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Des Moines’ unsung heroes enrich lives


Johnny Danos, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation, has radically changed the face of his organization in the last four and one-half years. He’s built the foundation from one worker and $17 million total assets to 4 workers and $55 million. He hopes the foundation will reach an asset base of $100 million within three years. Those are the measurable effects he has had on the organization, but the ripples made by his efforts radiate in to the community in immeasurable ways.

Danos had been on the foundation’s board of director for a few years when the search began for a new president, and eventually the search committee turned to him. Now he works every day to establish and house long-term endowments, like those for the United Way and Hoyt Sherman Place, and short-term project funds while raising awareness of his organization.

“We’re in the business of helping people do philanthropy and mobilizing resources,” Danos said. “It’s about bringing people together who want to achieve the same ends.”

Dee Stroud had a similar idea to facilitate philanthropy in 1998. She was a breast cancer survivor and an avid golfer who traveled all over Iowa participating in tournaments that benefited cancer-related charities. While serving on the board of the Polk County affiliate of the American Cancer Society, she asked why Polk County couldn’t have its own golf tournament to benefit victims of breast cancer. The board jumped on the idea and put Stroud in charge. She has since eased out of the tournament’s leadership, but the results of her efforts are clear. The event has raised approximately $200,000 for cancer research, education and treatment, and all proceeds are used locally.

“I have had many relatives with cancer, and lost some good friends to the battle,” Stroud said. “Something has to be done to keep up the fight.”

Danos and Stroud are two examples of unsung heroes who rarely get the recognition they deserve, but who improve our communities and help others live life to the fullest.

Sheryl Puderbaugh is also committed to improving health in the community. While completing her advanced-practice nursing training, she was required to study a community, determine its health needs and develop a business plan for a clinic to meet those needs. Puderbaugh chose Highland Park, the North Side neighborhood she grew up in. She had heard that Des Moines had a troubling infant mortality rate, and found that certain “census tracts” were improving, while others were not, or were getting worse. In particular, Puderbaugh noticed Highland Park’s high infant mortality rate.

“It was a call to action,” she said.

Puderbaugh decided to create the Heart & Hands Clinic, which primarily uses midwives and nurse practitioners to provide health care to people who might have difficulty getting access to medical treatment through traditional channels. She and the clinic’s workers found that providing inexpensive care was not enough, and dedicated themselves to serving as a support system for their clients. Each appointment is as much about providing support and preventing future health problems as it is about treating a current ailment. In November a second Heart & Hands Clinic opened in the OSACS Women’s Center, 21st Street and Carpenter Avenue, and three other neighborhoods have requested clinics, but the organization’s finances don’t permit further expansion at this time. Right now, Puderbaugh is focusing on current patients.

“It’s not about treating high-risk individuals,” she said. “It’s about making people low-risk for illness.”

Mary Ellen Evans understands that concept. Although some might characterize her job as day-care center director, being the director of Shalom Zone is so much more. Shalom Zone is a national program that was created by the United Methodist Church to bring peace to troubled neighborhoods. Evans’ zone focuses on people living along Martin Luther King Jr., Parkway between Forest Avenue and Hickman Road.

Her program does provide summer day camps and after-school and meal programs, but it also offers health fairs and screenings. Each year, as children get ready to return to school they are offered free physicals, eye exams and dental exams. Twice each year, the program offers adult health screenings. When Evans, a former parish nurse, moved to Iowa from Kansas two years ago, she said she was looking for a way to help the community. She chose Shalom Zone.

“We hope we’re making a difference,” she said. “We never know for sure if we’ve changed a child’s life, but we know they’re changing our lives.”

Like Danos, Vernon Johnson has had the opportunity to watch an organization flourish and grow under his leadership. When he joined Orchard Place’s PACE program in 1989, he had five employees and 25 children in the program. Now PACE offers seven programs, employs 60 staff members and serves 400 children every day.

Johnson spearheaded the effort several years ago to provide troubled students with schooling, substance abuse treatment, counseling, tutoring and more, all under one roof. He prides himself on the flexibility of PACE’s programs and the diversity of the staff, which reflects the diversity of the children in the program. He is also proud to be located downtown, a place that gives students and their families hope.

“When they see where they are, they think, ‘This is it. I’m on my way up,'” Johnson said.

Senior police officer Joe Gonzalez is also concerned with helping young people on their way up. Born in Mexico, he came to the United States when he was 5 and says he can really relate to the families he works with as a Hispanic outreach neighborhood resource advocate, or HONRA.

“The word ‘honra’ means honor and trust in Spanish,” Gonzalez said, and it is a designation he takes seriously. He visits various schools through the program, and is on the working board of No. 1 Question: Is It Good for the Kids? and the board of United Latinas for a New Dawn, or LUNA, a domestic violence prevention and intervention group.

One day, Gonzalez received a letter from some students he’d met at Madison Elementary School. The students said children who lived at the Radio City Mobile Home Park were playing in the street. Gonzalez got Home Depot to donate and install playground equipment so the children would have a safe place to play.

According to Cathi Stokesbary, it all comes down to quality of life. For about two years, she has been a volunteer for Mercy Hospice. She got involved in the program after several young people in her family died. She felt the need to comfort people as they go through what Stokesbary says is the only thing you really go through alone –– death. She has laughed with patients, cried with them, prayed with them, or just run errands for them.

She even planned a wedding for one terminally ill patient, Sandra Ferris. When Ferris’ fiance backed out, she and Stokesbary were not discouraged. They had a party instead. Later, Ferris asked Stokesbary to write her eulogy.

“The whole goal is to help people live life to the fullest until they leave,” Stokesbary said.   

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