The Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives of Iowa are driven by a commitment to community. To celebrate local volunteers, the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives held its second annual 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 selecting three contest winners from 68 outstanding nominees.
Congratulations to Deb Johnson, who is recognized for her enthusiastic support of the Greater Fairfield Area Habitat for Humanity; Sharon Van Beek, who is recognized for her generous commitment to Buckets of Joy; and Nicole Low, who is recognized for her vision in establishing Eldora’s Community Garden. These three winners have been awarded a $2,000 donation to their charity.
The following features showcase and honor each of the Shine the Light contest winners’ commitment to humbly serving their communities. Learn more at www.IowaShineTheLight.com.
GREATER FAIRFIELD AREA HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
Deb Johnson Assists Local Families with Stable Housing
At just 5 feet tall, Deb Johnson’s commitment to her community is anything but small. A lifelong resident of Fairfield in southeast Iowa, Johnson was nominated for the 2022 Shine the Light contest for her volunteer work with the Greater Fairfield Area Habitat for Humanity.
Johnson was nominated by her friend and fellow Habitat volunteer Kathy Brown.
“Deb has always been a voice for the less fortunate, helping the Habitat board be true to our mission of building safe and decent homes for families,” Brown says. “Her heart is filled with love and compassion for others, especially children.”
The two first worked together years ago when Brown was a schoolteacher and Johnson served as a social worker. A friendship soon blossomed, and their families grew up together.
Johnson serves on the local Habitat for Humanity board and volunteers as the homeowner support chair. She uses her social work experience to serve as a liaison between each Habitat partner family and the Habitat board during construction.
As a big believer in providing safe, stable housing for families, Johnson devotes many hours to coordinating work schedules and encouraging the construction team. A gifted cook, Johnson lifts the spirits of the Fairfield High School students working with Habitat by bringing cookies and treats on Fridays during builds.
“The students loved her and would cheer when she drove up at the end of the week. She quickly became known as the ‘Cookie Lady,’” Brown shares.
Johnson also serves on the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore board, which sells gently used furniture and furnishings that have been donated. Money made at the ReStore is then used to fund housing construction for the Greater Fairfield Area Habitat for Humanity.
“The most rewarding part of serving with Habitat for Humanity is when we dedicate the house to the partner family. It’s just wonderful,” says Johnson. “Habitat for Humanity gives families a hand up, not a handout.”
Brown says the $2,000 Shine the Light donation could likely be used to purchase tools volunteers can use for future construction projects. Brown also wants others to know that Johnson has a kind heart and is a compassionate person.
“She’s a goer and a giver in addition to being a devoted mother and grandmother. She certainly deserves this recognition,” says Brown.
When asked if she has words to live by, Johnson says volunteering and serving are important and rewarding.
“You get a lot more back than what you give. Growing up, my parents encouraged community service and involvement, so it has always been a part of my life to do things for other people,” Johnson shares.
Article contributed by Erin Campbell, Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.
Learn more about Deb in this short video: https://youtu.be/azUvL8aoJl4
BUCKETS OF JOY
Sharon Van Beek's Tradition Fills Hearts
The tradition of giving has been passed through the Van Beek family for generations. For 40 years, they have been filling “Buckets of Joy” for children to celebrate that tradition in the Christmas season.
When reading about the Shine the Light contest, North West Rural Electric Cooperative member Laura Leonard instantly thought of her mom Sharon Van Beek of Primghar. “She has selflessly done so much work for the program since she has taken it over and is always working hard to shop sales to find the best deals that can serve the most kids. She has put countless hours into the program; Sharon is one of the most selfless people I know.”
Sharon has been working with the program for over 30 years. Initially started by her in-laws, Chris and Verna Van Beek, the program began as a way to distribute government food commodities to families in need. Their experiences moved them to do something special for struggling families with young children. The Buckets of Joy project launched in 1982 when the couple filled 25 empty ice cream buckets with basic clothing and a toy for the children. The project quickly grew, and within five years, they were filling and distributing 10 times the number of buckets filled at the program’s beginning.
