2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Winner Susan (Sue) Rieple Graf ’82

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Spirit of Francis

Growing up in La Crosse, Susan (Sue) Rieple Graf lived through some challenging times—she and her mother lived for a time in their car—and she’s always had a heart for helping others.

For most of her life, community service was something Graf always managed to fit in on top of her work and family life. She was an active volunteer in her church, in the local schools, and served as a Girl Scout leader. In 2011, her church was looking for someone to prepare a meal to feed 15 people seeking refuge at La Crosse’s Winter Warming Center. Raising her hand for that set her on a path toward founding and running a nonprofit organization in 2021, What I Need Now (WINN), a mobile mission to serve unsheltered people in the region.

Sue Rieple Graf
Sue Rieple Graf

“I realized God’s calling for me late in life, and my life has meaning and purpose when I can help other people,” Graf said. “I have been blessed with the gifts of compassion, empathy, and hospitality and use them every day to try to make a difference in the lives of the people I serve.”

At Viterbo, she majored in business administration because of her grandfather’s admonition that she study something “practical.” The things she learned in her business classes served her well in her career in banking, which gave way to administrative church work and then to working in special education. But her Viterbo education went well beyond practical business skills, she said.

“Many of the courses I took outside of my major gave me a wider perspective of people and the world,” Graf said. “I also made friends with students from other countries and developed a broader worldview. And many of my professors influenced my life and planted the seeds of faith.”

After bringing that first meal to the warming center, Graf was inspired to keep serving. She began working as a part-time overnight coordinator for the warming center, often assisted by her husband of 35 years, Tim, with whom she raised two children, Racheal and Anjie.

In 2018, Graf decided to make helping people her full-time occupation, accepting a job as coordinator at the Franciscan Hospitality House in downtown La Crosse, a daytime drop-in center designed to bring comfort to people struggling with homelessness. On any given afternoon, Graf would see about 75 people, coming in to warm up (or cool off), take a shower, get a bite to eat, get a haircut, take an art class, do some laundry, or just get a friendly smile and bit of conversation.

“The beauty of the Hospitality House is it was a connecting place, a spot where people could connect with their social workers and others,” Graf said.

Graf probably would still be at the Hospitality House today if the pandemic and related lease issues hadn’t forced it to close in 2020.

Out of a job, Graf didn’t spend the next day looking for work or even taking a well-earned breather. The day after the Hospitality House closed, she loaded her car with hand warmers, socks, personal hygiene items, and ready-to-eat food, and she hit the streets with Hospitality House staffer Brian Holliday to deliver aid.

“When I started going out, I thought it was temporary,” Graf said. “I never planned to do this. It just sort of happened. There was a need, and we were helping people.”

At first, she thought a new site to reopen the Hospitality House was a top priority. The hard-to-shake stigma of homelessness, however, made procuring a new site frustratingly difficult.

Graf’s friend Ken Ford, a retired pharmacist, had an epiphany. “He said, ‘Maybe you’re not supposed to have a building. Maybe God wants you to do it this way,’” Graf said.

Donations of money and items for distribution from friends, community groups, businesses, and churches have kept WINN going strong, and she now has a van dedicated to the mission so she doesn’t have to use her own car.

“We strive to meet basic essential needs, including bottled water, ready-to-eat nonperishable foods, T-shirts, socks, underwear, hygiene and basic first aid items, rain ponchos, hand warmers, gloves, hats, jackets, bug spray, flashlights, and other necessities,” Graf explained. “We get to know the people we serve and work collaboratively with other local agencies to assist individuals with shelter, community meals, medical needs, addiction treatment, and housing resources.”

The “things” Graf delivers make a difference, of course, but she emphasized that what has the biggest impact is knowing someone cares and sees them as a person.

“I think everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and cared about,” said Graf, who was honored by a La Crosse Rotary Club with the Paul Harris Fellow Award in recognition of her work.

While running WINN as its executive director, Graf also found time to go through Viterbo’s servant leadership certificate program.

Coming back to Viterbo to receive an alumni award wasn’t something Graf saw coming. “It is a very humbling experience and an affirmation to me that I am doing the work God has prepared me to do,” she said. “It’s a calling for me. I feel called to do it, and it will be difficult for me to ever stop doing it because of the relationships. I feel like I’m the one blessed to be able to do what I do.”

2023 Viterbo University Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients main page