As the COVID-19 pandemic consumed a majority of 2020, many people throughout the area stepped up in their jobs or volunteer work to continue serving others.
To highlight some of these efforts, the Telegraph Herald asked readers to nominate Everyday Heroes who have made a difference in the community this year. Here are the stories of the nominees.
After retiring from coaching and teaching in the Western Dubuque Community School District, Tom Danner heard about the opportunity to volunteer at St. Vincent De Paul Society Voucher Center and Food Pantry, 1351 Iowa St.
“I wanted to give back,” he said. “The good Lord kind of finds you and puts you in a spot.”
Danner and several other volunteers have continued to help those in need through the COVID-19 pandemic, though the days the center is open and the number of volunteers and visitors have been limited. Danner said volunteers also put together food boxes for people now instead of letting them pick out their own items in a grocery-store setting.
Volunteer Chris Ochs commented on Danner’s dedication to helping everyone that arrives at the center’s door.
“He’s a saint,” she said. “He greets everybody like he’s known them forever, it’s amazing.”
Volunteer Jim Rolling submitted Danner’s name as an Everyday Hero, noting that Danner often comes two hours before the center opens and is the last to leave. Rolling and Danner wrestled together 50 years ago, back around the time Danner became Wahlert Catholic High School’s first state wrestling champion.
“He became a big part of (the voucher center) when I was starting to find people, because I couldn’t do it by myself and I was looking for people to step up,” Rolling said. “And, boy, did he step up.”
In his submission, Rolling also highlighted Danner’s leadership for Boy Scouts hoping to pass the Eagle Review, as well as his role in building the Bobcat wrestling program at Western Dubuque High School. Danner was also a coach when the girls wrestling team went to state.
Danner himself stays humble about the work he does, greeting everyone who came to the center on a recent day for grocery pickup.
“Like everybody down here, I’ve had a good life,” Danner said. “Life’s been good to us, and now, it’s time for us to give back.”
Mackenzie McCormick, Washington Middle School eighth-grade special education teacher, said it was a bit of a shock this past spring when the typical school routine had to shift completely to virtual formats.
“We really didn’t get to have closure with our kids,” she said. “Going from spring break to not seeing you again in person for the rest of the year, that was hard.”
Dubuque schools now are doing a hybrid learning format, which McCormick described as wearing “a lot of different hats” as teachers shift from in-person to Zoom classes.
Bridget Daly-Wilhelm, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Washington, nominated McCormick as an Everyday Hero for her work in such a nontraditional environment, adding in her submission that McCormick can be found in her “office” in the stairwell during class times.
“She’s really shown exceptional efforts, going above and beyond to meet the variety of need of our students,” Daly-Wilhelm told the TH.
McCormick said one positive of the hybrid days is it made class sizes smaller, allowing for more individualized attention.
However, she noted that staff has sensed that this year’s class seems quieter, and they aren’t sure how much of that has to do with a different form of socializing during a pandemic.
In her classes, McCormick said it can be hard to make connections when hugs can’t happen and Zoom cameras are off during classes. She said she likes to ask her Zoom students how they’re doing to make sure they are still engaged, and several teachers have dropped off treats for students when they have met academic goals.
“As a school district, we have a flexible mindset,” McCormick said. “We understand it’s not going to be an easy year. Our priority is the kids, and we do what it takes for them as best we can.”
DuRide, the Dubuque nonprofit that provides rides to seniors, recently celebrated its 12th anniversary. Greg Orwoll, the organization’s executive director, joined the team in 2013 after retiring as Colts Youth Organization director.
“My personal mission, and it has been for decades now, is I serve to be a catalyst to bring people together to make a difference in the world, and that’s exactly what happened here,” he said.
In order for DuRide to continue making a difference to their members, Orwoll said, they had to shift operations as soon as word of COVID-19 hit the area. All of their members, as well as many volunteers, are more than 65 years old and, thus, more vulnerable to the virus.
DuRide was trending toward having one of its busiest years yet providing rides in 2020, but Orwoll said the shift after the pandemic to only giving rides to medical appointments decreased their activity. Also affected was the number of volunteers, many of whom are also older, who still felt comfortable providing rides.
