feel as excited about the pool but would be interested in helping raise funds toward other community projects,” Eby stated. “People saw we can get stuff done. We want to continue that momentum.”

As they move forward, the Friends of the Village have two specific ventures in mind. First is the old mill building/Kickapoo River museum near the dam in downtown Gays Mills. This iconic building needs significant work and the group feels it would be a meaningful project for many people with ties to the village. Second is the Mill House Christmas Lights. After last year’s positive feedback, group members envision growing the festivities to be bigger and better in the coming years. Other ideas include growing their Halloween event as well and fixing up the parks. 

“This group is one of the best I’ve worked with,” said Village President and Friends member himself. “They did a lot of little things to raise a couple hundred here, a thousand there. They never stopped. They never held their hand out; they were actually doing stuff to earn the money. To raise $100,000 in our little community of 500 is really remarkable.” 

Anyone interested in assisting the new Friends of the Village as a whole or for specific interests should consider coming to their next meeting and sharing thoughts on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. at the new community building. Those unable to make it, or anyone who wants to give of their time, money, or even Christmas lights, is encouraged to leave a message on the friends’ Facebook page.

“We’re excited to see all these things happen in Gays Mills,” Eby concluded. “We would like to make a bigger impact.”

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