Women who make a difference


Laura Chandlee addresses the crowd after receiving the 2015 Chamber Friend of the Year Award at the Grand River Center, in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: TH file


Vanessa Kettner. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Whitney Sanger. PHOTO CREDIT: Nat Finley Photography Contributed


Mickie Yager. PHOTO CREDIT: TH file


Deb Schroeder. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Kathy Hutton. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Danita Grant was named the 2018 Rotarian of the Year by Rotary Club of Dubuque.  PHOTO CREDIT: TH file


Kathy Hutton, executive director of St. Stephen's Food Bank, helped unveil the new logo for the organization in 2018, which became St. Stephen's A Branch of River Bend Foodbank after the merge. PHOTO CREDIT: TH file


Laura Chandlee addresses the crowd after receiving the 2015 Chamber Friend of the Year Award at the Grand River Center, in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: TH file


Vanessa Kettner. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Whitney Sanger. PHOTO CREDIT: Nat Finley Photography Contributed


Deb Schroeder. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Kathy Hutton. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed


Danita Grant was named the 2018 Rotarian of the Year by Rotary Club of Dubuque.  PHOTO CREDIT: TH file


Kathy Hutton, executive director of St. Stephen's Food Bank, helped unveil the new logo for the organization in 2018, which became St. Stephen's A Branch of River Bend Foodbank after the merge. PHOTO CREDIT: TH file

The etymology of the word “volunteer” began with the Latin word, “velle,” which means “to wish.”

Originally, the word conveyed the feeling of wishing, but later, came to mean the action of wishing, or the will of doing something.

The modern-day definition of volunteerism usually is associated with community and the actions of members who donate their time and talents to causes they care about.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 77 million people in the U.S. donated nearly 6.8 billion hours of volunteer service in 2018. Iowa ranks fourth among the states, with 41.5% of its residents doing volunteer work. Wisconsin ranks 12th, while Illinois ranks 38th.

We asked local women about what they do to make a difference in the community — how they started, what motivates them, what they’re passionate about, why they volunteer and what advice they have for others contemplating a volunteer opportunity.

With more than 700 nonprofit organizations in Dubuque and the surrounding area, there is no shortage of ways to make an impact. The words of these inspiring women might be just the spark you need to make your mark on the world through volunteerism.

Laura Chandlee

Chandlee, 48, a former Spanish teacher in the Chicago suburbs, has been volunteering for as long as she can remember.

Since moving to Dubuque, she has volunteered for the Visiting Nurse Association, Project Rooted, Anna Weitz Foundation and at her children’s schools, just to name a few.

As the manager of a busy household, she keeps her husband and four children on task, as well as managing her active volunteer schedule.

Starting out: “I was raised to give back to others and have made it a part of my life. I remember getting involved in organizations in college and have done volunteering in the places we have lived. I wanted our kids to grow up seeing that volunteering is a part of your life, and it is a responsibility in your community.”

Motivation: “I like to give back and feel that I have been blessed and want to share it with others. I like to reach out and see the needs of organizations. I love to get our family involved as well. I think service is so important. The more I volunteer, the more I get out of each experience. I’m always amazed by how much I’m learning and growing.”

Passion: “I love to help with organizations that involve children. I believe children are our greatest treasure, and they are our future, so I want to ensure that they have support.”

It’s worth it: “The amount of joy and learning I have obtained from volunteering is immense. I am grateful for each experience and connection that I’ve made. I have gone to Costa Rica with our family over many years. We re-connect and build the friendships with other volunteers and the families we build (houses) for. We stay connected through social media and have formed incredible friendships. It’s amazing how the families we’ve built homes for in the past are now the ones building for others. The community comes together and we all work together. To see lives impacted first hand is truly the best part.”

Advice for future volunteers: “Go for it. Make the effort, and you will be amazed at the people you meet and the gifts you receive from volunteering. You learn a lot about yourself and others along the way. Take a look at your interests and talents, see what organizations fit best, and reach out. Look around your community or country or the world. There are opportunities to help just waiting.”

Vanessa Kettner

Kettner, 41, who volunteers with Fountain of Youth in Dubuque, was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She assists in facilitating group discussions and workshops with people in the community. She currently is working with the Fountain of Youth’s “Real Talk” sessions, where community members come together to talk about and explore difficult life issues.

Her job as a personal productivity coach took her to France and England, among other places. Upon making the decision to begin a coaching business, she relocated to Dubuque in March 2020, where she lives with her artist boyfriend in their apartment at the top of the Fenelon Elevator.

