46.5436° N, 87.3954° W
Marquette-area stockbroker and philanthropist Theresa Sell is a Superior Woman. A relative newcomer to the Upper Peninsula, she is making a positive impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable in the community: the children.
By Dale Hemmila
When you think of a philanthropist, names such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet come to mind. In fact, a Google search of the top 50 donors in the United States shows the faces of a lot of older, white, men.
“Philanthropist” doesn’t generally conjure up the image of a working, single mom.
But if contributing money, time and resources to worthy causes remains the definition of philanthropy, then Marquette, Michigan’s Theresa Sell should add philanthropist to her resume.
Sell is, in fact, a single, working mom, business woman, and non-profit creator who has put her own resources into making the Marquette area a better place to live for those less fortunate.
As a financial services representative for the Encore Financial Group in Marquette, Sell helps her clients reach their financial goals. While that is an interesting day job, her passion is in investing her own resources to help those whose goals are much less lofty.
A Wisconsin native, Sell has become very involved in local non-profits since moving to Marquette in 2012. While supportive of other charities in the area, it is the non-profit she founded in 2015 where much of her effort is focused.
Ending Hunger Alliance of Marquette (EHAM) is a year-round non-profit founded by Sell with the objective of helping children and families in the Upper Peninsula who are affected by hunger or homelessness.
She outlines her ambition with this quote on the EHAM web page: “I realized in 2015 that there was a hole in the safety net of our community when it came to children and their families who were hungry and homeless. I wanted to help the organizations that were working in this realm. I knew that if people became aware of the situation, they would want to help one another. I wanted to work to build this awareness and support.”
Recently, while seated just steps away from an office closet filled with donated food items, she explained why she took the initiative: “It’s innate with me to be involved with things. As soon as I moved here, I looked for ways to help.”
In 2014, she jumped in to help meet a specific hunger challenge. When she learned that a local school district would be on an extended holiday break and students would not have access to the school lunch program, Sell felt compelled to do something about it.
Working with volunteers, she organized a program that provided breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus two snacks, for the students to take home for the time they would be away from school.
“That cost $14,000, which was self-funded,” she said. “We did it out of my house and turned my house into a grocery store.”
Subsequently, she helped develop and support similar “backpack” programs for various schools and other non-profits such as the Marquette Women’s Center, using large, 13-gallon bags instead of actual backpacks. In 2016, Sell developed a Backpack Program Manual for others to follow, which covers everything from how to begin a program, to suggested foods to provide, and much more.
EHAM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that currently operates on an annual budget of $30,000 and as much donated food and supplies as possible.
“We are constantly driven to get food donations and financial donations,” Sell said. “This is 100 percent volunteer. Everything we get goes into the hands of children.”
And that is important, as Sell noted that many social services are geared more toward assisting adults.
“There’s a hole in this community when it comes to kids,” she explained. “You have to put resources in the hands of children.”
Filling that “hole” is something Sell is committed to doing. She has seen first-hand some of the sad situations families try to negotiate, and the need not only for charity, but also education.
“One of the things we want to do is to teach people how to live with what they have,” she said. “I’ve delivered food to people who don’t know how to peel a potato. We are three or four generations deep (with people) living off of frozen pizza and Ramen noodles.”
To address that problem she plans to educate with cooking classes, and find ways to provide transportation to local farmer’s markets where the value of food stamps is doubled.
“We want to teach kids that they can do more and learn skills so they can break the cycle and become more self-reliant,” she said.
In addition to addressing hunger issues, Sell is also an advocate for the homeless. While numbers vary somewhat, it is estimated there are more than 1,000 homeless children in the U.P. It is not unusual for the EHAM Facebook page to put out a plea for household items for families and individuals who find housing, but lack the necessities to set up housekeeping.
“I wish people knew how desperate the need is,” Sell said. “If people understood, they would help.”
To that end, Sell speaks at churches, school parent/teacher organizations and elsewhere to spread the word.
“We need passionate board members and volunteers,” she said. “We need food all the time. There’s never not a starving kid. We want to do more.”
While much of her work is focused directly toward kids and families, Sell’s food contribution outreach took a different turn recently.
When the Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter (UPAWS) moved into its new shelter, there was a need to set up a pet food pantry.
Sell was convinced by UPAWS Capital Campaign Manager Kori Tossava of the need for the pantry, as hungry families sometimes do not have the resources to feed their pets.
Sell responded with the $40,000 needed to set up the pantry.
“Theresa is passionate about ending hunger, and we were discussing our pet food pantry, and pets get hungry, too,” Tossava said. “Our food pantry is run primarily off of donations of food from businesses and community members, but in our old location, we did not have a lot of storage. When we moved into our new location, we have storage to be able to keep more on hand, and to help people feed their pets. We wouldn’t be able to do this without supporters of our capital campaign like Theresa.”
While it may sound like Sell’s full time work involves community service, there is still that day job as a stock broker.
“My business supports my charitable giving,” she said. “My hobby is helping people. It’s just innate that you help your neighbor. It’s just who I am.”
She will expand her “hobby” fairly soon. She has agreed to take on a position on the board of directors with the newly formed Superior Child Advocacy Center in Marquette, which is designed to end sexual violence against children, support victims, and seek justice for abusers.
Joining her on that board will be Marquette County Prosecutor Matt Weise, who has already been acquainted with Sell’s community involvement.
“Theresa has done a lot of great things to help the most needy, and help those in our community who are vulnerable,” Weise said. “I am impressed with her drive and initiative to help us make the dream of creating the Superior Child Advocacy Center into a reality.”
Children’s advocacy, ending hunger, fighting homelessness, assisting children and families. For Sell, it is all about making a difference, even if it is one child or one family at a time, while being guided by her principles: “Do the right thing, the right way for the right reason,” she said.
So while her day job is working with clients to help secure better financial returns on their investments, it is her personal investment in time and resources that pays dividends for the at-risk population in the Lake Superior region.
To help Sell support either the Ending Hunger Alliance of Marquette, or the Superior Child Advocacy Center, follow the links below: