Freedom Festival honors heroes
For more than a decade, the Freedom Festival has honored unsung heroes who make significant contributions through volunteerism and service to the Cedar Rapids community. These are this year’s heroes and Patriot Award winner.
Pete Larson and his 8-year-old golden retriever Gunnar have brought a smile to the face of many Cedar Rapidians for the past five years.
Larson helps rescue dogs find an appropriate adoptive family. In 2010, after already finding 50 dogs a home, Larson adopted Gunnar.
During the holiday season in 2010, Larson took Gunnar along when he rang bells for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign. In March 2011, Gunnar became a certified therapy dog.
Gunnar served as a Reading Education Assistance Dog to help kids struggling with reading in local schools learn to read in a stress-free way.
Larson and Gunnar also have visited hospitals, Cedar Rapids public libraries, the University of Iowa and hospices, among other locations, to help put people at ease or relieve stress.
“He cares about people, he cares about animals, he cares about his community and that is evident through his involvements,” said Dan Mussell, who met Larson through Retrieve a Golden of Minnesota and nominated him for the award.
Larson said Gunnar deserves all the credit for the Heroes recognition.
“There was one lady that was within a week of dying, and he put a smile on her face — I think only a dog can do that,” Larson said.
Kathy Good always has been a starter. From organizing the neighborhood circus as a kid, to starting a social work program, to opening the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy, Good has spent her entire life taking an idea and running with it.
Good also knows all too well the hardship that can come with being a caregiver, after caring for nearly a decade for her late husband Dave Good.
“Caregiving is stressful at best,” Good said.
Fortunately, being a social worker and having a large network in the area took some of the burden away. Still, she realized not every caregiver would be as fortunate, and even the fortunate ones wouldn’t have it easy.
Starting in 2014, Good worked with Tim Charles, president and chief executive officer of Mercy Medical Center, to start the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy. She now serves as a volunteer director for the organization. The center gives caregivers the resources they need to feel supported in their roles.
Even when her husband died in May 2015, Good kept working on getting the center started.
“She continued moving forward and she never missed a beat,” said Kurt Beenan, who along with his wife Kristen nominated Good for the award.
Jeralyn Westercamp is a Cedar Rapids native, and has been trying to help the area since she was a tween.
“When there is an issue in your community, it’s your duty and responsibility to do something about it,” Westercamp said.
As a middle school student, she started Kids 2 Kids: Tools 4 Schools, a registered non-profit that helps get school supplies to students who can’t afford them. As a student at Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Westercamp started CR Homeworks, a registered non-profit to help get household goods to flood survivors.
“It wasn’t necessarily about starting a non-profit, but about filling the need,” she said.
Westercamp continued to serve at the University of Iowa as she pursued undergraduate degrees in management, marketing and political science, which she earned in 2014. She even served as an intern for the Freedom Festival in 2011.
In May, she finished her master’s in health administration from the University of Iowa and will begin work on her master’s of business administration this fall.
Her volunteer and professional passions vary from serving veterans to health care to animals.
“When you’re open to opportunities, they seem to work out,” she said.
In its second year, the Freedom Festival’s Patriot Award honors a community member who has overcome personal obstacles to contribute to society.
This year’s recipient, Grant Higgins, is known among many organizations for his volunteerism, but is especially known within the Freedom Festival for always going the extra mile.
One time, the Freedom Festival organizers were trying to figure out how they were going to pick up supplies, but upon arriving at the office, saw Higgins was two steps ahead of them and already had brought the supplies back to the building.
“To have someone who is thinking ahead of us, is really helpful,” Neff said.
Higgins has been volunteering with various organizations to fill his time since retiring from a 25-year career at Quaker Oats.
“The community has given to me, so I figure it’s time for me to give back to it,” Higgins said.