In the past, our photo issue has tended to tell the stories of CEOs and other leaders behind the scenes. With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc around the world in 2020, we felt it was important to go in a different direction and highlight the workers who are on the front lines. 


The term “essential worker” has become a notation to signify the jobs where it simply isn’t possible to work from home. It’s work that keeps our economy and communities going when many have the privilege to stay home, out of harm’s way. But pandemics aside, the workforce who provides and serves each of us day in and day out has always been essential. Now, we just see that more. This issue celebrates those workers, who are also partners, parents, grandparents, children, neighbors and friends. We thank you for your dedication.


These excerpts highlight just some of the many essential workers in our state and were selected from nominations that we asked our audience to contribute. 

– Emily Barske, associate editor 



Agriculture & environment


Iowa egg farmers

This submission was written on behalf of the industry as a whole. The nominator wrote: “Egg farm workers ensure the hens are cared for (fed, watered, health is monitored). They work to ensure eggs are collected, cleaned, packaged and delivered each day so consumers can enjoy eggs each and every day. … Egg farm workers dedicate countless hours to provide a wholesome and nutritious product to consumers. Iowa egg farmers employ approximately 2,400 workers, producing about 16 billion eggs each year, and having more than $2.6 billion in total economic effect on the Iowa economy. Egg farmers are also giving back to their communities and across the state. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, egg farmers were donating 35,000 dozen eggs per month to food banks and pantries across Iowa, and since the start of the pandemic donations have exceeded 45,000 dozen each month to those in need.”


Des Moines Water Works

This nomination was on behalf of the entire staff at Des Moines Water Works. The nominator wrote: “Des Moines Water Works was one of the first water utilities in America to begin sequestering critical staff at its water treatment plant as part of a response plan to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure a continuous supply of safe and reliable water to serve 500,000 Central Iowa customers. Beginning in late March, Des Moines Water Works sequestered employees at each of our three water treatment plants for two weeks at time. The critical staff included operations, maintenance, repair, controls, supervision and regulatory compliance employees. The time spent sequestering employees allowed staff to work through logistics to reopen the water treatment plant and keep various teams separated, especially the plant operators. 


“Other staff who were not sequestered were relocated to adhere to social distance guidelines and began working in non-traditional work areas. Customer service continued to serve customers, including working with customers on pay arrangements due to financial hardship.  Field crews continued maintaining and repairing the infrastructure that supports the water system, including responding to main breaks and planned improvement projects.


“The availability of safe water supply is critically important to the public health of our community. Water supports health care professionals and many essential businesses during the pandemic. And proper hand-washing is an important step in curbing community spread of diseases and viruses.”


Health care & assisted living


MercyOne

Several MercyOne staff members were nominated – these are excerpts about each. 

“At MercyOne Central Iowa, Chief of Medical Informatics Dr. Joel Ward led the creation of virtual care platforms which allowed telehealth care rounding within MercyOne Des Moines and West Des Moines medical centers for COVID-19 patients. Dr. Ward also helped establish telehealth for virtual patient appointments with physicians at MercyOne Medical Group – Central Iowa clinics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, patients were able to receive care without leaving home. … Time was of the essence as Dr. Ward and a team of clinical and information technology colleagues put the hospital system together. In early March, work was started. The system was operational in eight days. Dr. Ward used his specialized information technology and clinical experience to establish virtual rounding capability in critical care units established to treat COVID-19 patients.”

“Critical Care medicine has always been Julie Tuel’s passion. From nurse, to unit director, to market director of critical care units at MercyOne Des Moines and West Des Moines medical centers and MercyOne Children’s Hospital, Julie knows what it takes to provide patients with an opportunity to recover. ... As a member of nursing leadership, Julie and her colleagues studied and reviewed options in case MercyOne Des Moines and West Des Moines saw a significant volume of patients. ... She also prepared her nurses and colleagues for the care that was ahead. For initial staffing, Julie asked for nurses and staff to volunteer to work 12-hour shifts — dressed in full PPE designed to protect them as front-line care providers. The work could be intense and patient outcomes would be uncertain. Fifty clinical colleagues stepped up to the challenge. … Nursing leaders weren’t surprised by the staffing response. They shared that Julie creates an environment of support and perseverance for her critical care delivery teams. … When the first cases appeared in Iowa, Julie led MercyOne colleagues in converting the designated care space. In 24 hours, the main surgery recovery unit was converted into a functioning intensive care. This provided ample space which allowed the providing of innovative care, including the delivery of convalescent blood plasma therapy. Meanwhile, designated neuro and trauma intensive care unit beds remained available and were used for other patients who needed them. If the need for additional COVID-19 care arose, Julie and her colleagues had  identified additional space. The intensive care and flex unit of MercyOne Children’s Hospital was prepared in advance with beds and technology. Those beds have been needed for COVID-19 care. Children who required hospitalization did not lose access to pediatric or critical care beds elsewhere in the Children’s Hospital.”

