A local nonprofit organization made a life-changing surprise gift on Saturday when it presented Dubuque resident Jamie Koppes with a custom van.
Koppes, 41, has spina bifida. A well-known fixture in the volunteer community, she donates her time to the American Red Cross and is on the board of Ark Advocates, an organization that assists people with disabilities.
But on Saturday, the tables were turned as Koppes was presented with a 2005 Dodge Caravan Entervan by the Pay It Foreward Connolly Foundation.
The nonprofit is named in honor of the late Andrew Connolly, a Dubuque native and National Guard veteran who died in 2011 from a service- related spinal tumor.
Jennifer Rang, Connolly’s widow, heads up the group, which seeks to assist people with disabilities and their families in acquiring adaptive equipment, as well as assisting veterans.
The van had been sitting in a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, parking lot for sale by a private owner. Andrew’s brother, Mike, brought it to the attention of his sister-in-law.
“Mike said it was for sale and wanted to know if there was something we could do with it if we bought it,” Rang said.
A few weeks later, a volunteer with Pay It Foreward, Aulanda Krause, mentioned Koppes, whom she knew through her work with Ark Advocates.
“It was just a perfect coincidence,” Rang said.
Jolene Carpenter, of the Red Cross, said the van will be a game-changer for Koppes.
“She has a lot of friends who are more than happy to transport her,” Carpenter said. “She has resources. She’s got people. But this will be huge for her.”
Koppes was told the meeting in the parking lot of the American Red Cross headquarters on Asbury Road was to get together with other volunteers after three months of isolation due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
After the group greeted each other, a parade of cars entered the parking lot, horns honking and hands waving, trailed by the van with a red bow on the hood.
“What is going on?” Koppes asked.
It took a moment for her to realize what was happening.
“I can’t believe it,” Koppes said.
Once she was officially presented with the vehicle, she thanked her friends and family.
“I truly am blessed to have all of you in my life,” she said. “I truly love each and every one of you.”
Koppes’ mother, Shirley, reiterated the importance of the gift.
“Now she can use her electric wheelchair to get in and out of her own vehicle with the ramp,” Shirley Koppes said. “It’s going to give her a tremendous amount of independence and confidence. Before, she had to use her manual wheelchair, and I would have to lift her into the car. It was exhausting, both for her and for me, or for whoever was taking her somewhere.”
The foundation also had a custom decal placed inside the vehicle with Koppes’ own words: “Obstacles only make me stronger.”
However, now, there will be one less obstacle to test Koppes’ resolve, which is OK with her.
“It’s going to open up a whole new world,” she said.