Jesup High School FFA students pitch in on derecho cleanup

FFA works with Christian Farmers International and Go Serve Global

Jesup High School freshman Klair Kite carries tree debris Friday to a burn pile as she and other members of the school's
Jesup High School freshman Klair Kite carries tree debris Friday to a burn pile as she and other members of the school’s FFA chapter continue the cleanup at the home of Helen Kozlik in rural Van Horne. The FFA chapter helped the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International cleanup at Kozlik’s property, which lost about 20 trees in the Aug. 10 derecho. The group used to be known as Future Farmers of America before changing its name to simply FFA. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

VAN HORNE — With each sweep of the rake and each broken tree branch lobbed onto a pile, Jesup High School students helped restore what’s left of a grove of trees behind Helen Kozlik’s house.

The Aug. 10 derecho felled or damaged more than 20 trees on Kozlik’s farm in rural Van Horne in Benton County, collapsed the corncrib and left so much debris the 91-year-old didn’t know how she was going to use her riding mower to cut the grass.

But then the yellow school bus rolled up the gravel lane.

“I thought it would be fun to come out and see what happened and help out,” said Matt Zuck, 16, a Jesup High junior.

He was one of 16 Jesup FFA members who came out Friday to help clean up Kozlik’s farm. They joined the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International and Go Serve Global, two nonprofits that have been working for two months to help Eastern Iowa farmers recover from the derecho.

Iowa sustained $3.77 billion in agricultural losses, the state reported in its petition to seek federal disaster aid for 57 counties. An estimated 10 million acres of corn and soybeans were severely damaged in Iowa.

In addition to flattening crops, winds of over 100 mph mangled grain bins, shredded barns and sent debris flying.

Joel Brown, 76, of Mechanicsville, has volunteered at several farms, usually running the chain saw. One of the Fellowship of Christian Farmers’ goals has been getting younger volunteers, which is where the FFA chapters fit in.

“They need to be challenged and to help their peers in agriculture,” he said.


Work on Friday involved hauling broken tree limbs to one of several burn piles and raking up smaller twigs. Students wearing cowboy boots, baseball caps and hoodies made dozens of trips to the pile, talking and laughing. One student had a belt-clipped radio playing country music.

Isabelle Even, 14, a Jesup freshman, signed up for the work day because she loves to be outside.

“To actually not wear a mask,” she added.

Some of the FFA chapter’s 2020 events were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Melissa Heeren, the FFA adviser and agriculture instructor.

“It’s working out that we can help out down here,” she said. “FFA should definitely have ties back to the community.”

Kozlik looked on, counting the students to make sure she had enough cookies for lunch. The widow was home alone Aug. 10 when the storm struck.

“I was in there with a German helmet on my head,” she said, referring to a helmet her husband, Joe, brought home from World War II. Joe Kozlik died in 2012.

When the derecho finally abated, Helen Kozlik walked outside and saw several trees narrowly missed her house and she couldn’t get out of her driveway. “It was pure devastation.”

Since then, she’s had help from several volunteer groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Farmers, based in Lexington, Ill., and Go Serve Global, based in Storm Lake. It will be a while before she needs to mow the grove again, she said, but the students’ volunteer work will make it possible.

Comments: (319) 339-3157;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.