PORTAGE, Wis. – Growing up, Willow Voegtlen has always made philanthropy a part of her life due in part to circumstances she faced as a child, having had several surgeries for her heart and for a cleft palate.
    “I spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was a child, from 1 to 3 years old,” Voegtlen said. “I came to cherish what doctors did for other people, giving them another chance at life. Ever since I’ve been in 4-H, every single year I’ve donated to a charity to a cause that I feel is important and believe in.”
    Voegtlen, 21, grew up on the 500-cow dairy farm her father worked at in Troy, Pa. Within that herd, her family has their 55-cow herd of Jerseys.
    The young Pennsylvanian came to Wisconsin to take part in an internship at Budjon Farms in Lomira, Wis., and attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course.
    Following her time in school, Voegtlen worked as an assistant herdsman at Barlass Jerseys in Janesville, Wis. She continues to work at Barlass Jerseys in a part-time capacity and is a full-time livestock handler with ABS Global in DeForest, Wis.
    “I’ve donated roughly about $3,000 during my 4-H and FFA career from premiums and market animal sales,” Voegtlen said. “Most of that was donated to the Children’s Miracle Network. Now that I’ve aged out of 4-H and FFA, I wanted to continue that charity work, but I wanted a new idea.”
    Voegtlen’s background and involvement in the dairy industry sparked an idea for a new direction for her philanthropic efforts.
    “I realized there is a charity that really needs it and hits close to home,” Voegtlen said. “We have this increase of dairy farmer suicide rates. I didn’t know how to publically talk about it at first, but I thought if I made a T-shirt with a statement on it that could maybe start the conversation.”
    Voegtlen modified a favorite quotation to fit her purpose.
    “A quote that I’ve always tried to live by is, ‘Life is tough, darling, but so are you,’” Voegtlen said. “I just modified that to convey that even though farming is tough, particularly these days, so are we.”
    Starting a wide-spread social media campaign was not what Voegtlen had planned. Her initial goal was a modest outcome.
    “I only planned to sell 18 shirts, probably mostly to my family and a few friends,” Voegtlen said. “As of today (Oct. 20), I have sold 250 T-shirts and donated $1,812 to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.”
    She has used Custom Ink LLC for her fundraiser. Those wishing to purchase the shirt simply go to the website, place their order and pay directly. CustomInk takes care of turning the donated money to the AFSP. Approximately $5 from each purchased T-shirt is donated.
    This approach allows Voegtlen to focus her time and efforts on promoting the fundraiser, and driving traffic and awareness to the website through social media campaigns.
    “It started out kind of slow with a few orders trickling in,” Voegtlen said. “Then the Virginia Tech Dairy Club purchased over 20 shirts. It took off from there. Then Jessica Peters, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer, Jersey breeder and agvocate, shared it and it really started taking off.”
    Voegtlen is not sure where her shirts have been sold, but she knows from social media feedback the shirts are on both the east and west coasts, and scattered throughout the Midwest. Some have also been sold to Canada.
    Voegtlen is opening up the fundraiser for a fourth time and is adding the options of long sleeve shirts and sweatshirts. This session will remain active through Oct. 31, and then Voegtlen will determine if and when to reopen it again.  
    “I’ve increased my goal each time I’ve met it, going from 18 shirts to 50 then 100, and now I’ve reached 250 shirts sold,” Voegtlen said. “Now I’d like to raise $2,000.”
    While the donated funds go to AFSP and are earmarked for the agricultural community’s needs, Voegtlen is considering starting a non-profit organization that would focus solely on agricultural mental health, citing the specific needs of the community.
    “I’ve been thinking about trademarking my logo and opening a Facebook page for farmers that need encouragement and community,” Voegtlen said. “A place for them to share their stories and to talk openly about mental health and their needs.”
    Voegtlen would like to see individuals wearing the shirts, taking photos and posting on social media using the hashtags #mentalhealthmonday, #dairystrong and #farmtough.
    “There are so many ways that we can support mental health care as a community,” Voegtlen said. “Check in with your family, friends and neighbors often, offer help, don’t be afraid to talk to someone, and learn the symptoms of depression.”
    Voegtlen also encourages those with concerns for themselves or others to contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
    “It takes a great deal of courage to promote mental health in this delicate time,” Voegtlen said. “My mother has always told me that the only resolution to a problem is to raise awareness.”