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People who make a difference: Sean Kuether

‘Nothing I’ve accomplished has been done solely on my own’

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June 28, 2023

OSHKOSH – It’s often said that a single moment, event or person can alter the path someone takes in life.

For Sean Kuether, the manager of program management for Plexus Corp., that first pivot point was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

All set to attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UWO) after high school graduation, Kuether said plans changed when the country was attacked.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army, and instead of class, he headed to boot camp – a path he said he never imagined he’d take.

“My dad is a military veteran,” he said. “He was a drill sergeant in the Army for a good part of my life. Those are big boots to fill. So, for me, I never really wanted to be in the Army. But the Sept. 11 attacks changed my mind. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what that was, so I joined the Army.”

More specifically, Kuether entered the Army’s language program.

“I knew that was something I loved – I was good with languages in high school,” he said.

Kuether said given the state of things during that time, he expected he would learn Arabic.

“But the military decided to give me Korean, which was cool and something I didn’t know much about,” he said.

Unfortunately, Kuether said a leg injury that impeded his ability to run long distances or for a long period of time cut his time in the military short.

“When I came home, there was like an unscratched itch,” he said. “I signed up for five years of military service, and I was only able to serve a little more than two years of that.”

During his years at UWO, Kuether said he volunteered quite a bit with the local YMCA coaching youth sports, which was sparked by a continued desire to serve.

That, he said, eventually led to him volunteering at a youth group home in Neenah.

“Many of these kids came from difficult situations and chaotic backgrounds,” he said. “They would come to the group home and we would get them stabilized – they knew where their next meal was coming from and they knew what the next day would bring. The majority of them did really well.”

Pivot No. 2
Though Kuether said he had thoughts of becoming a cop, he wasn’t completely sure he wanted to follow that career path – at least not yet.

That’s when the opportunity to work with AmeriCorps NCCS (National Civilian Community Corps) – a national service program that provides direct service opportunities in various sectors, including education, disaster services, economic opportunity and community building and environmental stewardship – presented itself to him.

“(A good friend of mine) talked to me about what she did with AmeriCorps NCCC during my final year in college, and I was intrigued,” he said. “So, I ended up applying and going out to be a team leader at a campus in Maryland.”

The opportunities he had to serve through AmeriCorps NCCC, Kuether said, were endless.

“The first year, we did a project with the Naval Academy in Baton Rouge working with Teach for America teachers and the middle school,” he said. “Then we did a Habitat for Humanity project where we helped rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. Then we worked with another nonprofit in the Bay St. Louis, Mississippi area, again building houses.”

Sean Kuether, in green, together with other Fire 1 team members helped build houses in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for hurricane victims. Submitted Photo

Kuether said he ended his year as an AmeriCorps NCCC team leader in Ohio where he helped with various land restoration projects for eight weeks.

But his work with the organization wasn’t done yet.

Kuether said the way the AmeriCorps NCCC organization is set up is similar to the military – there are four to five units on each campus.

Each unit has about 80-90 people, with one unit leader for each.

Each unit is then split into 10- to 12-person teams and organized by team leaders.

“I went from a team leader to a unit leader,” he said. “So, then instead of being the guy on the ground per se, leading a team, I was the one helping evaluate projects and sending teams to different areas to work. I did that for a couple of years.”

During that time, Kuether was also asked to take over the wildland firefighting program on the AmeriCorps campus – which he did throughout his time there.

Kuether said he also served with more than 150 AmeriCorps NCCC team members in Texas after Hurricane Ike.

In addition to those roles, Kuether said he also got involved in a program called Summer of Service – which is a simplified version of NCCC’s other programs, on a shortened time frame.

“The idea was we go to some of these big cities and maybe recruit 15, 16 or 17-year-olds to do a mini AmeriCorps NCCC program and instead of doing it for a year, they do it for three weeks,” he said.

Kuether organized a Summer of Service program in New Orleans the first year and headed up one in Washington, D.C. the next year.

Pivot No. 3
While working with AmeriCorps NCCC, Kuether said he was able to rehab his injured leg that cut his military service short.

“At one point (when I first injured my leg), they told me I may never be able to run again because I had some nerve damage,” he said. “But during my time with AmeriCorps, I was able to rehab my leg and not only get back into running but doing half marathons.”

Being in what he called the best shape of his life, Kuether said the thought he once had of being a police officer resurfaced.

