In their continuing effort to provide leadership and support for community-based action to improve the quality of life of its residents, leaders of the Urbandale Community Action Network (UCAN) hope to make Urbandale the top mid-size community in the country by 2017, the year of its 100th birthday. Still, if they were to fall short of their goal, there are thousands of local residents like 84-year-old Ben Cosgrove who already consider UCAN to be tops in their books thanks to its generous and consistent support of its citizens in need of basic necessities such as food, clothing and transportation.
“I think UCAN’s great. They work miracles as far as I’m concerned,” says Cosgrove, who relies on UCAN volunteer Fred Koch to drive him to the doctor twice weekly for dialysis.
The nonprofit, volunteer-driven citizen group is the second generation of the Urbandale Community Action Council, which was formed in the late 1990s and oversaw a handful of committees. In 2009, a group of volunteers breathed new life into the Action Council, and one year later they formed UCAN, an umbrella organization that has grown by leaps and bounds.
Today, the multi-faceted group boasts more than 30 services, programs and partnerships that include everything from assisting city entities such as police, fire and Parks and Recreation, to programs for youth, seniors and veterans. It also hosts popular events like the Mayor’s Bike Ride and Movies in the Park and provides oversight for committees such as Caring Corps, Character Counts, Leadership Urbandale, Friends of the Parks, Strengthening Neighborhoods and uFit.
“UCAN is all about connecting volunteers and citizens,” says Mary Polson, program coordinator. “We want people to get connected, get informed and get involved.”
UCAN President Betty Devine says the group helps to preserve Urbandale’s small-town feel by encouraging neighbors to help one another.
“We have great volunteers. They’re the ones who make the difference. We just need more of them so we can offer more programs,” she says.
In the nonprofit world, the search for additional volunteers and funding is a never-ending quest, and UCAN is no exception. Polson says UCAN currently has about 150 volunteers, and in the fiscal year 2012-2013, it generated more than $125,000 in revenue, including $50,000 from the City of Urbandale, $41,000 from public donations and $20,000 from foundation grants. Fifty-two percent of UCAN’s expenses are payroll, followed by $24,000 for committees, $15,000 for events and $8,000 for operations.
On March 1, UCAN will host its annual Mardi Gras fundraiser from 7 – 11 p.m. at the Holiday Inn and Suites Northwest, 4800 Merle Hay Road. Tickets to the event are $50, of which $25 are tax deductible. The event will include live music, a silent auction and a raffle.
“It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year, and it accounts for about 10 percent of our budget,” says Polson. “It enables us to do more programming, so we encourage everyone to attend and show their support for the community.”
Money raised by UCAN also benefits the community as a whole, not just its clients, says Polson. For example, on Jan. 18, the group will host its annual Snow/No Snow Day at Lions Park from 1 – 3 p.m. The free event includes outdoor activities and a Game Truck filled with video games.
“We offer a lot of family activities,” says Devine, who also serves as co-chair of UCAN’s events committee. “We try to offer as many free or low cost events that are comfortable and safe.”
Giving back to the community
If you want proof of how much need there is in Urbandale and how much fun it can be to help fulfill that need, spend some time at the UCAN office with Polson and volunteers like LaVonne Clark and Jene Breiten. On the day that we visited with them last month, the three women were tackling the day’s problems with great humility, some humor and an abundant willingness to help others.
“When I retired in 2001, I started volunteering with the Caring Corps committee as part of the office staff, and I’ve been here ever since,” says Clark, who volunteers four hours every Tuesday to answer telephone calls and fills requests mostly for drivers to transport clients to doctors and the grocery store. “I like the contact with people. They’re very appreciative of what we do for them. A lot of times they just need someone to talk to.”
Breiten, who began volunteering with Caring Corps in 2003, performs the same duties as Clark does, only on Mondays. She calls it “plain old office work,” but admits she enjoys it because she finds the work and camaraderie to be rewarding. They are two of five longtime volunteers who help staff UCAN’s office each day of the work week, alongside Jo Henry, Emma Nelson and Charlotte Leckband.
“They’re the backbone. They’re here every day,” says Polson of her volunteer staff. “If I need extra help, one of them will step up, and the clients know who’s here each day.”
Polson, who joined Caring Corps in 2002 as a volunteer driver because she wanted to “pay it forward,” and her staff meet monthly to discuss issues concerning UCAN and how to improve its services. Over the years, they have also become good friends.
“What’s really neat is how the six of us come from different backgrounds, but we’ve become friends because of our volunteer work,” says Breiten. “It’s like family.”
Breiten says their motivation to serve is merely to improve the community.
“I don’t feel like we’re do-gooders to get attention,” she says. “I feel like we’re helpful.”
Polson sees UCAN as more than a volunteer program. She says it also helps increase the community’s profile as a caring, compassionate place to raise a family.
“We all have a passion for this community and want to see it be the best it can be. We want people to move here because of the opportunities that we have, and I see UCAN as a part of our economic development because employers and employees want to have those amenities,” she says.
The three women are also quick to give credit where credit is due, namely to the drivers. In 2012, UCAN arranged more than 1,000 rides for clients, and they were expected to surpass that total in 2013.
“They’re the ones who should be commended because they go above and beyond,” says Breiten of the drivers.
Clark agrees with her friend.
“We see the good side of people in the drivers. They do it because they really enjoy it. Sometimes a client will add something on to a request, and the driver usually finds the time to do it for them. They’re big-hearted,” she says.
Cosgrove, the recipient of two artificial knees and two Purple Hearts as a result of his military service during the Korean War, puts it more bluntly when describing how thankful he is to Koch, a UCAN volunteer driver.
“Fred has helped me more than anyone. I’d be on my butt if it wasn’t for him,” he says, with a laugh.
Koch, 62, has been driving Cosgrove to doctor appointments on a regular basis for three years. During that time, the two men have become friends.
“It’s been great to get to know one another,” says Koch. “We talk about high school sports and other things.”
Koch joined UCAN in 2006 after he retired. He and his wife helped set up a food pantry, and he also helps with minor home repairs for clients.
“I promised myself after I retired that if I had the time, the health and a pickup truck that I would volunteer,” says Koch. “It’s about neighbors helping neighbors.”
Devine, who previously volunteered for the Action Council for about 10 years before moving on to UCAN, says if every resident volunteered as little as one hour per month, it would greatly improve UCAN’s outreach and the community as a whole.
“We set it up so volunteers can choose what fits their lifestyle,” she says. “They don’t have to commit to 20 hours a month. We’ll work with people who are willing to do what they can. There’a an old saying, ‘many hands make light work.’ It’s true, and giving back to your community is so much fun. If everybody offers a little, we’ll be able to do a lot.”