“Sam Ayres is a longtime member of the MercyOne Central Iowa Family. Following years of leadership at MercyOne Iowa Heart Center, Sam now serves as the MercyOne Medical Group – Central Iowa’s vice president of operations. … Sam has led MercyOne Medical Group – Central Iowa’s efforts to develop best practices for prevention of COVID-19 exposure in a clinic setting. Sam was instrumental in assessing the risk of COVID-19 exposure and reducing that potential through testing. He met daily with hospital and medical group leaders to maintain safety standards for patients and staff. ... Sam proactively led an initiative to direct our MercyOne patients to a dedicated MercyOne Des Moines based COVID-19 testing location. Locating a Fever and Upper Respiratory Infection (FURI) Clinic in our East Village clinic location provided a dedicated site to route our patients showing COVID-19 symptoms to. … The expanded presence of COVID-19 in Central Iowa led to pop-up testing initiatives like composite wind blade manufacturer TPI Composites Inc. in Newton offering COVID-19 testing for all of their employees. Sam organized testing site logistics, assured proper staffing, implemented safety procedures and obtained testing materials. In two days, 892 employees were tested — providing employees with some peace of mind. … In an effort to further enhance COVID-19 testing, Sam played an active role in work with Corteva Agriscience to develop a testing process that would provide more rapid results.”

“Dr. Aneesa Afroze serves MercyOne Des Moines and MercyOne West Des Moines medical centers as chief of staff for physicians. As an epidemiologist, Dr. Afroze helps lead the clinical care of Central Iowans during the COVID-19 pandemic. … Her knowledge of research studies underway, or being considered, has led to MercyOne Des Moines and West Des Moines becoming involved in national research trials. This has led to the development of dynamic care processes — including the use of existing medications or evolving care processes — to provide relief or an opportunity for recovery for COVID-19. Dr. Afroze leads MercyOne Des Moines and MercyOne West Des Moines’ involvement in the Mayo Clinic experimental convalescent blood plasma program. In collaboration with LifeServe Blood Center, donated blood plasma containing antibodies from COVID-19 patients who have recovered is transfused into select patients. Some patients have experienced an improvement in their COVID-19 symptoms. Dr. Afroze has been instrumental in acquiring access to the limited supply of the drug Remdesivir. The medication is being studied in Iowa and internationally for COVID-19 care. Early results have included reduced lengths of hospitalization for some COVID-19 patients. Dr. Afroze recently developed clinical guidelines for the use of Rheumatoid Arthritis medications known as IL-6 inhibitors in COVID-19 care. IL-6 inhibitors are used to reduce inflammation in the body for arthritis patients. Inflammation has also appeared with some cases of COVID-19. The medication is being trialed to see if it can provide inflammation relief for COVID-19 patients.”

“Dr. Ravi Vemuri serves MercyOne Des Moines and MercyOne West Des Moines as the chief infection prevention officer. In this role, Dr. Vemuri is continually monitoring current and emerging diseases to develop care processes and plans to allow MercyOne to provide safe, high-quality care. Dr. Vemuri had been studying and monitoring the novel coronavirus before it appeared in the United States. With its arrival in Iowa, MercyOne Des Moines and West Des Moines were prepared for the challenges ahead. … Dr. Vemuri determines the most effective use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and development of isolation precautions and protocols to provide the best protection for colleagues and patients receiving care. As an epidemiologist, Dr. Vemuri uses data, and his professional experience at MercyOne, gained by managing local preparations and protocols to be deployed against the Ebola virus several years earlier, to develop recommendations for efficient and effective management of COVID-19 patients. Dr. Vemuri works collaboratively with both outpatient and inpatient care teams to address questions and concerns 24/7. You can also find Dr. Vemuri at the bedside — consulting and providing care. … During this pandemic, when he is not at the hospital, he is involved in efforts to educate people about ways to reduce their risk of contracting the virus. Dr. Vemuri has been involved in town hall meetings, podcasts and local news stories to share information.”

Calvin Community

Butoto Nyansingizwa is a certified nursing assistant at the Calvin Community. Her nominator wrote: “Nyansingizwa is an outstanding example of how essential a CNA is to health care and the people they serve. Butoto not only provides care to her residents but she cares about them. The joy that she brings with her to work every day is felt by all. COVID-19 has been especially challenging for long-term care. Butoto has stepped up to that challenge. She has picked up extra shifts, worked longer hours, and faced the possibility of being exposed to COVID-19 all while maintaining the same dedication and joy that she has in the past. …


“Butoto came to the U.S. in 2016. She was born in the Congo in Central Africa. Butoto and her family were later living at a refugee camp in Rwanda. They were chosen from the camp for an interview to come to the U.S. They were accepted and a new journey began. They first lived in Buffalo, New York, and from there she lived in Maine, Seattle and then Iowa in 2018. Butoto went through Job Corps for high school and also received training to become a certified nursing assistant. Calvin Community is her first job as a CNA and she has been a dedicated employee ever since. She is a self-motivated worker and essential to our team.”  


