Pictured above: Dr. George North (top left), Suzanne Askelsen (top right) and Marlene Walthart.
The Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives of Iowa are driven by a commitment to community. To celebrate local volunteers, the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives launched the first-ever Shine the Light contest earlier this summer. Employees and member-consumers of Iowa’s locally owned electric cooperatives were invited to nominate someone who makes a positive difference in their community.
The judging committee had the difficult task of narrowing down from 39 outstanding nominees to select three contest winners.
Congratulations to Suzanne Askelsen who is recognized for her enthusiastic support of the Ballard Education Foundation; Marlene Walthart who is recognized for her dedication to the Emmet County Animal Shelter; and Dr. George North who is recognized for his vision in establishing Wilder Park. These three winners have been awarded a $1,500 donation to their charity or community organization of choice.
The following pages showcase and honor each of the Shine the Light contest winners’ commitment to humbly serving their communities. Learn more at www.IowaShineTheLight.com.
Suzanne Askelsen enthusiastically supports teachers and students
Ask anyone who knows Suzanne Askelsen to describe her, and you’ll hear things like, “She has a big heart!” and “She’s an inspiration!” delivered with a big smile.
Askelsen lives by the motto, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” She embodied this belief when launching an education foundation that helps students and teachers in the Ballard Community School District.
“My parents taught me to always lend a helping hand,” she says. “To me, life is about making a better place for everyone around you.”
Askelsen is the recipient of one of three Shine the Light awards sponsored by the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives of Iowa. The contest awards $1,500 to a non-profit organization of the recipient’s choice and Askelsen chose the Ballard Education Foundation.
Midland Power Cooperative member Carol Gilbert nominated Askelsen, who is a member of Consumers Energy. As Askelsen’s mother, Gilbert showed her daughter how giving time to her community can be a fulfilling and rewarding journey.
“I nominated Suzanne for this contest as a thank you to the person she is and how she lives her life,” Gilbert says. “It’s been wonderful to watch her grow into the young woman she is today. By her shining example, Suzanne lives out her personal belief daily in ‘doing what you can, with all you have, wherever you are.’”
In 2013, Ballard Superintendent Ottie Maxey first approached Askelsen about starting an education foundation. The foundation would supplement the school district’s budget for teacher resources. Askelsen agreed and her enthusiasm attracted other community members to get the foundation off the ground.
“Suzanne shows up and get things done,” Superintendent Maxey shares. “She was absolutely one of the key reasons why this foundation started.”
Officially established in February 2015, the Ballard Education Foundation partners with the school district, alumni, businesses and individuals to identify and meet the needs of Ballard students. Askelsen served as the organization’s first president from 2015-2019.
“She led us through those initial grassroots efforts,” says Sara Wilson, current president of the Ballard Education Foundation. “When I think about her leadership, I think about mobilizing community action and volunteers. She can connect the dots.”
As a Shine the Light contest winner, Askelsen has directed the money to fulfill grant requests from teachers for resources to enhance the curriculum. Bridget Itzen, CEO/general manager of Consumers Energy, presented the check to Askelsen and the foundation on Aug. 2.
“Consumers Energy is excited to recognize Suzanne’s volunteerism in the community,” Itzen says. “She has the values I think we all wish we had. Everyone needs a Suzanne in their life.”
For those wishing to get involved in their community but don’t have time to volunteer, Askelsen suggests monetary donations to a favorite charity or group can go a long way.
“I believe if you have time in your life to be part of something bigger than you, you will walk away with a full, warm heart and a smile on your face,” she says.
To learn more about the Ballard Education Foundation, visit ballardedfoundation.org.
Content contributed by Sarah Heggen, Central Iowa Power Cooperative.
Marlene Walthart shares her time and lifelong love of animals
If you ask Dawn Eveleth, there’s one person you go to in a pinch when you need a volunteer: her cousin Marlene Walthart.
“I’ve known her forever,” Eveleth says. “For as long as I can remember she’s been a volunteer. From the time she was a little kid, up until now, it’s kind of been her life. You can ask her anything and if she’s available to do it, she’s always willing for anyone or any animal.”
While Marlene is known to volunteer elsewhere in her Estherville community, she has been selected as a winner in the inaugural Shine the Light awards sponsored by the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives of Iowa for her work at the Emmet County Animal Shelter.