Starting out: “The first sort of ‘proper’ volunteering that I remember taking part in was in Oakland, Calif., in 1999. I spent spring break of my freshman year of college volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Where and when I volunteer comes about organically. I just sort of wake up in the middle of it. I like to add value to the world, and so in making an effort to do that when and where I can, I end up finding myself in situations where I am volunteering.”

Motivation: “When I am moved by a project and/or a mission, I do what I can give any riches I have at time (time, energy, money, etc.) to said project. Some of these projects in life come with financial compensation for my work. Others do not. The time I have put into activities at the Fountain of Youth have allowed me to understand the city in which I live at deeper level; learn from listening to people’s authentic life experiences; and give of myself to a mission that is doing incredible, life-changing work.

“The first time I heard Caprice Jones (Executive Director of Fountain of Youth) speak, I was deeply affected by his story and what he was doing in the world. Giving my time to this organization has been an obvious choice for me, given what I value.”

Passion: “In the United States, I feel passionate about healthcare and making progress on moving towards a model whereby there is universal, affordable care for all people. Having lived in France the the U.K., I know first-hand how little time is spent worrying about this part of life when affordable healthcare is extended to all people. I would love a future whereby Americans can enjoy this experience as well.

“Globally, I feel passionate about working towards racial justice and racial equality, especially as it pertains to the African diaspora.”

It’s worth it: “The experiences I have had have changed my inner landscape, so I know it’s worth it because I walk differently in the world as a result of those experiences.”

Advice for future volunteers: “As a personal productivity coach, I explore this question with my clients: ‘How do I choose to spend my precious time?’ I often borrow Joe Biden’s budget-related sentiment — “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value’ — to extend this to time: ‘Show me how you spend your time, and I’ll tell you what you value.’

“I think a simple question to ask is this: ‘Am I spending my time in a way that accurately represents what I value in my life?’ I think the more we align how our time is spent with what we value in life, the more our lives become meaningful and impactful. This is true on a personal level and a societal level.

“When it comes to which organization or cause to give your time to, I let myself be guided by author Glennon Doyle’s widsom: ‘Figure out what breaks your heart in the world. That’s your purpose. Find the folks working to fix that thing in the world and join them.'”

Whitney Sanger

Dubuque resident Sanger is a mother of five and the creative communications and development director for Hawkeye Area Community Action Program. She also is president and, with Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar owner and chef Kevin Scharpf, co-founder of Project Rooted, which is dedicated to providing fresh and nutritious food to area families, as well as connecting them to local resources for fresh produce and providing education on preparing nutritious meals.

Beyond working with nonprofits, she is a serial coffee drinker, outdoor lover, adventurer and a huge food enthusiast.

Starting out: “Since I was a little girl, the importance of giving back was instilled in me by my grandparents and parents. To this day, I still have imagery of the organizations we donated to, the families we sponsored or mentored and the events we volunteered at throughout my childhood. Giving back has and always will be such an important part of my life.

“The first cause for me was being a mentor through the Rise and Reach program for a little girl I adored. Each week for a year, we would spend time together, laugh, explore the community, learn and grow. It was the most rewarding experience knowing that I had a small part in shaping who she is today.”

Motivation: “Have you ever been in a room of volunteers? If you have, you know that the energy is high, the laughter is contagious, the smiles are abundant and the people are simply amazing. During COVID-19 and as we served our no-cost lunches at Project Rooted, I would look forward to coming in every day just to be around our volunteers.

“When you have the opportunity to work directly with community members, it’s always the smiles that get you, whether it’s a toddler receiving a Christmas present or the hug you gave to someone in a nursing home. That smile will bring you back to volunteer again.

“You don’t always see the impact you make in someone’s life, but it’s there, and believing that is the most important thing.”

Passion: “Food, kids and this community. While to love to volunteer for everything, that is simply just not an option. We have so many worthy nonprofits. So now, I mostly focus on creating a resilient community through connecting kids to real food. Kids are our future, and this is where I believe I can make the biggest impact in the world.”

It’s worth it: “It has always been worth it. Honestly, there has never been a time where I walked away and said, ‘Well, that wasn’t worth it.’ All humans are worthy of our love and our time, and when you realize that, it’s all simply worth it.

“I want to leave this world a better place. My grandfather used to share a quote, which was passed down to my mother and now to me: ‘What you do for yourself dies with you, but what you do for others lives on for eternity.’ I hope I leave some sort of imprint on this world, no matter how small.”

Advice for future volunteers: “Find a cause you are passionate about, and just do it. Even if you are scared or too busy or just unsure. Go for it. I promise, you will never regret giving back.”

Mickie Yager

Yager, 48, of Bernard, Iowa, volunteers for Catholic Charities, working with prisoners who are navigating their way through the jail system or working their way through drug court. Prior to the pandemic, she visited residents at Sunnycrest Manor, particularly those who might not otherwise have visitors. It is something she hopes to resume again soon.

