Government

Even without the roast, Joni Ernst's ride raises $20,000 for nonprofits

Senator's pandemic-altered fundraising event aids veterans group, derecho victims

Sen. Joni Ernst arrives Oct. 11 at Metro Harley-Davidson in Cedar Rapids. The event was a stop on a two-day ride across
Sen. Joni Ernst arrives Oct. 11 at Metro Harley-Davidson in Cedar Rapids. The event was a stop on a two-day ride across Iowa that replaced the Republican senator’s annual Roast and Ride fundraiser amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Nick Rohlman/Freelance)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The coronavirus pandemic earlier this year forced a change of plans to Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual motorcycle ride to raise money for nonprofits.

Ernst has had five Roast and Ride fundraisers since being elected in 2014. The events included a motorcycle ride from Des Moines to Boone, where there would be a large gathering, a barbecue and speeches. Speakers included contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2015, then-presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016 and other prominent Republicans, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley in 2019.

This year, the large-scale event was dropped due to COVID-19. Instead, Ernst led several rides around the state, including one that started in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 11. The Ride Across Iowa event in Cedar Rapids attracted about 80 riders as well as others.

Proceeds have been used to support the Puppy Jake Foundation, which trains service dogs to assist combat-wounded military veterans. This year, Ernst also promised to donate half the funds to the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation’s Derecho Disaster Recovery Fund.

What’s happened since

The campaign’s Ride Across Iowa raised more than $20,000 — double the amount raised by Ernst’s previous fundraisers for nonprofits.

The contribution of more than $10,000 from the Ernst ride will cover about half the expense of training a service dog, said Maggie Donovan of the Puppy Jake Foundation.

By the time a service dog is fully trained, the foundation has invested a couple of years and about $20,000. The training is done by volunteers called “fosters” under the supervision of professional trainers.

By comparison, Donovan said she’s heard estimates that buying a fully trained service dog could cost between $35,000 and $50,000.

“They do a lot good, but they do cost some money,” she said.

The dogs are trained to assist veterans with symptoms stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury as well as provide basic mobility assistance.

Once the training is complete and the dogs are placed, the Puppy Jake Foundation checks in with the veterans every three to six months to make sure the dog is being used as a service dog and the veteran is progressing with his or her healing.

The foundation, which started its work in February 2013, has placed 25 to 30 service dogs with combat-wounded veterans across the country, with most in Iowa, Donovan said.

In addition to contributions, Puppy Jake relies on volunteer trainers.

“We can always use more fosters. That’s how our program will grow,” Donovan said.

The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation will add its $10,000 share of the money raised by Ernst to its derecho recovery fund, said Corinne Ramler, the foundation’s vice president for marketing and communications. The fund has raised $1.4 million from contributors in 50 states and three countries. As of last week, the fund had awarded $450,000 in grants to nonprofit organizations that provide services to meet derecho victims’ immediate needs, such as housing, health care and food, she said.

The foundation and its nonprofit partners are transitioning to address longer-term needs, including mental health services and rental services. There also is an expectation that more derecho damage to homes may come to light during winter.

“We’re trying to look at the next phase,” Ramler said, “and that includes working with our partner organizations to make sure we don’t duplicate services.”

The foundation is accepting grant applications from nonprofits serving derecho victims.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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