People Making a Difference12/17/2014
There are two primary aspects to any non-profit organization or social program: the money, and the work.
Most of the former comes in through donations from private donors, businesses and charitable trusts. It’s the side of things that gets all the press. Organizations will mention how much money they raised as a show of how successful they’ve been. In the (increasingly rare) instances where non-profit work makes the news, it’s usually to mention how large of a check someone wrote, or how much cash a newly dead person granted to some organization. You rarely, if ever, get to hear about the people who actually put that money to work helping others. It’s a sad irony, really: it’s the work that builds a community center, but it’s the money that gets to name it.
Every day, hundreds of people leave their comfy homes and set out to spend a couple hours doing something for other people. Maybe it’s an evening in a soup kitchen, or a couple hours counting donations, or an evening collecting clothes. None of them do it for recognition, of course, and none of them are getting paid. But each one, in a hundred different ways, is making a real, lasting impact upon the lives of Des Moines’ less fortunate — our poor, our homeless, our elderly and our physically and mentally disadvantaged.
Christmas is coming up, and rates of volunteerism usually skyrocket around this time, only to wane again come January. But for many of our citizens, the soup kitchens and shelters and homeless camps aren’t just places for tourist altruism. These are the people who dedicate years of their lives to making others feel a little more whole. We can’t possibly thank them all. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start.
DMARC Food Pantry
Over the course of the past decade, Bob Schulte has become something of a jack-of-all-trades for the
good folks over at Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC). After starting out sorting food at one food pantry location, he’s moved through a variety of positions as the organization has grown and is now capable of doing just about whatever needs to be done.
“He’s a loyal, consistent volunteer,” Said Becky Whitlow, DMARC food pantry Network Director. “He’s brought other volunteers in to work and he’s in here every Tuesday. He’s done food sorting, he picks up donated bread from grocery stores, he’s wherever we need.”
For Schulte, who had a good career with General Motors, volunteering some of his spare time after he retired seemed like a natural decision — and an obvious one.
“I just needed to pay back,” he said simply. “One of the areas I always had concern for was for people that were hungry. When I first started (with DMARC), I used to sort food. From there, I helped deliver to their outlets.”
“I also was on the board for the Red Barrel (program) for five years,” he continued, referring to the initiative that puts the big food collection barrels at the front of local grocery stores. “I still pick up at two stores.”
For Whitlow, having someone who’s so willing and able to fill in where help is needed is an invaluable resource, both in terms of the man-hours he provides and in the emotional boost.
“It helps the morale of my staff,” she agreed. “Because we know we have someone who will just jump in and do the job. Volunteers have a tendency to come and go. We appreciate all our volunteers, but having someone who you don’t have to train is a great stress reliever when we’re short staffed.”
It’s a service that Schulte is happy to provide, but one that he remains humble about.
“I think it’s a moral obligation for those of us who are better off to help those who aren’t,” he said. “I don’t know how far I can go to fulfilling that, but I think it’s up to all of us to try.”
Iowa Homeless Youth Centers
Most of the time, volunteering is about getting the grunt work done. Lifting that barge, toting that bale.
It’s invaluable work virtually no charity organization could survive without. The daily toil of easing the burden on a city’s less fortunate is something that no non-profit organization can muster with the relatively meager man-hours available to a paid staff.
But there’s another layer to social work. The wars against things like poverty and hunger are won just like any physical war: through hearts and minds. To that end, there’s an important role to be played through just letting those who are homeless or impoverished know that they’re still human. There are few things in life that can duplicate the comfort provided by a restoring a little dignity. That is perhaps the most valuable service that Julie Headley provides.
“She comes in every year and decorates our space for the holidays,” said Outreach Coordinator Jess Jasurda. “It’s crazy to see the reactions of all the people who come into the space and see the space decorated up for Christmas. It really helps bolster their mood, to come in and see that people care about them and are thinking of them during the holidays.”
“I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me,” Headley said. “Sometimes I get challenged with ‘why do you do this?’ It’s a hard group of people to work with, but they ARE people. They should be dealt with dignity. That’s how I’ve always looked at it.”
That dignity carries on beyond simple day-to-day interactions or the occasional holiday decoration.
“She helped coordinate a memorial for someone who was living outside and passed away recently,” Jasurda said. “A lot of time homeless people will die and nobody does anything to remember them or their lives. So Julie puts that together.”
There’s a pastor from Zion Church who officiates the services, and Mercy Hospital gives Headley use of a chapel. From there, she writes a short memorial and gathers people who knew the deceased. It’s just another way for Headley to let people know they matter.
“They’re humans and they pass away, and it’s like they didn’t exist,” she said, the emotion catching in her throat. “But they did.”
Everyone who volunteers has a different reason for doing so. Maybe it just makes them feel good, or they have a desire to see their city “cleaned up” or, for some, maybe it’s state-mandated community service. But Headley’s reasons are as simple and altruistic as they come.
“I’m a woman of faith,” she explained. “I’m a Christian. I always believe that if we can save just one person, well, that’s a success.’ ”
“If it was easy to do, we’d have more (people) out there doing it,” she continued. “But me, I’m just going to keep plugging away.”
When talking about the causes for which most people volunteer — hunger, poverty, homelessness — it
can be easy to think of volunteerism as a strictly inner-city endeavor. But for Cindy Walker, community involvement should happen no matter where your community is located.
“I’m a board member of U-CAN (Urbandale Community Action Network),” Walker said. “I also serve on the Neighborhood Committee, serve as a driver for Caring Corps, and I volunteer as a crossing guard.”
As with Schulte, Walker’s volunteering really kicked into gear once she had retired. After having made a comfortable life for herself, she looks upon it as both an obligation and a privilege to be able to help make the lives of others a little more comfortable along the way.
