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Governor Spotlight: Dawn Helwig

By Allison Kooser

When Dawn Helwig’s youngest daughter traveled to Tanzania with her college class 10 years ago, she met a group of women that were building their businesses using microloans—and she immediately texted her mother. 

“She told me, 'this is what you need to do when you retire,'” Dawn remembered. “She had me pegged. I was a finance person, and she knew this was something that would interest me.” 

After graduating from college, Dawn’s daughter got involved with Young Ambassadors for Opportunity in Minneapolis—and she sent her mom another note.

“This time, she had an organization for me,” Dawn said. “She said, ‘This is where you need to go.’” 

At that point, Dawn was preparing to retire from her successful career as a consulting actuary and partner at Milliman. She sat down with Opportunity staff members for lunch, and they invited her to come into the Chicago office a couple days a week to volunteer.

"As a volunteer, you get a feel for what is actually going on. You might get invited to a staff meeting or a marketing meeting just because you're in the office. And you get to know staff well, too," Dawn said. "I've been able to do a real variety of things. I worked with the International Business Development team to research potential corporate partners and foundations; I calculated the [value of] Insight Trips; and I've made a lot of Shutterfly books! It's very different from what I did in my career, but it has been a really good experience.

"I feel like I've made some really good friends from volunteering, too," she added. "I made friends in my career, but not nearly as quickly as I did at Opportunity." 

The photo books Dawn created for Opportunity Insight Trip travelers aligned with Dawn's love of travel and adventure. And in 2016, Dawn and her husband Ted traveled on an Insight Trip to Rwanda and Tanzania.

"Everyone says this, so I know it's a cliché, but it was a life-changing experience," Dawn said. "I had been to Peru before and seen poverty, but it wasn't comparable to what I saw in Tanzania and Rwanda. To hear the first-hand testimony of clients, to hear them share about the difference Opportunity has made for them—it was a wonderful experience."

On the trip, Dawn and her fellow travelers were able to visit schools and farmers. It was a chance to see so many of Opportunity's programs in action.

"Visiting the schools was one of my favorite parts," she shared. "Those kids just totally won my heart. We walked into one building, and an entire kindergarten class was singing to us in English. At a high school, we went into one room that was their lab, their computer room, and their library, all in one. It had one shelf of books, one computer, and a microscope—that was it. But these students still had goals of being pilots and doctors. They were so impressive."

Another of her favorite memories from the trip in Rwanda was driving two hours outside Kigali to a farmers' co-op. "We were really late getting there, and I was thinking that all the farmers probably would have already left. But we get there and hear singing. We walk in and a group of one hundred people are singing and dancing us in," she said. "They were so joyous and happy to see us, even after being required to wait for over an hour for us to get there."

Like it has for so many of us, the pandemic has paused so many of Dawn and her husband's normal activities—including an annual international trip. They are eager to travel again once it is safe to do so, and Insight Trips to Colombia and India are on the travel wish list!

In the meantime, Dawn has turned to one of her other favorite hobbies: reading.

"In pre-pandemic days, I liked to say I was a patron of the arts. We saw lots of live music, went to restaurants, went to the theater. And we love to travel," she said. "But I'm also a huge reader. I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. I had two brothers and nobody to play with—so every day I went to my treehouse with a book and read! This year, I've been okay with not being able to do all my other things because I love to just sit and read."

A few favorites from the 96 books she read last year include The Girl with the Louding Voice (the Opportunity Book Club read this one, too!), An Ordinary Man, Anxious People, and The Vanishing Half.

The pandemic has also given Dawn more time to spend with her children and two grandchildren, who are in her "bubble." She added, "I normally spend a lot of time with friends, so I've gotten to be a Zoom call expert! And my husband and I are both big exercisers. We spend every morning working out, which I definitely couldn't do when I was working!"

Retirement has given Dawn a number of new opportunities, including connecting her former employer with her current philanthropic interests. After she began volunteering with Opportunity, Dawn learned that her company, Milliman, was creating a giving fund. They invited retirees to join the group that would help bring this fund to life, and Dawn raised her hand.

"Milliman decided to focus its giving on economic development, education, and health. They wanted to include international programs—and not just in countries where they were working, but in the countries with the greatest financial need," Dawn explained.

"At that point, it was sort of hitting me in the face. The connection to Opportunity was so clear. Opportunity pitched Milliman, and it was an interesting situation because I was on both sides of that deal. I tried to step back and just answer questions—I didn't want to push it because I was part of the group that was going to make the decision. But Opportunity's work spoke for itself, and Milliman decided to support the Opportunity Zone in Mityana, Uganda.

"Milliman is very excited about the partnership, and employees are chomping at the bit to be able to volunteer, do projects, and go to the field," she said.

Dawn has been a bridge-builder for Opportunity, helping facilitate relationships with not only Milliman, but also her church. Neither felt like a difficult introduction to make. As Dawn explained, "I found out what they were doing and what their interests were, and Opportunity was a perfect fit."

Years ago, Dawn's daughter knew Opportunity was a perfect fit for Dawn, too—and she was right.