Velma Wachter, St. Clair, learned from a very young age that helping those in need is the most important thing somebody can do.
She has heeded this message throughout her life as a big sister, a nurse, a mother and a governor of the Missouri-Arkansas District of the Kiwanis Club.
Learning the Importance of Giving
Wachter was born Feb. 14, 1940, in Brownwood and is the oldest of three girls. When Wachter was 5 years old, her mother gave her and her two sisters to their step-grandmother.
“I heard my mother ask her friends if they knew of anyone that would take three kids,” she said. “I knew that was us and I would think who’s going to take us. Who’s going to take three kids? I think the fact that we were able to go to one place and be together was such a great gift.”
Wachter says that growing up they were extremely poor, but that didn’t matter to her grandmother.
“My grandmother was a very wonderful, loving person and if there was somebody that she knew that was sick or something she would fix them a plate and have me take it to them,” said Wachter. “She would hand me the plate and say, ‘Now, you take this and tell them that this isn’t much, but it’s all we have.”
Wachter said it was this repeated act of kindness that taught her from a young age that regardless of what you have, you can always give.
She carried this thought into her marriage in 1957 and then into the first associate degree nursing program in the state of Missouri at Southeast Missouri University in Cape Girardeau in 1958.
“When that is what your work is, serving others, then you’re always looking for more people to serve,” she said. “It just gets in your DNA and becomes a part of who you are.”
During her time in school, she was also working at St. John’s Mercy Hospital. She could only take one class at a time because she had to help provide for her family of four sons.
“That was the only way I could get my education,” Wachter said. “There’s no way that I could stop and go to school full time, it just couldn’t be done.”
After a while, she worked full time as the vice president of patient care services at Mercy Hospital in Washington. This meant that she was involved with new hires and making sure that all procedures were upheld.
“Nothing goes well in the hospital unless the care at the bedside is exceptional,” she said. “I took that seriously. The care at the bedside was as essential as doing my job as a leader. I had an excellent nursing leadership team who assisted in assuring this occurred.”
Little did Wachter know that she would be carrying this same mentality into her work with Kiwanis.
Introduction to Kiwanis
Wachter and her husband Delmar moved to St. Clair in 1968. He had been hired as a teacher at St. Clair High School and was planning on starting a football program there.
When he first started working toward establishing a team, the school didn’t have enough money to buy the equipment and things he needed to start the program. So, the Kiwanis Club in St. Clair raised the money to start the program.
From then on, anytime Delmar needed something for either the football or track team, he contacted the Kiwanis Club.
“Every time my husband wanted to do something, he always found himself going to the Kiwanis Club and they would provide funding for it,” said Wachter. “After a few years he thought, ‘if all I’m doing is going to the Kiwanis Club and asking for money, I should join that club because it’s doing the right kinds of things!’ So he became a member.”
Wachter was first introduced to the club at a ladies’ night event that the club hosted once a month.
“At that time, women could not join Kiwanis because it was only a men’s organization,” said Wachter. “But, when they had a project, they invited all the women to participate so they doubled their abilities by using the women for some of the major projects.”
Wachter said she became delighted with the organization after volunteering and traveling to different conventions with her husband.
As time went on, Delmar moved up through the ranks in the club. He became the governor of the Missouri -Arkansas district, the highest title you can achieve in your district, in 1991.
Through his time in the club, Delmar helped to organize Kiwanis clubs in Washington, Union, Pacific and Cuba. In fact, it was while he was building the club in Cuba in 1992 that he died a very sudden death.
“For me, even though his team was wonderful and they finished out the year and he was a distinguished governor, it was like the work was unfinished,” Wachter said.
Her Time in Kiwanis
In 1988, Velma was the vice president of nursing at Mercy Hospital in Washington, when she became a member of the Washington Kiwanis Club.
“They had a noon-day meeting,” said Wachter. “So, I would take my lunch break and go to the meeting and then back to work at 1 o’clock.”
Wachter says she joined and continues to stay in Kiwanis because it helps children.
“It’s working and identifying the needs of the children in the community,” she said. “It’s a global organization of volunteers who are dedicated to changing the world one child and one community at a time.”
Wachter continued to rise through the ranks, until 1999 when she became governor, making her the first female governor of the Missouri-Arkansas district. It also made her and Delmar the first couple to be governors.
“I was very fortunate to have a gentleman who was governor in front of me who was just wonderful,” she said. “The district really embraced me as their governor. We had a successful year, and Kiwanis now has a large number of women as members and leaders in the organization.”
Throughout her time as governor, Wachter traveled to the 26 divisions spread through Missouri and Arkansas, all while maintaining a full-time job at the hospital.
“Sometimes because of my schedule I would catch a flight and go down the night before,” she said. “I would go to the event and then I would be at work at 8 o’clock doing my job.”