The program through which she donates most of her efforts — U-CAN’s Caring Corps — has a number of programs dedicated to enriching Urbandale communities, including after-school programs for children, assisting with minor home repairs and community clean ups, and in transportation of the elderly and disabled — a program for which Walker serves as a driver.
“It’s (about) getting involved in the community,” she said. She sees her community involvement as a way to offer assistance to those who need it, while hopefully teaching the coming generations lessons in kindness through kindness.
“For me, it’s giving back or paying forward,” she explained. “I’m at the point in my life when I’m retired and I can give back and help make a difference in the community with people who need it.”
Walker’s message to others looking to volunteer is simple: start with your own backyard, wherever that may be.
“We think that because we live in the suburbs that everyone’s fine, but that’s not the way it is,” she said. “I love being able to help improve the quality of life for people around me.”
Central Iowa Shelter
Large corporations often have charitable outreach programs that go underutilized. Often, all it takes is
the work of a dedicated employee to marshal the available resources together and point them in the right direction. For the past 25 years, that’s just what Tracy Rood has done.
“We’re so grateful to have her as a part of our efforts,” said Central Iowa Shelter’s Todd Vance. “She’s helped corral a team of city leaders to constantly address our needs. Every year, Tracy likes to come to us and say ‘what’s something that you need that we can help take care of”. She’s been instrumental in helping us meet the needs that are necessary but that might not be immediately vital.”
What started a quarter century ago as a team-building exercise at Pioneer has now grown into a series of projects that Rood takes personal pride in helping bring to fruition every year. Many of the things that Rood has helped enact at the Shelter have been projects that won’t make for sexy headlines but that improve the conditions for everyone who uses the Shelter services.
“I think of her as a fabulous resource,” said Shelter board member Judy Anderson. “Over the years, she has been my go-to person, if I’ve ever needed anything.”
Through Rood’s diligence, Pioneer and its individual employees have become indispensable allies for Central Iowa Shelter. Rood was the driving force behind the development of Pioneer’s HAT (Homeless Assistance Team), and she’s coordinated employee efforts that have resulted in the purchasing of personal storage lockers and window blinds for the Shelter residence, as well as improvements to the grounds, such as the Shelter’s new raised garden beds.
“One year, (she) raised money for steps and a railing (to the shelter entrance), which changed people’s lives,” Anderson said. “Things that ordinary people just wouldn’t think about, unless they could see for themselves. All of this was possible because she was actually at the shelter.”
“It’s been my continued passion that’s kept it going,” Rood said of HAT, “because it’s not an official Pioneer project. (But) part of Pioneer’s mission is to feed the world, and this is a very tangible way of doing that.”
“Part of it is my general life philosophy,” she continued. “I feel like people who have more than they need should share with those who have less than they need. I feel especially strong about our Des Moines community. I think we have an important obligation to come together and help one another.”
And as far as the good folks at Central Iowa Shelter are concerned, Rood has been the shining example of practicing what you preach.
“If you ask me,” Anderson said, “(the shelter) should have a plaque for Tracy Rood all over it.”
Girls Rock! Des Moines
Social outreach covers more than just helping people who’ve fallen upon hard times. Much of the hardest work is preventative. For years, Rae Fehring has been passionate about the cause of equality.
She makes little distinction: Why just fight for gender equality or sexual equality or fiscal equality, when just the one word — equal — should cover us all.
To that end, Fehring has served on the board of directors of the Iowa Pride Network; she’s been a loud and vocal champion of marriage equality; and, starting three years ago, she’s made it her personal undertaking to show young girls the inherent, glorious value in being themselves.
Girls Rock is a summer music program designed to teach girls aged 9-14 the basics of music, while at the same time teaching teamwork, self confidence, and all the while showing them that being “a girl” is not definitively, inherently limiting.
“It gives them the opportunity to see women actually doing some of the things that they might dream of doing themselves someday,” Fehring said of the camp. “Do you want to play the drums or play the bass, which are not generally considered ‘girl instruments’? We show you that you can do that.”
What started three years ago as an idea and a two-week camp with 30 girls has now grown into a full-time organization. Girls Rock has expanded to two camp sessions over the summer and, through a partnership with the Des Moines Social Club, is now adding courses for teens and adults.
Fehring engages the community from two different directions with Girls Rock: Camp attendees are instilled with the self-worth that will embolden them as they grow, and established women musicians and technicians are given the opportunity to pay their experience forward through volunteering with the program.
“There are so many ways that we have women volunteers,” Fehring explained. “The most obvious way is as instructors; we have all-volunteer instructors. Not only from the Des Moines area, but touring musicians from all over who have come in for anywhere from a couple days to the full two weeks. But the really cool thing, I think, is the performances over the lunch break. Every day we have our girls experiencing these lunchtime concerts by different female musicians. It not only exposes them to new kinds of music, but it provides them with visual proof that they can do these things.”
It’s been a long road for Fehring with lots of sleepless nights and meetings looking for the next sponsorship or donation. Earlier this year, in what she describes as a mutual decision to part, Fehring left her day job and has now made Girls Rock her full-time passion and endeavor. Looking at the girls and young women whose lives she’s touched; looking at the project she’s grown from a thought into a full-fledged legacy, she’s proud. And she sees where the future leads.
“As a mother of a daughter, I look at our community and the direction it’s going,” she said. “I think (Girls Rock) is a really unique way not only to make Des Moines interesting and creative, but as a way to have our youngest citizens — our youngest community members — involved in making it that way. It’s a great opportunity for this organization — I can call it that now; ‘this organization’ — to make a real impact on the lives of our youngest members.” CV