When she’s not volunteering, she’s working with patients as a chiropractor at Key West Chiropractic. She also enjoys spending time kayaking with her husband, Josh, and their dogs, and enjoying life and family.

Starting out: “I have been a volunteer for 13 years. I decided to volunteer because when I was younger, I was in and out of trouble. I had great family support and also the support of Catholic Charities.”

Motivation: “I want to support those in need and let them know they’re not alone, that they are loved and cared for.”

Passion: “I’m passionate about jail and prison re-entry services, animal rescue and anything that spreads compassion and kindness.”

It’s worth it: “A wonderful group of volunteers from Catholic Charities showed love and compassion to a complete stranger, and that really opened my eyes. I wanted to do the same for others who were struggling.”

Advice for future volunteers: “Try and spend some time touching the lives of those who need it.”

Deb Schroeder

Schroeder, 62, of Dubuque, has worked for Dupaco Community Credit Union for 29 years, starting out as a part-time teller. She currently is the Vice President of community outreach and education. In this role, she partners with schools, employers and other organizations to help the community in the area of financial literacy.

Schroeder has been volunteering with Fountain of Youth since its 2017 inception and currently serves on the Transforming the Future 2021 event committee. Its third annual fundraising event is scheduled for September.

Starting out: “I have volunteered in many, many organizations throughout my adult life. I started volunteering in opportunities where I could benefit from time spent with my kids. From Girl Scout leader to AYSO Soccer coach and everything in between, if my kids were involved, I was helping out. I loved being involved with their school activities and with Sacred Heart Church in Dubuque.”

Motivation: “Knowing that what I can do can make a difference. I like to be the worker bee, hands on. Whatever needs to be done, I want to help.”

Passion: “I am most passionate about helping people who are struggling to find their way, letting them know there is hope and help available to them. So many people don’t think they deserve a second chance. Generational poverty is real. I love to see the participants realize they can get ahead, they can have goals, they can manage money, build credit, and be eligible to have a credit union membership.

“I am also very passionate about helping women who are experiencing hardships. Opening Doors in Dubuque has provided our Community Outreach and Education team the opportunity to coach women to get ahead. We meet with women and guide them to reach their financial goals.

“Overall, my day to day work has provided me the opportunity to ‘meet people where they are.’ It’s all about making a difference for someone. Small steps lead to big outcomes, and it can change someone’s life.”

It’s all worth it: “I have always felt it was worth it. I believe it is in giving that you receive.

“One time that sticks out in my memory is when I led the luminary committee for the Relay for Life event in Dubuque. There were hundreds of luminaries displayed in memory or honor of cancer victims. The faces of the survivors is a look you will never forget.

“Another time is when I was mentoring young adults at the Fountain of Youth. I was coaching a young women on how to prepare for a job interview and how to dress professionally. It was so rewarding to see how she responded and was so receptive to positive feedback and encouragement. It was as simple as building her confidence so she could be prepared for her first job interview.”

Advice for future volunteers: “Find a cause that you feel passionate about. It is so much more rewarding to be involved in organization that you can relate to and care about. You will definitely feel the joy when giving your time and talent.”

Kathy Hutton

Hutton, 53, of Dubuque, is the director of the St. Stephen’s Food Bank, a branch of the River Bend Food Bank, where she works with volunteers and staff to help end hunger in Dubuque and Jackson counties. She began her career there in 2010.

Besides distributing food to those in need, her job includes cultivating positive relationships with agencies, program participants, staff, volunteers, donors, the media and members of the public. She established the Mobile Food Pantry Distribution program in 2014, the School Pantry Program in 2017 and the Hospital Pantry in 2020. These programs have increased distribution of food in the region from around 800,000 meals in 2010 to more than two million meals at the end of 2020.

She has been volunteering for 26 years. Currently, she also services on the Dubuque Food Policy Council and the Wellness Coalition and volunteers with the Saturday Night Food for the Soul program at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church.

When she’s not working to end hunger or volunteering with other organizations, she enjoys reading, woodworking, gardening and cooking.

Starting out: “Past volunteer work included Girl Scouts, Junior Achievement. 4-H and teaching Sunday School.”

Motivation: “Feeding people is what I do for a living, but I also do it because of the pure joy in it. I am filled with absolute joy when I hand someone a delicious box of food or plate of freshly prepared food and see the look of delight as they accept this food. My volunteer work at the Saturday Night Food For the Soul meal was the cause that brought me into the work I do today at the food bank. As I volunteered to feed people, it changed my life by watching lives change not only by giving them hope through food but also through conversation.

