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2 volunteers, local health care workers honored in Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival Tribute to Heroes
The hometown heroes nominated for the upcoming Tribute to Heroes virtual event have different avenues of service, but all have made a difference in their communities.
The event, which is traditionally a public dinner kicking off the summer Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, was held as a scaled-back private dinner on May 24 to honor this year’s heroes. The dinner will be livestreamed on June 17 as a virtual event.
Allen Stekl, a volunteer with the Eastern Iowa Honor flight, and Tracy Kading, a retired Hy-Vee store manager who volunteers with various organizations, were chosen as heroes for their volunteer work in the community.
The third honor was given to the medical community and health care workers as a whole, accepted on their behalf by Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi, Mercy Medical Center CEO and President Tim Charles, and Unity-Point Health — Cedar Rapids CEO and President Michelle Niermann.
For Allen Stekl, nothing compares to the feeling of accompanying veterans on the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, which takes them to Washington, D.C. to see various landmarks and war memorials.
Stekl began volunteering with the flight after organizing a fundraising campaign at his work. After going on a flight for the first time, he said he was hooked.
“Once you go on a flight, you understand the impact it has on veterans,” he said. “It's a very emotional day for them.”
Over the past 10 years, Stekl has served in various volunteer roles, including as the organization’s president, vice president and fundraising director.
As a veteran himself, Stekl said the Honor Flight is important to give veterans the appreciation that many did not get when they returned from overseas.
The program was originally offered only to World War II veterans, but has expanded to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Before COVID-19 halted flights, Stekl said there would often be hundreds of people gathered at the airport to welcome veterans back from the flight.
“They never got a welcome home when they came home from Vietnam or Korea,” he said. “History tells the story, that they weren't treated very kindly by American citizens.”
Despite his work, Stekl remains humble, saying he knows of many people more deserving of the title “hero” than himself.
“I certainly didn’t get into volunteering to be recognized, and I’m not raising my hand to be recognized again,” he said. “Because I just want to go out and do what I enjoy to do.”
Tracy Kading learned the value of service volunteering while in Mason City, and he brought that philosophy with him when he moved to Cedar Rapids in 2012.
Kading, a former Marine and retired Hy-Vee store manager, has volunteered for a number of organizations in the Cedar Rapids area and Iowa, including Habitat for Humanity, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight.
Kading became interested in volunteer work for Type 1 diabetes in 2000 while living in Mason City, and he said the early volunteer work opened his eyes to how his service can impact his community.
“I probably didn’t understand how an individual can impact a community by helping out, and so I learned it there,” he said. “And it just feels good to me.”
Kading has biked hundreds of miles to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Relief Fund, taking him as far as Death Valley in California and Whitefish, Montana. He’s built houses for Habitat for Humanity all over the world, including in the back parking lot of the Edgewood Hy-Vee while he was the store manager there.
As a Marine veteran, Kading said his military experience informed his view of service. The work of Marines, he said, isn’t always flashy and often involves helping build communities.
“The purpose of being a Marine is to help people,” he said. “That’s how I see it, and that is not always in some kind of a life-threatening defense situation.”
Health care workers
Health care workers became the face of the fight against COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic. The long hours and often tragic, but necessary work persisted through uncertainty and rising hospitalizations.
Charles and Niermann, both Eastern Iowa hospital CEOs, said the prevailing challenge early in the pandemic was uncertainty about the virus.
“With this pandemic, no one knew what to expect,” Niermann said. “No one knew when we would see the first patient in the hospital and no one knew how many patients we might see.”
Iowa hospitals saw the peak in COVID-19 patients in November of 2020, which was one of the most stressful times for hospital staff, the hospital officials said.
For all three health officials, collaboration in the industry was key to making it through the pandemic. Niermann said Cedar Rapids hospitals banded together like never before to help each other and share strategies and equipment.
Dwivedi said the public health department could not have made it without collaboration from area hospitals and other partners.
“Public health is a team sport,” he said. “We cannot really do our work without partnerships throughout our community.”
While COVID-19 cases are lower now, widespread vaccination is a vital step to getting over the pandemic, Dwivedi stressed.
“It’s very safe, and it’s a mechanism by which we can beat the virus,” he said. “We may be tired of the virus, but the virus is not tired of us.”
Each of the hospital director said they were only representatives of the many health care heroes deserving of the award.
“I wasn't being honored. My response was that I had the privilege of representing Mercy in it being honored,” Charles said. “This is an institutional recognition, and I'm really proud on behalf of the team to be receiving it, because I know they deserve it.”
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