ChildServe

Megan Nikolish and Marie Porter supervise the care, staffing and business aspects in ChildServe's inpatient programs, the nominator wrote. They continued: “Megan and Marie provided oversight of clinical operations for nearly 200 staff members and over 60 fragile children during a worldwide pandemic with extreme success. … Over the last few months Marie and Megan have excelled. What we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in health care and specifically in long-term care is tragic. Megan and Marie have led the charge to keep ChildServe’s inpatient units as the outlier, making us one of a select few organizations who have maintained not only the health of the people served, but also the morale and engagement of the team. Their creative ways of keeping the focus on the children and staff through massive and constant change have been remarkable. Programs have been implemented that focus on the personal lives of our team members, including what they love outside of work as well as what they love about working at ChildServe. Things as subtle as daily “sunshine announcements” or music in the halls, to organizationally significant transitions such as developing a separate pediatric long-term care setting in an unused space in our facility so that more of the children we serve could have private rooms to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19 – all of this is a direct result of Megan and Marie's creativity and dedication. ... Megan and Marie have the uncanny ability to meld superior management skills, creativity and the relentless pursuit of clinical excellence to produce what we see today – high engagement, superior clinical outcomes and turnover that is nearly nonexistent.” 


EveryStep

Becky Borgman is a Nurse-Family Partnership registered nurse at EveryStep. The nominator wrote: “In her nurse role, Becky provides vital education and support to new and expectant mothers served by EveryStep -- a task made even more critical during this time of unpredictability for new parents. … When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Becky knew she wanted to continue serving her clients any way she could. The Nurse-Family Partnership program -- like many programs at EveryStep -- had to adapt many of its supportive services to clients via virtual formats, such as Microsoft Teams. Because it's such an unsure time for a lot of people, Becky and her fellow nurses are hoping to be a beacon of stability for clients. Becky says she's noticed that with the situation surrounding COVID-19, many moms may not be receiving the education they normally would at their regular doctor appointments. …


“Recently, Becky helped a young mom with a live-in family member who was diagnosed with COVID-19. The family immediately went into quarantine, but they were unprepared for the situation. ‘She said they didn't have enough food or diapers,’ Becky recalls. ‘We were able to reach out to community resources and [EveryStep's] Stork's Nest for those needs.’


“The ability to educate and empower new and expecting moms has been a highlight for Becky. She is a big believer in ‘knowledge is power,’ and in giving moms educational tools to use and learn to advocate for themselves; she is also helping them grow in their self-confidence.”


Primary Health Care

Katy Meyer is a physician assistant at Primary Health Care. The nominator wrote: “Katy provides general medical care for patients of all ages. PHC cares for the underserved and vulnerable people living in our community. … As the pandemic progressed, it became clear that we needed to take special infection control precautions to keep our staff and patients safe. We quickly stood up a drive-through respiratory clinic, where we directed patients with respiratory symptoms. This allowed us to provide an assessment of potential COVID-19 patients, test them if they met criteria and help alleviate some of the risk and concern of these patients infecting others.

“Katy took the lead at the respiratory clinic and has been staffing it for the last 10 weeks. She has worked in the cold, wind, rain and now even the heat, in full PPE. She has exemplified our values of providing access, respect and excellence to our patients and community.


“Katy is married with young children. We know that working in health care during a pandemic has been stressful, both personally and professionally. We are deeply appreciative of her dedication and resolve.”


Medicap Pharmacy

Jerome Bukstein is a Medicap Pharmacy pharmacist serving the community of Grimes – the pharmacy provides delivery to those in the city and surrounding communities such as Polk City and Granger. The nominator wrote: “Jerome and his staff remained open during the pandemic to serve patients. Although an ‘open’ front door wasn't an option, patients were able to utilize the drive-thru and curbside for service. Medicap has always offered free delivery, but having it available during this time was even more valuable. Thanks to the partnership of VW of Des Moines, they provided a sanitized delivery car to the pharmacy so patients could continue to have their medications delivered to their homes. … 


“He is committed to his patients and their health. At the time of crisis, patients still had Jerome and his staff to rely on and help offer medication advice and just to know that they will always be there.


“The donation of delivery cars by VW of Des Moines was also a gift to the Beaverdale Medicap as well as the Altoona Medicap.”


Deerfield Retirement Community

This nomination was written on behalf of the entire staff. The nominator wrote: “These people take care of the many seniors who live in the advanced care facilities Deerfield Community. They define caregivers. They show up every shift, 24/7, and give special attention to those seniors whose families are unable to visit them, and they do it with smiles and joy in their service. Heroes! All of them.”


Home Intentions

Lee Welch is a mental health case worker at Home intentions. The nominator wrote: “Lee Welch is a hero traveling around the city helping individuals who suffer from mental illness. He takes them for appointments, to apply for services and checks on their safety and well-being. … Lee Welch [is] an amazing human being with a deep sense of dedication to those suffering from mental illness. He has a tough job and does it with a smile upon his face.”


On With Life

Shawna Swain is a physician’s assistant at On With Life. The nominator wrote: “Shawna has been an influential force within the inpatient department since joining On With Life more than a year ago and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. On With Life experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in its inpatient facility from early April through mid-May, and the positive outcomes we saw were in large part due to the guidance and expertise Shawna provided during this period. During the outbreak Shawna worked tirelessly with persons served, families and staff to contain the virus, eliminate its spread and provide outstanding medical care to persons served. Despite the stress inherent in the situation, Shawna’s poise and professionalism were a calming influence to those around her and provided a sense of security within the uncertainty of the outbreak. Shawna worked on the front lines of the outbreak night and day to ensure the best possible outcomes for our persons served. She is one of the many front-line heroes who goes above and beyond to care for On With Life’s people despite the inherent risks. 


