Posts Tagged: community builders

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.”

Community Builder: Lissa Carlson

Community Builder:
Lissa Carlson / Coulee Parenting Connection

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Photos courtesy Lissa Carlson
Originally published in the Fall 2017 Inspire(d)

When you become a new mom or dad, you automatically join an amazing, yet ever-complicated new group: the parenting community. You’ve got no choice! Once you’re in, you’re in. As they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

But a lot of new parents feel like that village up and moved to the next valley… and didn’t leave a note.

Lissa Carlson, founder of Coulee Parenting Connection, wanted to change that.

Lissa was 32 years old when she had her first son, Christopher. Their second, Corbin, came along three years later. But her first “child” – albeit, made of paper – will always be Coulee Parenting Connection (CPC), born in 2001. CPC is a La Crosse-based parenting publication that strives to improve life for families in the Coulee Region.

“I wasn’t a parent yet, but I knew it was a lot to be one, and I was interested in the power of parenthood to change a community. Keeping up with local activities and events, and new or better ways to parent, while raising a child…yeah, it’s a lot,” she says. “I wanted to make it a little easier, and make Coulee Parenting Connection a one stop shop for busy families in the area.”

As a kid, Lissa, armed with a Pippi Longstocking book or the latest in the Boxcar Children series, was drawn to the printed word. Books could come along for the ride as Lissa’s family moved around Wisconsin through her dad’s work with Aflac.

When Lissa landed at UW Milwaukee, her love of writing led to a degree in journalism and mass communication, then landed her a pivotal internship with Metroparent Magazine that fostered her career path.

“I didn’t really daydream about my wedding day, or what my life would be like with my future husband,” she says. “I daydreamed about having kids…about being a mom.”

Lissa and her then-husband, Eric, met in the Navy Reserves during college. After graduation, they moved to the Twin Cities for Eric’s job with the Army Corps of Engineers. Lissa went to work for a really niche publication – Marine Store Merchandising – for two years, but she wanted to get back to something she felt passionate about.

Luckily, Eric’s job brought the couple to La Crosse, and while working at UW La Crosse, Lissa hatched the idea for Coulee Parenting Connection. She was 30 years old, and they didn’t have kids, but Lissa knew she wanted to help bring families together. That was 2001. By the third issue, they were expecting Christopher. Back then, Lissa was doing all the editorial and design work, but now she employs designers, writers, and distributors, creating her own community right within CPC.

“A team has had such an impact on everything,” she says, “and I’m grateful that there were and continue to be people along the way who believe in our mission and help us keep our commitment to families in the Coulee Region.”

Published six times annually, Coulee Parenting Connection is available for free in libraries, schools, shops, and more across Southwest Wisconsin, Southeast Minnesota, and Northern Iowa. From the Family Fun Calendar to kid-friendly stuff to check out to stories about real parents, each issue pulls together family-oriented ideas and helps folks navigate – and join-in on – the local parenting community.

“I like to believe we’ve had an impact on family life in the area,” Lissa says. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily because of Coulee Parenting… but I do know I’ve seen a lot of growth in events and organizations we’ve worked with, and it does my heart good when someone says they did something special with their kids because they read about it in Coulee Parenting.”

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Learn more about Lissa, her team, and Coulee Parenting Connection at www.cpclax.com.

Watch for CPC’s annual Family Fun Expo at the Onalaska Omni Center. 50+ businesses set up to show off their offerings, there’s cool, kid-friendly entertainment, and 3,000-4000 people come to check it out.