However, Orwoll said his team and volunteers have found other ways to help over the past several months. Volunteers have delivered groceries to members, and many others have participated in a phone tree that checks in on members weekly.
Some also have made birthday cards for members. Orwoll said he has received phone calls about the cards from members proclaiming it “the most amazing birthday.”
“The most rewarding thing for me is just how much we’ve been able to creatively address previously unknown challenges and needs,” he said. “These things come out of left field at 100 miles per hour.”
Longtime volunteer Kathy Loch Klein has been among those who stopped giving rides due to COVID-19 and instead takes part in the phone tree. She nominated Orwoll as an Everyday Hero.
“Everyone is looking forward to being able to provide rides to get everyone to all the many places they would like to go,” her nomination read. “But I applaud Greg for pivoting to provide necessary rides while keeping everyone safe and also keeping the organization together and viable until things return to normal.”
JOE LYGHT AND LYGHTHOUSE STAFF
Joe Lyght has worked at Lyghthouse in Platteville, Wis., for a majority of his life after his parents, Roxanne and Bernie, started the long-term-care housing decades ago.
“They’re just a true success story of being working-class folks who started their own business,” Lyght said.
Now, he is the administrator of the community-based residential facility, which has a client base made up of those with mental health needs or who have brain injuries. However, he also does a variety of jobs around the facility and works normal staff shifts to help make sure no one is feeling burnt out.
“Lots of staff members have worked extra shifts when they know there’s holes in the schedule or volunteered to work extra days,” he added. “The staff are really the heroes, you know. I would be nothing without them.”
Things have been tough for the facility’s residents since the pandemic began, Lyght said, as they have been locked down since March with limited chances to venture outside. Visitors haven’t been allowed into the facility, though staff did coordinate some window visits.
The facility hasn’t had any COVID-19 cases in residents or staff since the pandemic began. Lyght personally has a camper set up behind his mother’s garage in case he needs to quarantine, and his family is taking care to limit exposure opportunities.
He also credits the rest of the staff for making changes to their lives in order to keep residents safe.
Melissa Cooley, Lyghthouse nurse coordinator, said she and the rest of the staff have taken extra hygiene steps to avoid having COVID-19 in their building. Cooley keeps her work clothes in her car to avoid taking germs from work to home and vice versa.
While lockdown has been hard on the residents, she said, staff has worked hard to keep spirits up. Some have even learned how to cut residents’ hair.
“We had to be a little more understanding and a little more of their family, instead of just their caretaker,” Cooley said.
Jeni Ginter-Lyght, Joe Lyght’s wife, nominated her husband and the Lyghthouse staff as Everyday Heroes for their work this past year.
“In addition to the toll of working in direct care during a pandemic, these are caregivers with jobs that society doesn’t celebrate enough,” her submission stated. “They make meals, clean and love people who need them every day. These aren’t easy jobs.”
Renee Krier is the owner of Romper Stomper Childcare Center, 2307 Central Ave. in Dubuque. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the area, she put together care packages for her staff, which she called a “great team on a family level.”
“The very first thing I thought of was basically making sure the staff was going to be OK,” Krier said.
She said the staff and families have had to get used to different COVID-19 measures over the past few months, including daily temperature checks before entering the door and washing hands in the sink that was set up in the entryway.
The center has not been shut down at all through the pandemic. Many of the parents whose children attend Romper Stomper are certified nursing assistants, Krier said, and it was important for them to have a place to bring their children in order to do their essential jobs. She also noted that the center is open for children of both first- and second-shift employees.
“There’s always a chain reaction, and I don’t think people realize that. If you don’t have day care, you don’t have work. If you don’t have work, you don’t have rent,” she said. “Day care workers and teachers are essential in that rotation.”
For her families that started working from home this year or wanted other family members to watch their kids for pandemic-related reasons, Krier held their spot at Romper Stomper free of charge until the families could come back. She was then able to offer temporary spots for other families searching for child care, a system she said worked out great.
To cap off the year, Krier also set up a blow-up snow globe in the center’s parking lot, which Santa Claus sits inside to greet children wanting to say hello.
“I’m just glad to be there for the community,” Krier said. “I really take it to heart.”