When health issues took a toll on the farming couple, Sharon and her husband Jon stepped up and committed to continuing the project. By this time, buckets had become bags, but the name and the gifts remained. Today, each sack is stuffed with a footed blanket sleeper or sweatshirt, socks, stocking cap, mittens, crackers, toothbrush, colors, coloring book and a book telling the Nativity story.
Although technically a Christmas project, work continues year-round. Sharon, a retired teacher and the program’s primary shopper, takes inventory each January and shops sales and special offers throughout the year for supplies.
Local churches, banks and individuals answer the call to help buy needed supplies. “Each bucket averages about $40, and that’s with finding things on sale,” explains Sharon. “Annually, we fill 150-250 buckets depending on the need.”
Buckets of Joy are distributed to children ages 0-5 through the WIC program and, more recently, through Upper Des Moines and the Department of Human Services, as well as Head Start programs in O’Brien County. Buckets help to bring a joyous Christmas for the children receiving the gifts. There is also a special feeling of happiness for Sharon, Jon and all those assisting with the project, knowing they have helped make someone else’s Christmas a bit brighter.
Article contributed by Emily Vander Velde from North West Rural Electric Cooperative.
Learn more about Sharon in this short video: https://youtu.be/nED_QWKZncY
ELDORA’S COMMUNITY GARDEN
Nicole Low is Rooted in Growing for Good
If you make your way to Eldora’s Community Garden, you’ll likely spot Nicole Low pulling weeds, harvesting vegetables or hosting a culinary event. Low, an Eldora resident and registered nurse, isn’t one to let a need go unnoticed. In 2019, she saw a need in her community and went to work.
“My friend and I started eating more healthy and growing food in our backyards,” she says. “We thought it would be more fun to do it with the community. As a nurse, I have a strong passion for public health. I know it’s hard for people who struggle financially to pay for fruits and vegetables. I just thought we live on some of the most fertile Iowa soil, and why not use that to grow food for our neighbors?”
Low’s passion for eating healthy and observations of local food insecurity gave rise to Eldora’s Community Garden, an ambitious project Low took head-on.
“This is our fourth full year,” she says. “The first year had its challenges as we had to amend the soil and turn it from a hayfield into a garden, but it’s going really great now. Our motto is: Take what you need and give what you can, very much in solidarity with our community, rather than just charity.”
The garden, located at 787 4th Street in Eldora, encompasses two-thirds of an acre. It is predominately a donation garden but also offers leased plots for community members. In 2021, the garden yielded more than 9,000 pounds of produce, which was donated to the local food pantry.
“I definitely couldn’t do this alone,” says Low. “It’s been a true community effort. Many volunteers have no personal or vested interest in the garden for their own food. It’s just to help the community and the mission of the garden.”
Paul Lawler, a Midland Power Cooperative member, garden volunteer and one of Low’s nominators, watched her grow this dream into a reality.
“I don’t know where to start,” he says. “She has been so involved with the Eldora community. She’s taken the lead and said, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ She doesn’t give up until it’s all done, and when it’s all done, she will start all over again. She’s just a fabulous person and very energetic. She is go, go, go.”
Rebekah Cullinan, another of Low’s nominators, says if it weren’t for the garden, she might not have moved to Eldora from Des Moines. Cullinan explains, “Nicole’s role in building this community garden came from a passion for healthier food, the mitigation of food poverty, a place where children could come, a place she could come. The garden is her happy place.”
As for what the garden will do with its $2,000 prize, Low says it’s time to purchase a lawnmower and a few additions for the garden.
“We’re also hoping to get a fire pit out here for when we have community events and picnic meals. It would be fun to have a bonfire going, let the kids make some s’mores,” she says.
Article contributed by Ryan Cornelius, Corn Belt Power Cooperative.
Learn more about Nicole in this short video: https://youtu.be/rUHu_OGdR5k