Passion for helping at-risk kids drives Riopelle’s service to campus, community

When Ginny Riopelle was in seventh grade, her class was divided into a “high group” and a “low group.”

Hastily labeled and placed in the latter, Riopelle and her classmates quickly grew accustomed to their teacher’s daily greeting.

“Good morning, dumbbells.”

What may have been a well intentioned — if deeply misguided — attempt at motivation frustrated Riopelle, who became the sole student in the “low group” to attend college. But witnessing how the teacher’s expectations could manifest themselves in students’ sense of self-worth also sparked something in Riopelle, then Ginny Small — the desire to help and motivate kids who struggle.

It’s a theme that has resonated throughout her life’s work, from her early years as a primary school teacher to her extensive community involvement and eventual co-founding of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s signature Phuture Phoenix program. It remains a constant today as Riopelle, a longtime member of the UW-Green Bay Chancellor’s Council of Trustees, continues her tireless work on behalf of community and University.

“It really doesn’t matter what I do, where or when,” Riopelle said during an interview at her Allouez home. “It always comes back to helping the disadvantaged or at-risk.”

Riopelle has been part of the Council of Trustees since former Chancellor Mark Perkins first asked her to join in 1998. She successfully co-chaired the $30 million Campaign for UW-Green Bay, honing the fundraising skills instilled in her by another well-known community and University leader, Robert Bush. Riopelle has served on two chancellor’s search committees, including the one that brought Bruce Shepard — and his wife Cyndie, Riopelle’s Phuture Phoenix co-founder — to campus.

It was during that first search that Riopelle gave the Shepards a community tour, standard practice for the visiting candidates. After the tour concluded, someone asked how the Shepards had liked Lambeau Field — and Riopelle somewhat sheepishly realized she’d skipped what is arguably Green Bay’s most famous landmark.

Of course, it turned out not to matter. Bruce Shepard became UW-Green Bay’s fourth chancellor, and Cyndie Shepard quickly became a campus and community fixture in her own right.

Not long after their arrival, Cyndie Shepard and Riopelle were visiting Green Bay’s Jefferson Elementary, a school where the poverty rate hovers between 80 and 90 percent. Cyndie Shepard asked a fifth-grade student what he wanted to be when he grew up, and was shocked by the answer. He figured he’d end up in prison, the boy answered — just like his dad.

That’s all it took for the two women to act. They went to lunch at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until 5 p.m., brainstorming and — on the spot — creating a program to encourage at-risk kids to maximize their potential.

“They had paper placemats, and on the placemats, we did Phuture Phoenix — the whole program,” Riopelle recalls. “We named it, we figured out the funding, we figured out the components of it, what the purpose of it was — it was all right there. We kept saying to each other, ‘think bigger.’ ”

The pair did think big, carefully crafting the now well-known mentorship program that encourages kids from low-income schools to think early and often about going to college. After hosting about 450 fifth-graders during the first Phuture Phoenix Day in 2002, the successful initiative now serves more than 1,500 students during tour days each fall. Fifth-graders pair with UWGB student mentors, many of them first-generation college students themselves, for tours and other experiences designed to give them a genuine feel for college life. Phuture Phoenix continues to serve its students through grade 12, encouraging them to finish high school and pursue higher education.

The award-winning program has been replicated at UW-Eau Claire, Silver Lake College in Manitowoc and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. — where Bruce Shepard now serves as president.

“The leadership and spirit of collaboration Ginny has provided has been instrumental in our ability to reach and sustain our program efforts during the past eight years,” said Phuture Phoenix Director Kim Desotell. “Phuture Phoenix has been successful due to Ginny’s strong vision and ability to forge partnerships that are rewarding, effective and impactful.”

And although Riopelle has been instrumental in crafting and supporting Phuture Phoenix, it’s far from the only high-profile work she’s done at UW-Green Bay. A successful and enthusiastic fundraiser, Riopelle was tapped to co-chair the capital campaign that concluded in 2009.

Tom Olson and Ginny Riopelle

Tom Olson and Ginny Riopelle

Despite the challenging economic times, Riopelle and co-chair Tom Olson helped raise $30 million, including $19 million for academic purposes and $11 million toward construction of the Kress Events Center.

The community was energized by the effort, and the campaign netted six separate gifts of $1 million or more. Much of that, Olson said, was due to Riopelle’s hard work, dedication and knowledge of the community.

“She’s got tremendous enthusiasm,” said Olson, a fellow UW-Green Bay trustee. “She’s got a lot of love and passion for UW-Green Bay. She’s involved in so many different ways.”

Riopelle’s dedication is perhaps unsurprising, given a family history of support for UW-Green Bay — even before there was a UW-Green Bay. Riopelle’s father, the late Rudy Small, advocated for a university here in the early-to mid-1960s, prior to UWGB’s founding in 1965. Along with John “Jake” Rose, Small was the first recipient of the Chancellor’s Award, the highest community honor UW-Green Bay bestows.

UW-Green Bay Chancellor Thomas Harden — on whose search committee Riopelle served — said Riopelle’s dedicated and multifaceted involvement continues to make a difference for the campus.

“Ginny’s enduring dedication to UW-Green Bay is matched only by her enthusiasm for this institution,” Harden said. “Whether they know her name or not, all UWGB students can thank Ginny for her tireless efforts on their behalf.”

Riopelle plans to continue her involvement, she said, which is perhaps more critical than ever as UW-Green Bay and the rest of the UW System face funding challenges as the result of reduced state support. Yet she remains optimistic about a community that continues to value and support UWGB as a strong and vital institution.

As for that seventh-grade teacher, Riopelle saw him again — years later, as she did her practice teaching at the school where he had become principal.

“And I walked and in and said, ‘it’s Ginny Small,’ ” she recalls. “And he looked at me — I said ‘one of your dumbbells done good.’ ”

Ginny and Jack Riopelle

Ginny and Jack Riopelle

About Ginny Riopelle
Husband Jack Riopelle; adult children Abbie Flanagan (Mike) and Jed Riopelle; expecting first grandchild in October

Community involvement:
Co-founder, UW-Green Bay Phuture Phoenix program; Service on boards (current): United Way Community Partnership for Children; UW-Green Bay Chancellor’s Council of Trustees/UW-Green Bay Foundation; (past) Service League of Green Bay; Encompass Child Care; Boys & Girls Club of Green Bay; N.E.W. Curative Rehabilitation; YMCA

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