For Matthew Brantner, executive director of WisCorps, what has become his life’s work came down to a simple question.
“I wonder what I can do to conserve,” Brantner asked himself, “and do good things for the place I live?”
That humble, inquisitive mind answered itself with WisCorps, which sends crews of young adults around the region to complete a variety of conservation projects. The objective is to provide spaces and trails for people to connect to the outdoors, all the while teaching life and work skills to the next generation of land managers, biologists and future leaders in any field. WisCorps also operates an environmental education program that serves thousands of children in the surrounding communities, and a job-readiness program for in- or out-of-school youth who need an extra leg up in life.
“You can only learn so much out of a book,” Brantner said.
He did that, too, earning degrees in biology and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, but it was what happened next that motivated the young leader.
“I literally hopped a plane to Vermont the day after I graduated from UW-L,” he said.
It was there he met and worked with his mentor, Thomas Hark, president of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, who left a lasting impression on Brantner and inspired him in ways he could never dream at the time.
“He literally took me under his wing,” Brantner said.
Growing up on a farm and spending so much time outdoors also inspired the young man, as well as working with youth and educating them on keeping the land beautiful and bountiful. It’s that special alchemy that has gotten Brantner noticed.
“None of what WisCorps does would be possible without Matt Brantner,” said Emily Post, who nominated Brantner for Rising Stars Under 40. “After starting with one employee in a crowded office space, nine short years later he has grown the organization to provide work for 12 full-time employees and nearly 130 seasonal employees annually.”
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Every year, Post said, WisCorps continues to expand, as people recognize the importance of the quality work that it accomplishes and the benefits to the communities they serve.
“Matt always has time for his employees,” she said, “whether they need guidance or are just stopping by for a chat. He runs his organization in a relaxed atmosphere where cooperation and communication are strong values, which makes every employee feel welcome and part of the bigger picture for the greater good.”
In addition to all that he does for the organization he loves, Post said, Brantner is a wonderful father of three young girls, assists his wife, Amber, in running a local swim school, and serves on the board of Horse Sense for Special Riders.
“You’d think that someone so busy would be run ragged,” Post said, “but Matt comes into the office every day with a huge smile on his face, energized and ready to take on whatever challenge comes his way.”
Brantner is humble about his work, deflecting from himself at every turn.
“I think it’s a lot more about the organization,” he said, “not about me.”
He also said it’s about love of a place, a people and a community. More specifically, it’s about people who do good work within a place, finding life in all its forms.
“It would be a pretty hollow life,” Brantner said, “if you didn’t have a community. That to me is the life within in the place.”
“I think it’s a lot more about the organization, not about me.” Matthew Brantner