“My younger brother Aaron was a police officer with the Appleton Police Department – he still is actually – and he said, ‘Sean, if you are still thinking about becoming a police officer, now is the time,’” he said. “We talked more about it and I ended up putting myself through the process and eventually moved back to Wisconsin in 2010 to take a position with the Appleton Police Department.”

Kuether said his first few years on the force were spent on patrol.

Sean Kuether, right, helps fit a kiddo’s bike helmet during a giveaway event during National Police Week. Kuether served on the Appleton Police Department for more than eight years. Submitted Photo

Once he transitioned into a community liaison officer position with the department, Kuether said he was able to get back to fostering community service as he did as part of AmeriCorps NCCC.

“I have always been passionate about community service and AmeriCorps blossomed that for me,” he said. “And one of the ideas I had was trying to see if we can do something like AmeriCorps’ Summer of Service program in Appleton.”

Kuether said he partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of the Fox Cities.

“(We worked with)… high schoolers in need of additional high school credits, (those in danger) of not graduating on time and for three weeks we ran a Summer of Service program in Appleton,” he said.

Kuether said the program ran for about five years until the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down.

During his years on the police force, Kuether also served on the Outagamie County Drug and Alcohol Treatment Court and Outagamie Veterans Court.

That role, he said, led to him creating the LEAP (law enforcement addiction assistance) program, which he modeled after a program on the East Coast.

“The program encourages people with addiction problems to come and ask for help and instead of the police arresting them, they get them connected to services,” he said.

Kuether said the program is still going strong and has even branched out to partner with local hospitals and a drug recovery center.

A group photo of officers, teachers and Boys and Girls Club Of The Fox Cities staff from Appleton Summer of Service in front of the mural students painted on the north side of the Grand Meridian. Sean Kuether, front right, helped start the program as a member of the Appleton Police Department. Submitted Photo

?Pivot No. 4
Recognizing being a police officer wasn’t something he could do forever and knowing he wanted to get a master’s degree at some point, Kuether returned to UWO and completed its executive MBA program.

In 2019, Kuether retired from the police department, eventually taking a position with Plexus – where he now serves as the manager of program management.

“I felt like if I was going to do something, I should do something that challenged me,” he said. “It was a huge career jump, a huge career shift.”

But now, married with two young kids, Kuether said the lifestyle of a police officer – “very chaotic, very unpredictable” – wasn’t conducive to family life.

As he has done with many of the paths he’s followed in life, Kuether said he was very intentional when looking for a job after leaving the police force.

“It took me about a year to find a job,” he said. “I probably could have gotten a job a month after graduation, but I wanted to go to an organization I felt was value-based.”

With more time on his hands – well as much as a parent can have with two sport-active kiddos – Kuether said he has continued to give back as much as he can.

“When I was at Plexus’ Neenah facility, I was the site chair for UnusPlexus, which is the diversity and inclusion employee resource group (ERG),” he said. “I was also the vice chair of our social pillar, which is the ERG for environmental, social and governance.”

Kuether said Plexus provides its employees with eight, paid hours a year to volunteer. 

He said his work with the ERGs consisted of helping connect employees with volunteering opportunities.

“Last year, we did a build with Habitat for Humanity Fox Cities,” he said. “This year, Plexus is actually sponsoring a Habitat house. We gathered a bunch of veterans on Veterans Day last year, and we got together and volunteered with Feed America.”

Shortly after he left the Appleton Police Department, Kuether said he was approached by Apricity – the substance abuse facility he worked with through the LEAP program – asking him to join their board.

“I’ve been part of the board now for almost four years,” he said. “I am passionate about everything they do for the community that provides recovery, treatment and sober living options.”

We all need someone
Kuether said nothing he’s accomplished in life has been done solely on his own.

“There’s always been somebody who has helped me – whether it was parents, family, friends, neighbors, teachers,” he said. “Sometimes that support was verbal, monetary. It was emotional, physical, whatever – no matter what we do, it’s hard to do anything in this world without others.”

That, Kuether said, is why he’s so passionate about giving back and encouraging others to do the same.

“Anytime you can give back and help others, it is slowly paying forward… where you try to give as much, or more, as you take,” he said.

Kuether said oftentimes success comes down to opportunities.

“It still came down to me executing things – whether it was my career, whether it was planning for a half marathon, whatever it was – but it was only because others gave me opportunities that I was there in the first place,” he said. “Everyone needs help in different ways at different times… anyway you can give back, I think, is a good thing.”

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