“On With Life was among the first long-term facilities to experience an outbreak and was the first long-term facility to recover. Our organization was an inspiration to others going through the pandemic as they reached out to learn from us and our front-line staff like Shawna.”



NuCara Pharmacy

Robbie Schwenker is the pharmacist in charge of the Coralville NuCara Pharmacy. The nominator wrote: “During COVID-19, Robbie worked with his staff to continue to coordinate prescriptions and services to patients. Despite the pharmacy doors being closed, the staff offered convenient curbside delivery, free mailouts and delivery to the area to ensure patients still received their medications. In addition to serving his patients, Robbie took the task of caring further into the community by launching Mask of Wellness, a positive empowering approach that promotes responsible behavior that is necessary to keep society open during this pandemic while benefiting wellness.”


UnityPoint Health-Des Moines

Julie Jackson, the respiratory care services manager, and the UnityPoint Health-Des Moines respiratory therapists were jointly nominated. The nominator wrote: “Respiratory therapists are responsible for the management and care of patients with cardiopulmonary diseases (i.e., COPD, asthma, adult respiratory distress syndrome, chronic heart failure, heart disease, influenza, COVID-19, chest trauma, rib fractures, etc.). This management includes providing care to people that range from premature babies to adults. They are often needing medications and airway clearance to help facilitate keeping their lungs healthy. Respiratory therapists are responsible for managing patients on ventilators and oxygen support devices. 


“As the manager for respiratory care and extracorporeal life support services at UnityPoint Health – Des Moines, Julie is responsible for providing the tools and resources needed for our teams to provide excellent care to people that need our services. As a leader, Julie works hard to create a multidisciplinary team approach to caring for the people we serve. …


“Respiratory therapists have been an integral part of the multidisciplinary team, especially with COVID-19 disease. They are working very hard to keep patients off the ventilator by using a Nasal High Flow system. For people that end up on the ventilator, the respiratory therapist is the one who will help manage the ventilators.


“Respiratory therapists are unsung heroes of medicine. Most people don’t even know that our profession exists, but without respiratory therapists managing the needs of people with cardiopulmonary disease on complex therapies and equipment, more people would likely not be able to survive. They have been the heroes of COVID-19. Showing up for our patients and guiding them through COVID-19 is a promise we will continue to make.”


Mill Pond Senior Living

Monica Simpson is the charge nurse at Mill Pond Senior Living. The nominator wrote: “Care providers are required 24 hours a day to oversee care, medications, rehabilitation and personal needs of residents and patients. Monica and her team worked tirelessly to serve their patients throughout their isolation. The community is known for its strong infection control.”



Manufacturing & skilled trades


Cemen Tech

Tyler Iversen, a service technician at Cemen Tech, traveled into multiple areas of the country, many deemed “hot spots,” to serve customers that were providing essential services, the nominator wrote. “Many of Cemen Tech’s customers were deemed essential throughout the country. With our equipment integral to infrastructure projects and road repairs, it became a necessity that Cemen Tech could still travel to customer locations and train them on their new equipment. … He is a former paramedic and knows the ins and outs of personal protection.  That history provided him a stable approach while many in the country were fear-stricken over the pandemic.”


Alliant Energy

Mark Ott is a gas mechanic for Alliant Energy out of the Carroll, Iowa, Operating Center. The nominator wrote: “He performs necessary maintenance and repairs to keep the gas flowing for our Iowa customers. Like all of our gas mechanics, he also responds to calls for gas leaks and other gas emergencies. … To trace gas leak calls, that means going into homes with equipment that can detect leaks. We added safety precautions to protect our customers and co-workers so we can safely do this work during the pandemic.


“Mark was one of our first field employees to encounter a situation with a customer who was suspected of having COVID-19. In early April he responded to a gas leak call at an apartment building. He was informed prior to arriving that the customer was ill. They had taken a COVID test, but did not yet have the results. Mark donned his protective equipment, had the customer wait outside and went to work. He eventually found a leaking gas meter and fixed it. When we asked Mark to share a personal message to all Alliant Energy employees facing a constantly changing normal, he passed along this comment, “My co-workers must stay focused, work safe and stay healthy.”


Another nominator wrote that Alliant Energy partnered with Iowa State University, the Dimensional Group in Mason City and Angstrom Precision Molding in Ottumwa to distribute face shields to hospitals and long-term care facilities in Iowa.


Kemin Industries

Dion Manuel is the operations safety/training coordinator at Kemin Industries’ North America operations, headquartered in Des Moines. The nominator wrote: “Working in the Kemin production facilities during COVID-19, Dion had a vital role in helping to ensure the health and safety of the Kemin team members responsible for manufacturing ingredients. He helped to implement additional safety protocols and processes, including split shifts/schedules, appropriate social distancing of team members and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep the essential teams safe. With Dion’s efforts, along with others in the facilities, Kemin was able to continue to operate without interruption during the peak of the pandemic. 


“Earlier this year, right before COVID-19 impacted the U.S., Dion took the initiative to launch a weekly safety email for Des Moines operations employees. Combined with his rapport within the team and his dedication to ensuring a safe work environment, Dion’s weekly emails quickly attracted a large readership. His can-do attitude and positivity were evident in his communications. For example, to promote the use of hand washing to prevent illness, rather than sharing a typical safety video, he made a short video of his 2-year-old daughter correctly washing her hands for the duration of singing a song with her mother. The video was so well-received and engaging, we added it to the Kemin Facebook page where it garnered more than 1,100 viewers. 


