We can’t always pick our callings, our duties and obligations. Yet for some in Iowa City, the needs of the community present an undeniable call to action. Individuals who lead not because they desire fame or glory, but because the community needs it—requires it—lest we suffer as a whole.
These figures are important. Not because they assist the area’s most privileged and capable, but because they have devoted their time to serving the area’s most vulnerable residents—those of us who need help the most, and need it desperately. Those who are unsure of where their next meal is coming from, which bills they might (or might not) be able to pay or where they might turn to for help.
These are the people who answer the phone—who assist our community’s most at-risk and vulnerable individuals when no one else will. They do it not for money, but because they feel they must. And in doing so, these leaders selflessly strive to make our community a better place, regardless of whether or not the public is aware.
They work for organizations full of talented individuals—like-minded confidants who’ve come from different paths, but find themselves in pursuit of a common goal. These are just a few of their stories.
Local resident Sara Langenberg anticipated that her decision to stay at home would mean more time with family and Facebook. Instead, it meant exactly $1.25 million for an Iowa City-based fundraising campaign.
Langenberg had decamped from long hours and late nights as a reporter, and most recently, her position as part-time assistant marketing director for the University of Iowa admissions department. She was settling comfortably into her couch, and her son’s teenage years, when the call came through.
An acquaintance thought her talent would be a good match for the 1105 Project—a collaboration between four human service agencies to renovate and move into vacant building space at 1105 S. Gilbert Ct.
The agencies needed assistance meeting their fundraising goal, and Langenberg needed a new challenge.
A few weeks later, she was at the helm, taking over as capital campaign chair and volunteering her time to re-brand and revitalize the project. She did her research, constructed a website, painstakingly designed marketing materials and encouraged donations.
“I’m very headstrong,” she explained. “Once I set my mind to something I work as hard as I need to get it done.”
For Langenberg and the organizations involved in the Project—the Free Lunch Program, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Crisis Center of Johnson County—“done” meant the $1.25 million it would take to make 1105 S. Gilbert Ct. a fully furnished and functional endeavor.
It seemed a lofty goal, but in the course of conducting research to re-brand the fundraising campaign, Langenberg’s attention shifted to the large groups of citizens who depended upon the agencies she was serving.
“I was shocked at the number of people I met living under bridges and in tents—some with masters degrees and Ph.D.’s—who really needed support and a free meal,” she said.
So Langenberg plunged deeper into her mission, and by April of this year, the 1105 Project managed to meet its goal of $1.25 million. She admits that her hard work and her thick skin were important when it came to hearing “no” from potential donors, but is tremendously thankful to all those who said “yes” in support of 1105.
“We held a benefit concert for 1105, and after the organist’s performance, we had a collection basket,” she recalled. “A sweet, elderly lady bent over and wrote a check for $12. I knew she was a senior who had a limited fixed income. That gift meant as much to me as $100,000.”
Langenberg was hooked. And though she was exhausted in the wake of the 1105 campaign, she couldn’t keep herself from taking on another … and another. This past summer, she helped introduce a free lunch program to North Liberty, creating an online presence, shopping for supplies, lining up menus and spreading the word through editorials. She knocked on doors for then mayoral candidate Amy Neilson and is currently working to establish a community garden.
“It’s a collective effort,” she said. “Some days I wish I had a paycheck, but the gratitude from people we’ve served is really enough.”
Growing up, Frederick Newell wanted to become a sports star or a musician. But those dreams quickly faded when the Chicago high school student discovered he was a soon-to-be father. The opportunities he had once envisioned for himself were seemingly replaced by formula, diapers and onesies.
Convinced that college would help secure a more stable future for his son, he enrolled at the University of Iowa. Once there, Newell worked hard to make a home and raise an infant, but was dismayed at the lack of available resources. “I couldn’t get food stamps or government assistance,” he said. “There was no support for single fathers.”
Each time Newell applied for aid—whether funding for childcare or money for formula—his pleas were met with skepticism. “I was always asked for documentation of custody, proof that my son was really my son,” he said.
Sans funding and a daycare provider, the young dad toted his son around campus, carrying him to every lecture. At best, it distracted Newell, and at worst, it invoked the ire of some professors. The once-stellar student, who graduated in the top three percent of his high school class, was fighting to maintain Ds and Cs.
“I struggled tremendously,” he said.
By the end of the academic year, Newell was prepared to withdraw from school. But before he did, a professor approached him and coaxed the young dad to consider a career in social work.
“I didn’t have the courage to drop her class after that,” Newell said. “She empowered me to continue and became a mother figure to me.”
Four years later, Newell earned his degree and went on to become a social worker assisting youth and families. But he was disappointed to find that many of the organizations with whom he interacted focused primarily on women and children.
“As a father, I always wondered why we weren’t engaging dads and asking them to be a part of the conversation,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to do that.”