Kristy Henning founded the shelter in 2010. Right away, Marlene saw the shelter as just another way to help her community.
“I wanted to do something with my Girl Scouts to win the silver award badge,” Marlene says. “I got in touch with Kristy and started doing things around the shelter. It just went from there.”
Henning says she can’t count how many times she relied on Marlene and her husband Larry in those early days.
“I don’t even know where to start,” she says. “They are just invaluable to the shelter. Marlene and Larry were integral. They spent numerous hours here, I don’t even know how we would do that today.”
What motivates Marlene? It’s her lifelong love for animals.
“My husband and I believe I am part cat,” she says. “All my life I have wanted cats. My dad wanted dogs. I would bring a cat home, and they would say no. I would take it back and cry.”
Today, the shelter has grown from a predominately cat rescue to also include a dog section.
“We have the opportunity to save a lot of animals’ lives,” Marlene says. “We usually have around 100 cats. When I first got in touch with Kristy, she told me about some instances of animal cruelty that I was unaware of.”
For the Waltharts, volunteering goes far beyond just loving on animals. The duo set up a non-profit can redemption center adjacent to the shelter. The can redemption center serves as a funding vehicle for the shelter. Marlene takes care of office and bookwork, while Larry can be relied upon for handyman tasks.
As for how the shelter will use its $1,500 Shine the Light grant, Henning says expansion is always needed with the mission to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome the unwanted, unloved and the abandoned.
“The need for puppy rescue is overwhelming right now,” she says. “We’re going to put an outside run on the intake kennel. If we can run two groups of puppies at the same time, we can rescue more puppies.”
To learn more about the Emmet County Animal Shelter or to inquire about adopting a pet, visit emmetcountyanimalshelter.org.
Content contributed by Ryan Cornelius, Corn Belt Power Cooperative.
Dr. George North establishes a recreational destination for the community
If you drive east of Allison on Highway 3 and look north, you’ll find Wilder Park. Those who take the time to stop and drive through don’t soon forget it; at least that’s what Dr. George North hopes.
Selected as a winner of the Shine the Light awards sponsored by the Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives of Iowa, North had a vision for the park in the early 1990s. Today, that vision has become a reality. His idea began when the land the park now sits on was gifted from the original property owner.
“My early involvement was with the Boy Scouts, planting trees,” says North, who is a retired dentist. “We planted 250 to 300 trees.”
Today, the park is full of large, mature trees. It has turned into a recreational destination for people across Iowa, full of activities ranging from camping to fishing to frisbee golf.
Deb McWhirter nominated North for the Shine the Light contest. She says the growth of the park is due in large part to his commitment.
“It was a farm field. They have turned this into a destination for a lot of campers and people. It has developed over the years,” she says. “Dr. North has been the mastermind of the whole project. It takes a lot of volunteers and a person with a vision about what you want to have happen to the future of this park. He’s been instrumental in making a plan and following through, making sure things happen.”
It all started with getting his Boy Scouts involved with the environment by planting trees. According to North, who turns 92 this year, trees have been a metaphor for what having a vision means.
“Rarely when you plant trees do you get to see the result of that activity,” he says. “Trees don’t grow that fast. Fortunately, I’ve lived long enough to see the fruition of the vision. A lot of people have a very difficult time seeing down the road. Seeing what the possibilities are. Seeing what the positives are of having this type of facility.”
North knew he wanted more for the park and the area than just having trees.
“Our mission is to create an affordable recreational activity facility,” he says. “Except for renting an RV space, all our amenities are free. Everything is based on our mission – affordability. That’s caused our level of usage to go way up.”
Wilder Park also serves as one of the major outdoor classrooms in the state of Iowa. The park features more than 100 different tree species and is home to an uncommon species arboretum.
North says it’s all about giving back to the community. Something he has lived by in all his years.
“I think you’re obligated to give back,” he says. “Part of life’s responsibility is to pay it forward, give back to your community, do what you can to facilitate the growth and ambiance. To me, that’s just part of living.”
To learn more about the park, visit www.visitwilderpark.com. To reserve a camping spot or cabin, contact the Allison City Hall.
Content contributed by Ryan Cornelius, Corn Belt Power Cooperative.