“Dion helped with communication strategies to make sure information was available to operations employees, which was especially important due to the ever-evolving pandemic. He continually monitored the well-being of his team to ensure they were protected while working during the unprecedented time. While many Kemin employees want to do their part in mitigating risks that could impact the health and safety of our teams and products, Dion continues to serve as a positive example of going above-and-beyond. …


“Outside of work, Dion cares deeply for his community and is involved in various efforts to better the lives of many. When recognizing that many people were faced with food insecurity due to the pandemic, on March 26, Dion and his family organized and fundraised to provide a free, drive-thru lunch in downtown Des Moines. His family cooked and prepared all the food, resulting in 1,700 sandwiches served in one day. His goal was 2,000 sandwiches and when asked about the event, he humbly stated, ‘We ended up only giving out 1,700 sandwiches.’ The sandwiches were free and delivered to patrons’ cars by him and his family, who were all wearing PPE to make sure they were protecting the patrons.”


Nonprofits & government services


Iowa Air National Guard

Stephanie Samenus, the Task Force West Commander at Iowa Air National Guard, played a key role in operations in western Iowa and led Army soldiers and airmen who supported the Test Iowa site setup and delivery of supplies for COVID-19 response, her nominator wrote. They continued: “She was the person on the front of an operation to bring Iowa through the pandemic in a safe and dependable way. Her leadership style made the operation run smoothly and Iowans in and out of uniform were safe on her watch. She worked with medical centers to track hospitals’ needs in the regions so she could transport supplies to those in need with the use of the Iowa National Guard.” Samenus is the vice commander at the Air Force base in Sioux City and a mother of two. “She deployed to Puerto Rico last spring with the medical team to train and provide care to those affected by the hurricane. It was great training for the pandemic,” her nominator wrote. 


Easterseals Iowa

Rachel Boothroyd is a direct support professional at Easterseals Iowa, which supports individuals living with disabilities who often have barriers to independence. Her nominator wrote: “Rachel is on the front lines of this pandemic, supporting our clients to stay healthy and safe. She has sat outside in the rain, talking to a client through a window who was needing emotional support, she has supported a client with a wellness goal by doing an outdoor tai chi class when the gyms were closed, and she has supported clients to get out of the house safely by picking up to-go food orders and finding a place to eat outside. All of this has supported our clients to not only stay safe from the pandemic, but also maintain a positive mental health.”


One client’s sister wrote: “As you know, Rachel has worked with my brother for a while. She is absolutely fantastic! Very kind, responsible and means the world to my brother! … It’s very difficult living far from my brother, but people like Rachel help more than they realize! During these difficult times it’s especially difficult for my brother. I wanted to say thank you to Rachel Boothroyd and Easter Seals for the great work you do and being a positive influence on so many precious lives.”


United Way’s 211 Team

Melissa McCoy is the 211 director. The nominator wrote: “211 is one of United Way of Central Iowa’s vital services, allowing anyone to call in 24/7 for help finding human services like food, shelter, legal support and much more. As director, Melissa not only hires and manages our team of operators and staff, she also promotes the service statewide, leads a regional and national group of other 211 directors, and ensures our service is always up and running for anyone to access. 


“Melissa has been with 211 for more than a decade, and has grown the service significantly in recent years. She has shown incredible dedication throughout her career, but recently when the Iowa Department of Public Health enlisted 211 to be the COVID-19 hotline statewide, Melissa pulled off an incredible feat, leading the upscaling of our capabilities, technology and team to handle a massive increase in calls within a 12-hour turnaround. Throughout the pandemic she has been tirelessly dedicated, working long hours and carefully caring for her amazing team.”


Oakridge Neighborhood

Almardi Abdalla is Oakridge Neighborhood’s director of adult and family programs. The nominator wrote: “Almardi leads the Transitions adult and family programs at Oakridge Neighborhood, which are designed to assist immigrants, refugees and other hard-to-place clients in transitioning to metro living and addressing the barriers required to secure and sustain employment paying a livable wage. … 


“Oakridge Neighborhood has a poverty level exceeding 95 percent, and many of the residents were particularly impacted by COVID-19. Over 40 percent of Oakridge’s residents were recently unemployed, adding an extra burden to families who were already experiencing financial strain. Almardi’s role servicing their needs is absolutely essential. 


“Throughout the pandemic Oakridge remained open, serving as a center for hope for residents and clients who utilize the services. Almardi led his team to pivot to serve as front-line case managers translating important COVID-19 information for families and helping families navigate the new unemployment and job search frontiers. He brought on additional multilingual employees to serve targeted populations. He established new partnerships with employers and agencies to bring new opportunities to clients.”


Progress Industries

Three Progress Industries staff members were nominated – these are excerpts about each.