The solution presented itself in 2012 when Newell piloted a summer program for youth. His goal was eight participants. By the end of the summer he had 68. The group was composed of fifth to eighth graders—“young men people had already given up on,” Newell says.
At the same time, he also started a support group for fathers, a place where men could gather to talk about what it meant to raise children on a daily basis. The first attempt didn’t go well. “Men thought I was trying to tell them they were bad parents,” he said. So Newell re-branded the fatherhood program as a brotherhood meeting, and soon gained a solid foothold in the community.
That foothold turned into the Dream Center, an Iowa City-based organization with a mission to “strengthen families, change lives and restore hope.” The Center—which operates largely through donations and volunteer support—now runs a wide variety of programming, including a performance arts academy for youth and a full-fledged fatherhood academy that provides counseling, training and resources to help dads become financially and emotionally involved parents, and also establish healthy relationships with the mothers of their respective children.
“We want to empower dad to empower mom. We want to connect with him and help him provide for his family,” sayid Newell.
It seems to be working. The Dream Center now boasts 10 fathers who have been granted full custody of their children after participating in the agency’s programs.
Newell credits success to the fact that his organization has never purported to have all the answers.
“Youth, dads and moms know what they need, and those are the individuals that help us put programs in place,” he said. “Everything we do is a partnership.”
These days, Newell estimates he puts in about 40 to 50 hours per week at the Dream Center, while maintaining full time employment as a social worker at youth service organization Four Oaks. And as if that weren’t enough, Newell is now a proud husband and father of five. He takes his children to the Center, where he hopes they will one day join other youth in seizing “opportunities to be productive individuals in our community.”
After finishing school, Karen Siler had no idea what the future might hold. But history degree in hand, she returned to her hometown of Waterloo, determined to find work. She was drawn to a women’s shelter by the promise of a paycheck and accepted a position assisting victims of domestic violence.
“Just until I could get a real job,” Siler explained.
Fortunately, for hundreds of victims and survivors, that “real job” never materialized. Instead, the recent graduate discovered she had an affinity for the non-profit industry and set upon a career path that would span more than two decades and several counties across Iowa.
A little over half of Siler’s professional life has been spent in Iowa City, where she currently serves as assistant director of the Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP)—an organization that provides counseling, advocacy and support services to victims of sexual abuse and their loved ones. She was appointed to the role in early 2013, and in the time since, Siler has helped the agency weather a host of both rewarding and strenuous transitions.
Her tenure has seen the retirement of RVAP’s longtime director, Karla Miller, and the concurrent expansion of the organization’s service area, which Siler notes more than doubled the number of crisis calls filtering into the office. RVAP hired several new employees—including executive director Jennifer Carlson earlier this year—as Siler buried herself in grant reports and spent long nights manning the agency’s sexual abuse hotlines. Siler’s mother passed away around this time, and a pipe that burst in the dead of winter uprooted her from her home. She says her “stress level was huge.”
“But I have such good people around me. My co-workers were incredibly supportive and understanding,” she said.
That support and understanding has allowed Siler to continue assisting the agency in expanding and improving services to rural communities, while counseling victims and survivors close to home—a role she has played with RVAP since 2003.
“It’s an honor to have a victim or survivor trust me with their story,” she said. “Being a part of their healing journey is incredible. I learn something from every person I come in contact with.”
But Siler also notes that the work can be hard. “It’s difficult to watch clients experience so much pain,” she said. “They look to you for answers, but there is no good explanation for why a person would choose to sexually assault someone.”
When the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) began meeting two years ago, organizers did not have a place to gather, and they used their cars as offices. Just two years later, the CWJ has an office in Iowa City and from where the nonprofit tirelessly advocates on behalf of low-income workers, fighting against wage theft and educating workers about their rights.
One of the original organizers, Mazahir Salih is now the vice president of CWJ. When she was 21, she moved to the United States from Sudan. Now she is the mother of five children and a student at Kirkwood Community College.
“Finding a job was hard from the beginning,” she said. “You have to work low income.”
She worked two shifts at separate McDonald’s restaurants, and this first-hand knowledge of hard work for low pay has made her a strong advocate for workers’ rights. “I learned a lot from the Center: how I have rights to speak in my workplace,” she said. Now Salih leads leadership training sessions for other immigrant workers.
CWJ goals for worker justice include the right to unionize, a livable wage and workplaces free of discrimination and racism. Protests and pressure from the CWJ was key to getting the $2,300 owed to a woman who had been denied her paycheck for 15 months after cleaning the kitchen of an Outback Steakhouse. She was finally paid this November.
“I feel it is good that we have organizations like this. We really help the community,” said Salih. “I got help from the center. I learned my rights. I couldn’t speak to the people with authority. Now I can speak up for my children and others.”
The group continues to grow and just announced the expansion of their Jobs with Dignity Campaign to the Quad-City area.
Adam Burke contributed to this report