“Through volunteering, a difference is made in someone’s life making the efforts all worthwhile. Volunteering makes me feel complete because giving to others without expecting anything in return is reward enough for me.”

Passion: “Making a difference in someone’s life whether it is through a warm meal, a box of food, a donation to a cause or just listening to someone or helping with any need another human may have.”

It’s worth it: “One Saturday, I was just heading out the door when the phone rang. I knew I had two choices either go back and answer it or leave. I chose to answer the phone.

“The lady on the other end told me I did not know her, but she wanted me to know how much the food we gave her meant that day. She proceeded to tell me that she had been out of state to visit her children in Ohio for two weeks. She came home on Wednesday, and the car broke down. The repair bill took all but $20 of her monthly income which she spent on groceries Friday and then someone told her about the Mobile Food Pantry.

“She told me the food would get her through the next 10 days until her next Social Security payment would come through the bank. By he end of the phone call, she was in tears, telling me how much the food meant to her.

“This is the type of story that always makes me realize how important the work we do really is.”

Advice for future volunteers: “Know what you want to get out of the experience. Volunteering is about giving so make sure you want to give.

“Know the way in which you want to give your time. What are your passions? Make sure the volunteer activity is something you will enjoy. Speak with others that have volunteered before making a commitment.

“Be honest about how much time you can commit to the volunteer activity, and make sure the activity is a match.”

Danita Grant

Grant, 45, of Dubuque, has been volunteering for 21 years. When she moved to Dubuque, she began volunteering with the Little Cloud Girl Scout Council as a way to get involved in the community and learn about the city she now called home. Having been a scout herself, it seemed a natural fit.

A graduate of Drake University Law School, Grant came to Dubuque and started her career with the Fuerste Law Firm. She practiced law for more than 16 years and is now a wealth advisor at Dubuque Bank & Trust, where she focuses primarily on administering trust and estates.

She also is involved with the Dubuque Rotary Club. She was named the club’s Rotarian of the Year in 2018 and has served as its president. She coordinates the club’s exchange program, working with youth both locally and internationally to provide positive exchange experiences for high school students.

Grant also has served on the Northeast Iowa School of Music board, taught Junior Achievement classes in local schools, and recently worked with her sons on a Dubuque County Conservation project to clean up Catfish Creek, a project she said was enormously enjoyable because she got to volunteer with her family.

Starting out: “Around the same time I was a board member of the Little Cloud Girl Scout Council, I was appointed to the City of Dubuque Housing Commission as a housing commissioner. I wanted to learn more about the city, its needs and the challenges it faces.

“In 2012, I joined the board of the Northeast Iowa School of Music. Music has always been an important part of my life, starting piano lessons at a very young age. I believe the arts are very important in the development of our children’s lives and have instilled that in my boys. NISOM’s mission of making the life-changing benefits of music education and enrichment accessible to all through instruction, performance and outreach struck a chord with me and after meeting NISOM’s founder, Tracey Rush, I knew it was an organization I wanted to be a part of and assist. I remained on the board as a member and Treasurer until 2020.”

Motivation: “I started volunteering when I moved to Dubuque to get to know my new hometown, to meet people and to truly become a part of the community. I have made many connections and lifelong friends through all of my volunteer experiences that I likely would never have made otherwise. I have been blessed with a very fortunate life, in some cases due to nothing I have done, such as being born into a hardworking, financially stable family. I wish everyone could be so fortunate. I believe it is important to give back and help when and where you can. It is important to me to show my boys that they can, in fact, make a difference in the world for the better. No act is too small to effect change.”

Passion: “All of the above.”

It’s worth it: “Many of my volunteer opportunities through Rotary have given me the satisfaction of knowing, without any doubt, that my time and effort is absolutely worth it.

“One opportunity that I was able to see first-hand, the ‘after effect’ of Rotary’s combined global efforts to help an organization, was the assistance provided to the Working Boys Center in Quito, Ecuador (which my oldest son and I were able to visit in 2019).

“The funds we were able to raise through our events and volunteer efforts to purchase much needed tools and machines for their machine shop, assisted the Working Boys Center in providing better education, job skills training and employment opportunities to those in need in Quito who are participants at the Center. The skills the students learn there are literally life-changing. My son and I were able to witness that and see first-hand how Rotary helped improve some of the lives there.”

Advice for future volunteers: “Do it. Don’t hesitate. Any organization or cause will be so appreciative of your help.

“Volunteer with an organization or for a cause that you are passionate about. It will make your experience that much more meaningful to you.

“Volunteering is a two-way street. It not only benefits the organization or cause you choose to help, but it also benefits you by enriching your life, making new friends, expanding your network, and boosting your social skills, among other things.”

Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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