Posts Tagged: Fall 2017 Inspire(d) Magazine

Community Builders: Red’s IGA

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d) Magazine

Meatball suppers, spaghetti feeds, pancake breakfasts: There’s no dispute that food fundraisers are a beloved Midwestern tradition, especially when there’s lefse involved.

But in small towns across the Driftless, fundees face a bit of a problem: Any such rally takes time to organize and many, many hands to run successfully. And who wants to plan for months to raise only a few Benjamins in the end (after expenses)?

This was the dilemma Pat ‘Red’ Longmire of Spring Grove, Minnesota, set out to solve six years ago. As founder and owner-manager of Red’s IGA on the east end of town, he saw mutual benefit to running a “turnkey” fundraising program for local organizations. First, Red’s chooses a tasty seasonal menu (meat, ‘taters, veg, coleslaw, and a buttered roll) and performs the food prep. Then, they set up a serving station, usually in the produce aisle of the store, and a few staff, often including Red himself, work alongside student or non-profit volunteers to assemble $9 to-go plates as customers drop in. Generally, 250 meals are served up, and when it’s done, Red’s provides the cleanup.

“My goal is to put $1,000 in their pocket every time,” Red says of the fundraiser recipients: Spring Grove student council, Lions Club, food pantry, and Friends of the Library, among several other causes. “It’s like smoking brisket,” he says, referencing one of his favorite hobbies. “I just love to see the reaction on someone’s face when they take a bite and enjoy it.”

Meanwhile, customers who stop in for the meal get a close look at Red’s ever-expanding stock of vegetables, fruits and items on promo, there in Aisle One.

“Having people come into the store, supporting a local cause, at the end of a long day, getting a plate of comfort foods, gives people a lot of confidence in shopping locally,” Red says. “It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, the more you give back to community, the stronger your support in return. As business owners, I feel it’s our responsibility to give back.”

So keep an eye on the lettered sign outside Red’s IGA (or keep-up-to-date on Facebook). Once each month, September through May, it will announce which Spring Grove organization is running a “Red’s meal deal.” Plates will feature sliced turkey breast (sometime in November), or, yes, gooey, delicious Swedish meatballs in midwinter.

This year they’ll be adding half-chicken to the rotation, utilizing the smoking equipment of Fat Pat’s Texas BBQ, a food truck Red is partnering on with his son, Patrick, Jr. Recently returned to Spring Grove with his young family, Pat (as he’s known, apart from his dad) picked up the BBQ trade as a traveling musician in – you guessed it – Texas. Father and son work side-by-side in the grocery store and in the food truck, which often sells out within an hour or two of sliding open their window for business.

“In small towns, people are giving constantly,” Pat concludes. “That’s the nature of pitching in to make things like the Christmas light display in the city park possible.” By providing a hot, familiar meal on a chilly night, Red’s IGA hopes to make that charity easy as pie.

Community Builder: Lora Friest

By Sara Friedl-Putnam

It’s early on a hot July night, but Lora Friest bounds into Java John’s Coffee House in downtown Decorah as if the day were just getting started. She’s been going nonstop for hours, but you wouldn’t guess it judging by the enthusiasm, energy, and quick wit she exudes while talking about Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development (NEIRC&D).

Based in Postville, Iowa, the nonprofit organization partners with community members to diversify local economies while also protecting and enhancing natural resources. Lora, the executive director, leads a staff of 12 full-time employees.

“Our stated mission is to ‘recognize opportunities and provide leadership to make Northeast Iowa a vibrant, place-based model for the nation,’” she says. “What that really means is we want every rural area to be what it aspires to be – communities have different strengths and different dreams, and it’s our job to help them capitalize on those by empowering people who have great ideas.”

Basically, Lora and her team help communities build community.

It was 1999 when Lora left her job with Luther College’s Environmental College for Young Leaders to join NEIRC&D as its Upper Iowa River watershed coordinator. “I had worked as intern at the Decorah Fish Hatchery a few years before and kept wondering why we were continually restocking fish and not making it so that they could live and reproduce naturally in the streams,” she recalls. “There was not much natural reproduction at the time, and I wanted to be part of efforts to change that.”

