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.”