On March 18, Tanner Hockensmith began his duties as executive director of The ALS Association’s Iowa chapter. The organization serves two roles: advocating for research funding to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and supporting local community members who are dying of the disease. A neuromuscular disease with a 100 percent fatality rate, ALS attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord. Hockensmith moved here from Dallas, Texas, where he was vice president of the Deep Ellum Community Association, an arts and cultural organization.


How did this opportunity come about?

We had been looking to move out of Dallas. We wanted a little bit slower pace of life and to get our kids into good schools. I looked in a lot of different cities, and there were a lot of opportunities. What was important for me was to take a role where I could put my heart and my passion into it. The position actually came about through a relationship of my father’s (Polk County Supervisor Tom Hockensmith); he knew some of the board members and they were reaching out asking, “Do you guys have any ideas?”

Were you familiar with the association before then?

No, but one of my hunting buddies down in Texas, his brother died of ALS, so I had an understanding of the disease and what it did. It wasn’t until I started interviewing for the position that I asked my friend about it. He said: “Oh, yeah, the local chapter was so great for my family and provided so many resources for us; we really couldn’t have done this without them.” So that really hit home with me. When they offered me the job, it was something I felt I could really put my talents and passion into.


What makes the ALS Association unique?


One thing I think that separates our organization a bit is that 85 percent of the money that’s raised here in Iowa stays here in the state to help people in their homes who are dying of ALS. At any given point in time, there are about 250 people dying of ALS in the state; we serve about 150 at a time. We have two social workers who drive the entire state and serve people in their homes. We have an equipment loan program with a warehouse full of equipment that we’re able to give to the families as the disease progresses - from special easier-to-hold silverware to motorized wheelchairs.


What’s new with the organization?

We just got a really good partnership with the (Department of Veterans Affairs) here in Iowa. A lot of people don’t know it, but you’re 50 percent more likely to get ALS if you’re a veteran. We’ve partnered with the VA because they’ve realized they sometimes can’t get people serviced as quickly as needed – someone can be diagnosed and die within six months. So when a veteran comes home and is diagnosed with ALS, we’re able to come alongside them and instantaneously get them the care that they need.


What were your initial career goals?

I was very interested in community and urban development; I’m big on the development of people holistically, I guess you would say. I went down to Dallas and helped build kind of a premier cultural center in downtown Dallas from its infancy to what it is now.


Your goals in leading this ALS chapter?

One thing that I really want to see is our ability to reach more people. Nonprofits’ needs always outweighs their finances. So honestly, the more our organization grows, the more people that we can serve in the state of Iowa, and we can support other chapters around us as well. And of course, I believe and have hope that in our lifetime we can see an end to ALS.


What hobbies do you enjoy?

I love experiencing art and culture, but I’m also a big-time hunter; I’m a big outdoors guy. So I like to straddle both those worlds. We’ll go to a gallery one night, and the next morning I’ll be getting up to go deer hunting – it’s kind of weird. I appreciate what man is able to create, but also like to get out and see what’s been created. I also enjoy a good craft beer.


What was your first paying job?


I worked at the True Value Hardware store in Windsor Heights – I made keys. It was working with my hands and smelling fertilizer all day. Every time I walk into one, it reminds me of when I was 16.