And she has been. Today, thanks to the dedicated efforts of many individuals and organizations – including Lora and NEIRC&D – 45 Iowa streams boast naturally reproducing populations, compared with just five as recently as the 1980s. “It has had such an amazing impact,” she says, noting that fishing and other water activities bring more than a billion dollars to regional economy. “If you are ever involved in something that is that broad in scope and it actually works, you are inspired to do other things.”

Or, in Lora’s case, many other things, and often simultaneously – she logs, on average, 60 hours per week writing grants, conducting feasibility studies, meeting with community members and leaders, and doing whatever else it takes to build a better Northeast Iowa. That dedication has produced results: Lora estimates that she and her NEIRC&D team have helped secure more than $100 million in funding – much of that in state and federal grants – to support a wide range of projects, including the Guttenberg Marina, Decorah’s Trout Run Trail and Freeport Trail, and local foods programs.

“Yes, we have received multi-million-dollar grants, but I try to never forget how much it meant to someone that we got him or her $2,000 for a project,” she says. “That $2,000 grant can change one person’s life as much as a $1 million grant might change the lives of others.”

Some 18 years after first signing on with NEIRC&D, Lora says she never tires of visiting with people about their ideas and helping them realize that they can actually achieve them.

“The real community building occurs when a group of people sit together to envision and inform a project,” she says. “To me, it’s all about helping people realize they can work together to make a positive difference in their community.”

Community Builder: Mike Ashbacher

Community Builder:
Mike Ashbacher / Decorah Fire Department

By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

For some, it’s the thrill of riding in a fire truck, adrenaline pumping, or feeling the intense heat that a fire gives off, but for Decorah Fire Chief Mike Ashbacher, it’s the thriving community of volunteer firefighters and the service they provide that has kept him involved.

With deep ties to Northeast Iowa, Mike’s family moved back to the region when his father was offered a full-time position in law enforcement. Mike was just about to start kindergarten, so Decorah has been home for most of his life.

After school, Mike followed in his father’s footsteps at first, in criminology and law enforcement, but it was a chance EMT class that sent him in a different direction. He now sits at the heart of what has been – and continues to be – an incredible and professional group of emergency service responders. He has been a full-time Winneshiek Medical Center paramedic since 1987, and also a flight paramedic for Gundersen Lutheran since 1994.

On top of work life, he and his wife have two grown sons, and are also new grandparents. So one could easily see the day-to-day schedule overflowing, yet Mike has been a dedicated member of the Decorah Fire Department (DFD) since 1991, and Fire Chief since late 2001.

“I’ve always felt it was important to be involved in service, and the Fire Department allows me to give back to our community,” he says.

Decorah, like many small, rural fire departments, is staffed mainly with volunteers. There are just over 30 members – a tightknit community of firefighters who give their free time for numerous hours of training to keep the region safe in case of fire or emergency.

These men and women are called out for a variety of emergencies – from fighting fires to helping folks in trouble on the Upper Iowa to, yes, even rescuing a beloved family dog from a limestone cliff’s edge at Palisades Park in Decorah.

The group works hard together, and shows pride in that work, and the camaraderie that is built through training and service is what makes the organization so worthwhile.

“It is a large time commitment, and families sacrifice all sorts of time while a member trains, serves, and is called out on a moments notice,” Mike says. “It’s the support from those families, as well as employers, that makes a volunteer organization like the DFD work.”

All of that time spent together is what makes it a real community. It also makes for some fun times within the department. The firefighter’s skills spill out in ways that serve the larger community through social events, fundraising, and community service – like the popular DFD Red Hot Bucket of Color In Your Face 5K run each spring.

In the post 9/11 world, the risks and realities of responding to emergency situations are very real. “Having a driven, and educated group of individuals who want to keep learning skills, techniques, and technology makes for a great department,” Mike says. “Our guys do the training and know what to do when we are sent on a call. It makes my job as Chief easy.”