Shown with longtime and recently retired county coordinator Karen Brown, Social Services worker Gail Bunge also recently retired from a 33-year career at the county.
Shown with longtime and recently retired county coordinator Karen Brown, Social Services worker Gail Bunge also recently retired from a 33-year career at the county.
"People helping people can make a difference," said Gail Bunge, effectively summarizing the core belief she has lived out in her 33 years of public service to Fillmore County. "I was always a people helper."

Gail grew up in Roseville, Minn., and, prior to her attending college at the University of Minnesota, had always felt that tug toward caring for others. She wanted to become a doctor. However, when she was a freshman, her dad was diagnosed with leukemia. Spending lots of time with him in the hospital helped her understand that the doctor career was not for her.

"I'm not sure, but I think I got burnt out with the whole setting," Gail recalled.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in food microbiology in 1978 and moved out to Santa Monica, Calif., where she married her college boyfriend, Andy Bunge.

While Andy pursued a professional track career, Gail worked for Chicago Title Insurance for two years before the couple moved to Preston. Gail wanted to raise a family while Andy pursued milking cows and so looked for a job nearby.

Finding an opening at Fillmore County, her experience working for insurance companies helped her get a job as a deputy clerk of the court. Her work required Gail to work in both the court administration office and county recorder's office.

She enjoyed the work for a couple years until the Social Services director at that time, Rolf Huggenvik, recruited her to become an eligibility worker in Social Services. Recognizing an opportunity to pursue her passion of directly helping people and being part of a team, Gail took the job.

After eight years of doing work on the "front line" of Social Services, Gail became the financial assistance supervisor. She held the title for 20 years.

"I tend to be a person to step forward and lead," she said.

Although her main responsibilities were to supervise the eligibility workers in her team, Gail continued to complete work as she had done prior to gaining the leadership position.

"I felt that to be a good supervisor, I needed to know the work that the staff was doing," she explained.

As a person who thrived from directly helping people, Gail also couldn't see herself ever straying from that aspect of her work.

Gail's work did change throughout her career as technology developed and programs became more complex. She laughed as she recalled sitting in the vault of the old courthouse stuffing envelopes full of food coupons for those eligible for food stamps. Now, food stamps are disbursed through an EBT card.

Gail also recalled hand-writing out forms, which have since become computerized. Mathematical formulas that were done on a calculator are now crunched through software.

Phone service was different, too. Gail shared office space with Social Service director Tom Boyd and remembered having to physically pass phones back and forth. Now, county employees have their own extensions and voicemail accounts.

Gail said the programs and systems used in Social Services have also gotten more complex. Incidentally, she left at the same time the Affordable Care Act went into effect.

"It was difficult for me to leave for that reason," she said, explaining that the amount of change associated with the new healthcare law had caused her to doubt whether it was a good time to step down.

At that point, Gail had been the Social Services manager for two years. The position had been created through the redesign of Community Services to include Public Health, Human Services and Veteran Services under one umbrella.

"You had to be resilient and look at change as an opportunity and not a challenge," she recalled.

Gail applied that understanding to help her know that it was time for her to leave. "I've resolved to recognize that change is constant. We have an excellent, dedicated staff and business will go forward as usual," she stated.

Of course, it was still difficult to leave the team at the county, which had become like family. "Much of the staff I personally hired," she noted. "I was honored to be able to be a public servant and part of a team that helps people."

As she enters retirement, Gail said she realized her work helped her understand the importance of finding balance in life. Part of that balance for her will be to continue looking for ways she can directly help others. Whether it be through sending homemade greeting cards or volunteering at Christ Lutheran Church, schools and other community programs, she is looking forward to it all. Beside her goal to be an active volunteer, Gail wants to spend more time with her family.

"One of my greatest achievements was that I raised my children and that they are proud of me," she said. The two oldest, Jonathan and Alison, are married and live outside of the state. The youngest, Kristin, graduated with a degree in psychology with a goal to be counselor. Gail mentioned she is following closely in her own footsteps, with a desire to help people.

Gail has also taken on the responsibility of caring for her mother, who has Parkinson's disease. "I needed to give more to family. They are happy that I will have some more time," she said.

Gail will continue to enjoy her activities of reading, walking and attending athletic events at the University of Minnesota. "We are avid, spirited Golden Gopher fans," she said.

Again showing her and Andy's determination to help others, the Bunges set up an annual scholarship for track athletes at the U of M, where Andy was track captain in 1977. "We're paying it forward," she said.

She may not have become the doctor that she thought she would, but Gail was still able to stay true to herself and her core belief of helping others. At the end of the day, and especially at the end of a long career, that belief will be what will carry on and continue to improve the lives of many.