Whenever Greta Warren walks through the doors of Lucy Craft Laney Community School, she’s a welcome face.
She’s met by squeals, hugs and eager eyes searching for the package of M&M cookies she almost certainly has with her.
Greta has been visiting the Minneapolis elementary school a couple of Wednesdays per month, and sometimes more, for several years. She regularly spends time in the third-grade classrooms, because she’s particularly drawn to that age group.
Becoming a regular presence for the students was important to Greta, who said it took a while to build up that level of familiarity and trust.
“Some of the kids are hard shells to break, to be honest with you,” Greta said. “They don’t trust everybody. They’ve had disappointment in their lives.”
Greta first started visiting Lucy Laney when her husband, Kevin, who was promoted to Vikings Chief Operating Officer in 2015, was made aware of a need affecting a large portion of the school’s population.
Some of the students attending Lucy Laney are currently facing – or at one point have faced – difficult circumstances that include broken families, foster parenting or homelessness. It came to the Warrens’ attention that many of the children were lacking basic toiletry needs.
Kevin and Greta responded by launching a backpack program in which they annually provide backpacks filled with school supplies to more than 900 students.
“Throughout the year, we make sure they’re also up to speed with inventory of their personal needs,” Greta said. “You just don’t think about the basics, sometimes, that they’re missing out on.
“They’re in classrooms with other kids, and it can directly affect how they see one another,” Greta added. “Kids can be cruel … and they feel inadequate if these things aren’t handled.”
Kevin and Greta also started an initiative at the beginning of the school year where young male students had the opportunity to get haircuts.
“There’s something about a haircut – a little boy, he feels brand new when gets a haircut,” Greta said. “That’s wonderful.”
Lucy Laney remains near and dear to Greta’s heart, but it isn’t the only program to which she gives back.
She and Kevin in 2014 partnered with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and donated $1 million to establish “Carolyn’s Comforts,” a children’s cancer emergency assistance fund designed to help families manage the difficulties that come with a cancer diagnosis.
The fund was established in honor of Kevin’s late sister, Carolyn Elaine Warren-Knox, who lost a valiant battle with brain cancer in October of 2014.
Greta said she’s grateful that families can access the donated funds at a moment’s notice, without having to go through any sort of questioning or application process.
The Warrens also host annual holiday meals at the hospital in November and December for hospital staff, patients and their families.
Greta admitted that it’s a difficult scenario for her to observe, although she’s passionate about serving the families through the dinners.
“I’m very sensitive about seeing children suffer. When I see them come downstairs and they might be hooked up to oxygen or medication, that’s hard for me,” Greta said. “It’s a very hard thing for me because I identify with, ‘That could have been me. That could have been our family.’ That’s just something that parents should never have to see, their child suffering.”
The hospital scene hits home for Greta, who is a mother herself.
She and Kevin are incredibly proud of their daughter, Peri, a sophomore at Occidental College in Los Angeles; and their son, Powers, a senior at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Greta explained that, while she is grateful for the opportunities her family has received through the Vikings and the lifestyle and platform from which they’ve been enabled to give back, it’s important to her that Peri and Powers understand the value of hard work and don’t take anything for granted.
“They have to work for what they want,” Greta said. “That means they have to have some sweat equity put into whatever it is that they want to do, and they have to keep their grades up.”
Hard work and education are two values equally emphasized within the Warren family. Greta and Kevin come from starkly different backgrounds; while Kevin’s family was well-educated – his father achieved his PhD, and his mother raised seven children in addition to earning her Master’s and working on her PhD – Greta had a much different experience.
Greta was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and at the age of 7 she watched her father break away from working three different jobs and start his own BBQ business. When the restaurant – Hayward’s Pit BBQ – took off, Greta’s father moved the family to Overland Park, a southern suburb of Kansas City.
“That was closer to where the restaurant was, so he was more accessible to us all,” Greta recalled. “He worked all day and up until maybe midnight, when he got home. Often times during the week, we wouldn’t see him until Friday evening when we went to be with him at the restaurant.
“So if we wanted to see him, it was pretty much at work,” Greta continued. “I started working when I was 7 years old, and I’m used to hard work. I’m used to hospitality and to restaurant management – I get that.”
Greta continued to work at the family restaurant, but her parents also placed a priority on the education that they hadn’t received. Greta went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism – with a minor in theater – at Kansas State University.
She was the first in her family to graduate from college.
Greta and Kevin met two years after she graduated from Kansas State, and it wasn’t long before they realized they wanted to be married. When Kevin accepted a job to work in Notre Dame’s law school, Greta accompanied him and decided to work toward her Master’s degree, as well.
The merit of a college education is something Greta has never belittled.
“Kevin was always a hard worker himself, and so was his family, but they had education also,” Greta said. “They weren’t necessarily having to lean completely on the labor end of it.”
It’s a message that serves as even more motivation for Greta to be involved at the elementary school level and support a population of Twin Cities students in whatever way she can.
The next time Greta walks down the hallway at Lucy Craft Laney, after she delivers Kleenex, soap and hand sanitizer for the students, she’ll find her way to the third-grade classrooms where she feels at home.
She’ll be greeted with the hugs and the “Hi, Ms. Gretas,” and she’ll settle in to help with reading, projects and homework assignments.
“Some kids don’t need any help, so I just kind of check in on them,” Greta said. “And then there’s one or two kids here and there [who need extra support] – so I can pretty much dedicate myself to them.”
Added Greta with a smile in her voice: “It’s nice to know you’re piercing that shell sometimes. Especially when it’s that kid that never looked at you when you came into the room, and now he doesn’t mind looking at you and calling you by name. That’s really nice.”