Wachter had to balance working as the vice president of patient care services at the hospital, being a mother to four boys and her governor duties. But, being good at coordinating her schedule isn’t the only talent she needed when she was governor.
“It requires your ability to meet people, to encourage people, to help them grow their clubs,” said Wachter. “Honestly, you’re a cheerleader to people to point out the really wonderful, important things that people are doing.”
Her Hand in Helpful Programs
Wachter said that one of the best things about Kiwanis is that it teaches people the value of working for others.
“The programs teach them that outside of themselves there is someone who has needs and they need to participate in that,” she said.
Wachter is currently a member of the Union Kiwanis Club, which sponsors a Builders Club, Key Club and K-Kids program in many of the area schools. The clubs each have service projects that run through their schools where they do community service such as going to nursing homes and visiting with the residents there.
They also sponsor Key clubs at Washington and Union high schools. The Union Key Club recently held an event, spearheaded by Jose Ahrens, that simulated what it would be like to be homeless to help raise awareness on homelessness.
“Those kids are just phenomenal,” said Wachter. “It’s incredible to see these kids work and all the amazing gifts that they have.”
In addition, Wachter and her friend, Mary Laubinger, worked to provide grants through the hospital to help the poor and the underserved.
The first grant they received was worth $150,000 and it was for Heart Math, a program created to help teach people how to be in a relationship with themselves and others.
“It teaches people to focus on their heart and their breathing which stops all the turmoil in your head,” she said. “It helps children learn how they’re feeling inside. Teaching children that they can develop this skillset really helps them.”
After her retirement from the hospital in 2006, Wachter worked in the schools teaching third-, fourth- and fifth-graders heart math because it also helps kids reduce test anxiety.
Next, they received a $250,000 grant for childhood obesity. Dietitians went to South Point Elementary School to teach fourth-grade students how to have better nutrition with a program called Jump Into Health, which was then integrated into the school’s health curriculum.
At the end of the year, they have a huge celebration where students who have logged their healthy eating habits have the chance to win a bicycle provided by the Kiwanis Club.
“The families got engaged in it too because they had to help fill out the sheets and complete the exercise,” said Wachter. “So, in that way we were helping families get healthier.”
She also received nearly $1 million for poor diabetics within the community. The grant paid for supplies for those who could not afford them and education on how to maintain good health.
“Many of those patients had had diabetes for 15 or 20 years and had no idea how to take care of it,” said Wachter. “But, those people had better results than some of our other patients who had insurance and other means to take care of themselves.”
Finally, she received a grant for $1 million to go toward helping those with mental health issues. The grant paid for a psychiatrist, counselors and other educational tools to help those in need.
“That way when someone was in need we had a place and a person that they could go to for help,” said Wachter. “Before this program people would have to go all the way to Highway 70 to get help so most of them would just go home. Bringing this opportunity to their town, it’s their home, and that’s huge.”
She is also a part of the Terrific Kids program that helps promote perfect attendance in schools by giving out prizes each month to the kids who did not miss a day of school.
“It’s incredible because you’re recognizing the importance of regular attendance,” Wachter said. “When we first started we just had a few in each class, but now the rate has almost tripled. Last time we had to go find more awards because we didn’t have enough and that’s just wonderful.”
Wachter says she owes a lot of success to her husband because he was always supportive of her ambitions.
“I just always thought we were such a great team,” she said. “We were always supportive of each other and he would always encourage me to be more and do more if I wanted to. It is such a rich gift to have someone like that in your life.”
For her many years of service with Kiwanis, she has won various awards including the Kiwanis Tablet of Honor, which was given to her by her local Kiwanis Club.
She was also given Kiwanis International awards including the George F. Hickson Award, which was given to her for work in iodine deficiency disorder and the Zeller Award, which was given to her for her work in preventing newborn and neonatal tetanus.
“Kiwanis represents all the things that I love and that I love doing,” said Wachter. “You just see kids in need and you think, ‘What else can I do here?’ For all that you do, there’s always something else that can and should be done.”
Aside from Kiwanis, Wachter is very active within her church and serves on the Greater St. Clair Homes Board, which helps people find housing on low incomes.
She also serves on the Cape Albeon Board in St. Louis, which helps people find apartments and assisted living, and the St. Andrews Board for Seniors in St. Louis, which helps seniors of all fiscal abilities find housing.
Wachter also spends time with her seven grandchildren, four boys and three girls, whom she loves to read with and attend sporting events for.
“I’ve always said that if I had a dollar for every bleacher I’ve been on, I’d be a millionaire,” Wachter said.
She says she enjoys participating in all of these things because they allow her to keep helping people, something that she says she will never quit doing.