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Zach Johnson Foundation's new leader took over a week before the pandemic took hold of Iowa

Jenny Becker now managing a June 6 gala fundraiser amid cross-country protests against police violence

CEDAR RAPIDS — It was March 9, about a week before the coronavirus pandemic began changing the lives of nearly all Iowans, when Jenny Becker officially became executive director of the Zach Johnson Foundation.

Becker and her husband had a flight back to Cedar Rapids that day from Washington, D.C., where they were visiting one of their daughters. Becker said the trip gave her the sense something big could be coming.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds hadn’t yet recommended any shutdowns, but Becker’s daughter seemed anxious, she said, and on the trip home she noticed passengers in face masks and gloves.

“It was one short week later that the world kind of shut down,” she said.

Despite her daughter’s warning, Becker said she never would have imagined she would be working from home during her first three months overseeing the nonprofit, which supports children in Cedar Rapids, as schools across the state were ordered to stay closed through the school year to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

This past week, she navigated whether to hold the foundation’s summer gala amid cross-country demonstrations against police violence and the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans.

Considering the foundation’s mission and feedback from black community leaders, Becker said the foundation, founded by the Cedar Rapids-born pro golfer, decided to move forward with its virtual gala Saturday.

“We’re mourning along with everyone else,” she said. “This is not the world we want for our kids.”

The gala last year brought in $1.1 million, and the foundation hopes the virtual event this weekend will recover some of the revenue it has lost to the pandemic.

They already have canceled the foundation’s summer reading program, Kids on Course University. Instead the foundation will support the Cedar Rapids Community School District with staffing to provide free meals to children and teenagers through Aug. 7.

“That being said, I’m blessed with a great job, a place to live and plenty of food,” Becker said, noting the Cedar Rapids parents who have lost paychecks, the older siblings taking care of their brothers and sisters and the at least 1,000 children without access to digital learning. “ … While my life has been inconvenienced, it’s nothing compared to the huge challenges that families are facing.”

Her time as executive director thus far has been difficult and unexpected, Becker said, but has left her more motivated than ever.

“There’s so much potential — young people are incredibly resilient and have so many obstacles that I did not experience as a young person at all,” she said. “This is my heart to do everything I can to make the future better for these kids, and at this moment in time the way we all work together to make it better is by making sure they get food.”

Becker moved to Cedar Rapids in 1992 with her family. Originally from Rochester, she had plans to return to Minnesota after a couple of years. She never left.

“There’s an amazing spirit of working together in this community,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of that.”

Becker joined the foundation in November after working as director of grant programs at the Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and managing corporate giving, volunteer programs, STEM and diversity initiatives at Collins Aerospace.

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“I know that, personally, Zach and Kim Johnson as well as our entire board and our staff are incredibly committed to serving our kids,” Becker said. “Despite this global pandemic.”

Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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