With a list of service projects that could fill a novel, it is no surprise that Army veteran Jeff Loeks will be recognized with an award later this month.
Loeks is a 2019 Wilbur Thomas Community Service Award recipient. The award is presented annually to HealthPartners team members who strive to improve their communities through outstanding volunteer service.
Loeks, a White Bear Township resident, is no stranger to coverage in Press Publications' newspapers. Numerous articles have been published about him, all with the common theme of service. Loeks served in the Army’s 3rd Ranger Battalion from 1988 to 1992 and was deployed to the invasion of Panama and Desert Storm.
Serving in the military is a tradition in Loeks' family. “Since I was 5 years old, I just knew that that was what I would do. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to continue that (tradition) and to serve my country,” he said. “It wasn't something that you thought about in our family, it was just when do you leave to do it. I took a lot of pride in that.”
Loeks later found out that his biological family (he was adopted through the foster care system at a young age), including both of his parents and his sisters, also had a tradition of serving in the military — specifically, the Army.
Upon leaving the military, Loeks moved to Denver to pursue his dream of becoming a police officer. After waiting for more than a year on the waitlist to get into the academy, he decided to move back to Minnesota, where he worked in the business world for 15 years.
“I didn't feel like I was making any kind of difference. I had an office job and it finally hit me one day that nothing I was doing there was making a difference at all,” Loeks recalled. Eight years ago, he switched careers and became an emergency room technician at Regions Hospital and joined the White Bear Lake Fire Department. Six months ago, he switched over to security at the hospital.
His days in the military shaped the person he has become today. “I sometimes think about who I would be without it ... I was kind of a punk little kid, I sometimes got in trouble ... For me, the military was a new start and it was the discipline that I needed. It still affects me every day. I don't ever call in sick and I've never been late to work,” he said.
Seven years ago, Loeks established Special Teams Charities, a nonprofit organization that aims to support law enforcement, firefighters and EMS personnel. Although Loeks loved his time on the fire department (about seven years), he was disappointed it didn't involve more charity work. Every time he came up with an idea to give back, he said it was shot down.
“There were so many regulations ... 'You can’t do this because of this' or 'That can't be approved because of that,'” he said. He started Special Teams, a name that evokes the military’s “Special Forces.” Every year, Loeks tries to do one “really big” project, but Special Teams always has something going on and continues to grow every year.
Loeks and his wife, Racheal, have dedicated their lives to charity work. Even on their wedding day, instead of registering for gifts, they asked for food shelf donations. The two were not allowed to say “I do” until a panel truck was full of food.
Other notable efforts have included a 100-mile hike to bring attention to violence against health care workers; a hike from Duluth to White Bear Lake to raise more than $20,000 for a loaded all-terrain vehicle for the fire department; sitting out on the corner of Highway 61 and Fourth Street to fill a truck with toilet paper for the food shelf; and an “America Is Beautiful” event to collect care packages for the Hugo Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Network.
Loeks just wrapped up his effort for homeless to-go bags, which were filled with personal hygiene items, food, drinks and resources. “At the hospital, I see these people that literally have nothing ... When they go, we can at least hand them the bag. It is not supposed to be life-changing, but it is supposed to get them through a couple of days,” he said.
Now, Loeks has transitioned over to his next campaign, which is to recognize the work of police officers. “I work with a lot of law enforcement personnel, and I think they need us more than ever right now.”
The best part of the HealthPartners award, Loeks said, was the fact that he got to turn it into a charity contribution. He chose to direct a gift of $1,000 to the Hugo Yellow Ribbon Network (YRN). He chose the network because he knows just how important care packages are to soldiers.
“When I was in the military, it was before the internet and (cell)phones, so it was very lonely. I remember other guys who had really good families and they would open up care packages and share them,” he said. “It is hard to explain how far away you feel when you are looking around at dirt and nothing looks American ... to see a Twizzlers wrapper in your hand, that is huge.”
Loeks will be honored at a special HealthPartners event Nov. 18.
“There is no doubt that Jeff makes a difference in the lives of so many people. To helping the homeless, who are treated at Regions, to supporting community food shelves, to raising awareness of the need to support those in the helping professions (nurses, first responders, police officers) and helping our deployed military,” Hugo YRN Chair Chuck Haas said.
“He really cares about helping others and not only constantly helps them himself but recruits and inspires others to care and help. He is truly one of the angels among us.”
Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.