“Candie Ruane teaches and supports individuals with disabilities to live independently in their own homes. … Candie is an overnight staff for P.I.’s 24-hour residential services in Des Moines. Candie provides necessary supports for five individuals during the overnight hours to ensure their overall health and safety. Candie worked as a live-in staff during COVID-19. She worked 24 hours a day, one week on/one week off for 10 weeks. Candie agreed to the live-in schedule at a site that was not her regular work location. Candie dedicated herself to this schedule to mitigate the spread of COVID for these residents. Candie’s primary role was an overnight staff prior to the live-in position. During the live-in schedule Candie served as overnight and direct support staff for the individuals. Candie applied her knowledge and skills in positive behavior supports, motivational interviewing and skill-building to build on the strengths and skills of each individual to help them move forward with their goals. … Candie helped improve communication among the residents, learn new things about each other and recognize the value of their friendships.”

“Brandie Lehman works as an overnight staff in P.I.’s daily services program. The people she supports receive 24-hour-a-day staffing. … Progress Industries approached Brandie for a 30-day live-in work schedule to help minimize risk of exposure to COVID. Five people live in the home and are considered high risk. Brandie very quickly agreed to do the live-in arrangement, recognizing the vulnerability of the five individuals. … Brandie is an amazing staff member that not only fulfilled her overnight staff role during the 30-day live-in schedule, she fulfilled the role as direct support staff. Brandie was the only staff on duty during the live-in and completed all of the personal cares, cooking and other support necessary for the five individuals. Brandie did an amazing job of meeting the emotional needs of the persons served and helped them to build stronger bonds with each other.” 

“Our agency approached Lee Taryor about working as a live-in at a location with high risk for COVID to limit their exposure and to keep them safe and healthy during the pandemic. Lee chose to work the live-in for that site. Lee did an amazing job as a [direct support professional] that lived in the site and worked 24/7 for almost six weeks with no other staff. Lee was responsible for all the care, cooking, bathing, etc. … Lee was good support for the persons served during a time when they were confused and worried about what was going on with COVID. Lee helped the persons served stay connected to others through phone calls and skype. Lee also helped the roommates there to build on their relationships by doing activities with them in the house or backyard. Lee had a pizza party with them and did a movie night also.

Lee worked directly with a COVID patient and remained calm and thoughtful. ... He gave us six weeks of live-in service and support for the persons at that site knowing he wouldn’t see his family in person during that time. It was a huge sacrifice that speaks volumes to his commitment and compassion for those he supports.” 


Balance Autism

Several Balance Autism staff members were nominated – these are excerpts about each. 

Esther Kerkulah is an autism associate. The nominator wrote: “We’ve been fortunate to just have one individual served test positive for COVID-19, but Esther was one of just a couple of staff members that volunteered to remain in quarantine for two full weeks in the Balance Autism home so that there was no risk of spreading it further and ensured there was no interruption of services/staff support for the individuals living there. This was not only a commendable act that showed how much she cares for those she works with, but also admirable and incredibly appreciated by her superiors.”

Sara Huey is an adult community services program coordinator. The nominator wrote: “She has been with Balance Autism for just a few short months but has already made a large impact by developing new, innovative systems and offering creative ideas that will help improve business operations and the lives of those we serve.”

Bryan Hart is an adult community services program manager. The nominator wrote: “Program managers are often the unsung heroes of our organization – providing 24-hour care to over 100 individuals with autism requires a lot of work, coordination and effort to not only provide essential services but also ensure those services are high quality.”

Shannon Post is an adult community services program manager. The nominator wrote: “She consistently goes above and beyond in her role. Shannon works outside of her shifts to ensure the people that we serve are receiving excellent services and that her staff feel supported.”

David Smith is an autism associate. The nominator wrote: “David is a very humble and flexible individual who is always willing to learn from others, train his peers and constantly thinking of ways to enhance the lives of those we serve.”

Susan Kiprop is an adult community services autism associate. The nominator wrote: “Susan is always ready to fill in shifts when called upon. She has also offered to support persons served and her teammates in the event that they need to be sheltered in place due to the current pandemic or test positive for COVID-19.”

Stella Osman is an autism associate of adult community services. The nominator wrote: “Stella is a ‘front-line worker’; she engages individuals with autism to live as independently and happily as possible. Stella provides day-to-day support and helps teach these individuals skills to care for themselves as much as possible (including but not limited to hygiene, personal care, building social relationships and networks, communication, vocational, and community involvement).”

Lewis James Jr. is a youth home team lead. The nominator wrote: “Lewis is a team lead in our residential youth home, providing 24-hour care for eight children with autism. He leads the front line and is responsible for ensuring these kids are properly cared for, supported and happy. He also assists in managing the budget, purchases essential supplies and ensures the day-to-day activities in the youth home runs smoothly. Lewis is a loyal and dedicated team member at Balance Autism; he has been here for 17 years.”


Optimae LifeServices

Bobbi Pollard is a team leader at Optimae LifeServices. The nominator wrote: “Bobbi is responsible for the safety and care of the direct support professionals she supervises and the Optimae customers she serves in the Residential Program. Some of the duties Bobbi performs with the customers on a daily basis are supporting them with necessary appointments, building weekly schedules to promote community activities and providing motivation to achieve wanted goals. Bobbi also works with individuals to help understand budgeting skills to gain fiscal independence, safety procedures to help with living independently and transportation skills to allow easier access to the community. Aside from continual support to the customers, Bobbi is an amazing asset to her co-workers as well by building weekly schedules for her teammates, providing guidance to her supervisors during difficult situations and going above and beyond to support the team when in need or short-staffed. …


“Bobbi’s position requires her to be an essential worker due to the daily need for mental health support in a residential setting. Without Bobbi, some of the individuals she serves would struggle getting to important appointments, understanding the proper way to take medications or would struggle to get involved in community activities they love. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Bobbi has shown up to work each day with continued motivation and eagerness. Transporting necessary PPE materials to individuals in need, being a necessary leader to those struggling in a chaotic world and staying available and communicative to her entire team during this entire struggle are just a few things Bobbi has done to support Optimae and the community around her. Not once has Bobbi shown that she is not willing to provide the same quality of services to the entire team during this time, and it shows. … 


“She proves to the mental health community on a daily basis that she was essential before any pandemic by directly working with the customers, supporting her peers during strenuous times and providing education and guidance to her supervisors. Bobbi belongs in the mental health field and she needs to be recognized for all the dedication and hard work she has put in.” 


Des Moines Area Regional Transport

Pablo Martinez, Paul Mast and Rob Matthews are all fixed-route operators for DART. The nominator wrote: “Pablo, Paul and Rob are all rock star bus operators. They have helped DART to maintain the level of service needed to provide essential transit service. Public transit is an essential service, and DART would not be able to provide service without the willingness of these individuals and the rest of our DART team. All three men volunteered to assist with transporting COVID-19-positive individuals when DART was asked to by Polk County Emergency Management. All three have also volunteered to drive buses to transport residents of Central Iowa Shelter and Services to other locations so CISS could increase social distancing at their location on Mulberry.”


Gerald Washington, also a fixed-route operator, has been with DART for almost six years. The nominator wrote: “He is always up to work overtime when needed, even during this pandemic. This has been very helpful to us, as we have some high-risk operators on leave. With Gerald’s help, we are able to provide essential transit service for those who need it. DART is proud of its entire team who has worked to provide essential transportation services throughout this pandemic. Gerald ... volunteered to assist with transporting COVID-19-positive individuals when DART was asked to by Polk County Emergency Management. Gerald has made several trips transporting COVID-19-positive patients to the isolation shelter located at the Iowa State Fairground. This is in addition to his regular duties.” 



Iowa PBS

This nomination was on behalf of the entire field production crew at Iowa PBS. The nominator wrote: “Iowa PBS provided televised pool coverage of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ daily COVID-19 briefings from the State Emergency Operations Center, making them available to radio and TV stations across Iowa and livestreams available on the governor’s and Iowa PBS’ Facebook pages as well as Iowa PBS’ website and YouTube channels. Iowa PBS also covered the expense of translating these streams into Spanish, when the incidence of transmission was significantly higher among Latinx communities than the general population. While the virus was having significant spread across the state, viewership of the live streams reached over 20,000.  

“Iowa PBS’ field production crew was the only news crew allowed in the SEOC after Gov. Reynolds was quarantined after exposure while visiting the White House. The crew not only continued to cover the briefings while social distancing and wearing face masks, they regularly disinfected the entire briefing room, wiping down the podium, stair rails and all commonly touched hard surfaces to prevent contamination and further spread. 

“The field production crew works behind the scenes, not in front of the camera, and yet has provided (and continues to provide) a significant service to Iowans by making the latest information available to anyone concerned about the virus’ spread and how they can protect themselves.”


Urban Dreams

Rachel Manna is the executive assistant at Urban Dreams. The nominator wrote: “Rachel supports the executive director. I submit this based on her support in coordinating and providing meals in concert with Orchestrate Hospitality to deliver hot meals every Monday and Thursday at Evelyn K. Davis Park as planned through the end of August. This is a program supported by the Des Moines City Council.


“Rachel is coordinating the provision of much needed support to all Des Moines-area residents in need of a meal during these tough times in the economy fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic-driven depression has increased the need substantially and Rachel also coordinates the distribution of food donations received by supporting organizations at the Urban Dreams business location also on Forest Avenue.”



Banking & finance


Midland Title & Escrow and Iowa Realty

The nominator wrote: “Traditionally, closing meetings were held in a conference room. Midland Title & Escrow with Iowa Realty has provided the ease, convenience and safety of ‘drive-up closings’ – that is, driving up to a closing office – in lieu of face-to-face signings. 

“Process: While a customer is in the car, a ‘closer’ comes to the customer with documents on a clipboard and disposable pens. The closer will obtain the photo ID, have them sign all documents needing to be notarized and then return to the office. The closer then calls the customer when back in the office and goes through each document to be signed over the phone just as they would do face-to-face. After all documents are signed, the closer will return to the vehicle to pick up the signed documents and check, if applicable, and return to the office to review the documents. After review of the documents, the closer will return to the vehicle with the customer’s copies of the documents, their ID and check, if applicable. The closing appointment is complete – and they’re on their way to check out their new home!”

Serve Credit Union

Shelby Dittmer, a loan officer at Serve Credit Union, is responsible for taking in loan applications and helping members work toward approval, her nominator wrote. They continued: “Shelby brings in over half of our loan volume on her own. On top of that, she is educating our members on protection on their loans, which has saved them on multiple occasions during the COVID-19 crisis. She was also a part of history, being one of the first lenders to perform a remote notarization. 

“We are so proud of Shelby for going above and beyond for our members every single day. She has proven herself to be patient and flexible as her normal day to day changed so drastically. During the height of COVID-19, Shelby bent over backwards to help a member who totaled her new car AND was laid off.” 


Data Business Equipment

BJ Anderson is a service technician at Data Business Equipment. The nominator wrote: “BJ maintains and keeps bank/credit union equipment up and running. When a financial institution has a critical machine that goes down and needs repaired, BJ fixes the issue so they can continue operating. When a financial institution has a machine that is critical to their operation and it goes down, BJ is on-site in a timely manner to resolve the issue and get the machine back up and running properly. … He is an important team member and always responds to customer issues in a timely manner. He hasn’t let the pandemic slow him down and continues to do his job with the proper PPE.”


Financial Plus Credit Union

Megan Stelter is the branch manager at Financial Plus Credit Union. The nominator wrote: “Jennifer keeps our West Des Moines branch going 24/7. She is in charge of staffing, making sure the workers are safe and happy during this time, making sure our members have access to their financial services and more. … Right now, those working for banks and credit unions are essential workers. They don’t have the choice to stay home and keep themselves and their families safe. They truly are ‘Financial First Responders.’ Jennifer has been at work every day since this pandemic started, and she does it with a smile.”


Food supply


OneWorld Supplies

One World Supplies paid for Cyd’s Catering donations to the local essential workers of MercyOne Medical Center of Des Moines. The nominator wrote: “Through the generosity of One World Supply, Cyd’s Catering was able to feed local area workers and thank them for their services to our community. By doing a small part and feeding these workers for a meal, we hope to take some of the burden off their day and give them a moment of joy. In a time where many businesses are hunkering down and cutting costs, One World Supply chose to reach its arm out into the community and give back. They prioritized the needs of essential workers above their own, and we believe that needs commending.” 


Granular Inc. 

Granular Inc. paid for Cyd’s Catering donations to the workers of local essential businesses like the Johnston-Grimes Fire Department, Bishop Drumm Retirement Center and MercyOne Medical Center. The nominator wrote: “Their contributions help keep our community fed and thriving. Granular’s generosity and partnership with Cyd’s Catering has allowed for our community essential workers to not only be fed, but be cared for and appreciated as well. Nothing quite says ‘thank you for your service!’ like a fresh, home-cooked meal, and we owe it to Granular for making these interactions possible.”


DMARC Food Pantry Network

The nominator wrote: “Food pantry workers provide healthy food to people living with food insecurity in our community. Their tasks in completing this require a team approach with many people collaborating to make providing that assistance possible. To pinpoint one individual would be unfair if not impossible! Whether it’s transporting food across the community, distributing food at a partner pantry or mobile food pantry site, performing intake over the phone, or delivering a food pantry order to someone’s home, our front-line food pantry workers show up to work every day to make sure people in our community have access to the healthy food they need to thrive.


“Access to nutritious food is one of the most basic and important of human needs. And there are many in our community who rely on food pantries as a part of meeting those needs. Without front-line food pantry workers, there would be no food pantries. The DMARC Food Pantry Network would not be able to assist over 56,000 people in Polk County through its partner food pantries and mobile pantry locations were it not for the amazing efforts of the staff and volunteers who run our food pantries, and the drivers and warehouse workers who help move the food throughout our community. … 


“Food pantries have dramatically shifted their operations during the pandemic, and can no longer rely on large groups of volunteers to help, shifting additional burden to the staff. Food pantry workers have stayed nimble and implemented alternative practices such as prepackaged food boxes, call-ahead ordering, curbside pick-up, home deliveries, and other practices to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.”


Doll Distributing / Food Bank of Iowa

JJ Beener is the relief service representative at Doll Distributing. The nominator wrote: “JJ is part of the Doll Distributing relief delivery team. He fills in for drivers taking vacations or sick days, assists in training new drivers to routes, and is also able to fill in for other departments when needed. To put it simply, JJ fills any void, on any day, and does it well. And he helped fill a void at Food Bank of Iowa.


“Since April 20, JJ has logged over 3,400 miles driving for Food Bank of Iowa. JJ used a Doll Distributing truck to help deliver food to Food Bank of Iowa partners across their 55-county service area. He also assisted with hauling food between Food Bank of Iowa’s distribution centers in Des Moines and Ottumwa. JJ also assisted at a mobile pantry for veterans where he helped place prepacked food boxes into cars of veterans in need. 


“The need for food assistance across the state increased dramatically after the COVID-19 pandemic was introduced and Food Bank of Iowa was tasked with getting more food out the door to partner agencies across their service area. The increased demand required Food Bank of Iowa drivers to spend more time on the road and increase the number of routes run each month. JJ’s efforts allowed Food Bank of Iowa to shift resources and distribute more essential food for Iowans in need. 


“Collaboration is a core value at Food Bank of Iowa. At a time when togetherness is more important than ever, this partnership highlights the truly amazing collaboration that happens in our community. When Doll Distributing realized the immediate need for food assistance during the height of the pandemic, they quickly reached out and offered a truck and a driver to Food Bank of Iowa. JJ showed up every day with a smile on his face and was quickly able to make an impact not only at Food Bank of Iowa but in the lives of Iowans in need.”