These are the amazing, generous, and fascinating Iowans who will be sharing their stories
Abe Goldstien was born and raised in an orthodox Jewish community in Rochester, New York. He moved to Des Moines in 1969 to pursue an education and career in advertising. During college at Drake University – and for several years later – Abe had very little to do with Des Moines’s Jewish community or the religious customs of his youth. It wasn’t until he started to perform Yiddish (Eastern European Jewish) music on his accordion that he reconnected with his heritage. Today, Abe is the leader of the Java Jews, Iowa’s only klezmer music band. He’s also a CultureALL Ambassador who talks to children and adults about keeping alive their unique family customs and traditions, no matter how strange they are.
“I grew up in an orthodox Jewish home, but I pretty much abandoned the religious customs of my upbringing once I moved to Des Moines for college. Many years later, I became friends with a local chassidic rabbi. He connected me with my roots by describing me as a 'Goldstien Jew' – a title I am proud to carry.”
Anthony Stevens is chair of the psychology department at DMACC Urban Campus. His work on “Culturally Relevant Algebra Teaching: The Case of African Drumming” has been published in the Journal of Mathematics and Culture. Anthony lectures and performs in Iowa schools and colleges frequently. His instruction spans the subjects of mathematics, social studies, African American history, and music appreciation. He also is the percussionist with The Bone People.
"Over the years, I have had the opportunity to have conversations with several white supremacists. This specific story is mine as an African American man and my experience with a particular member of the Ku Klux Klan and the relationship we built."
Carrie Jacobs grew up outside of Lacona, Iowa, on a small family farm and learned to drive at a very early age. She never thought her life driving pick-ups, four-wheelers and tractors was unusual until she met "city kids" who hadn't been behind the wheel of a car until driver's ed. The confidence she had driving on her family farm mirrored Carrie's desire to see a wider world, that included moving to Pella to attend Central College and then working as an educator for over 20 years in the West Des Moines Community School District. She began her career as an alternative education social studies teacher and currently is the Online Learning Coordinator. She is the parent of two children, one of whom is learning to drive now.
"I couldn't wait to leave small-town Iowa. Driving became a way for me to explore, to see different places, to expand my world. While I did leave, I took a set of values and beliefs with me that have helped me bridge the rural-urban divide, one grounded in curiosity and an appreciation for the wider world. Now that I am parenting "city kids," my worlds are coming together."
Caryn Kelly has a background inconflict-resolution and peace-building in divided societies, including timespent in Northern Ireland, Mexico and on the US/Mexico border. Curious to learnmore about other cultures, Caryn volunteered with an ESL program for immigrantsand refugees in Minneapolis and pursued a career in teaching English. For over15 years, Caryn has taught and trained volunteers and advised diverse adultlearners on their educational and career training opportunities.Carynhas worked on LSI’s Community-based English program, EMBARC’s RefugeeRISEAmeriCorps, and most recently, the Iowa International Center’s Welcome EnglishAmeriCorps program. Caryn and Lilian Okech (also anOpen Book) met as fellow business owners in 2017 and have recently formed Hopeto Shine, a new non-profit focused on developing the potential of immigrant andrefugee women as leaders in their homes, workplaces, and community.
Throughout my career, I met many hard-working students, full of potential, but who were often unable to find work that could support their families.Many felt frustrated by their inability to fulfill their ambition for a better life for themselves and their children in their new country. Understanding their drive, and eager to make a difference, I listened to a student’s suggestion to start a business that could not only employ English language learners, but also help them achieve their American dreams. My story explores how my company, Shine Housekeeping, is dedicated to creating positive employment and learning opportunities for immigrant and refugee women as they make their new homes in Central Iowa.
A Chicago native who ditched corporate America, Christina Fernandez Morrow now runs nonprofits and launches cool initiatives like the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival. She is a published author and blogger. When not writing, or negotiating band contracts, she bikes local trails with her daughter, knits and plans international adventures.
Mourning the death of her husband, Christina Fernandez-Morrow navigates the dubious world of online dating as a widow and discovers the expansive nature of love.
Dr. Jackie earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music & Dance. She worked as a performing artist and owned her own business, Potpourri Fine Arts Academy, for over 25 years before returning to school to earn a Masters of Divinity degree. An ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, she enjoys singing, dancing, playing piano, ringing handbells, writing, and photography.
“This story begins in Dayton, Ohio in the aftermath of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. On its face, it might seem to be a story primarily concerned with theme of living in a majority world as a minority. However, I am more a story of living as a square peg in a round world.”
JJ Kapur was two years old when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. His family was watching the news when something unexpected happened: a turning point that would change how JJ and his family would be perceived as Sikh Americans.
JJ Kapur graduated from Stanford University with Honors and Distinction in Theater and Performance Studies and aminor in Psychology. He uses theater as a tool to help Asian American parents and their teenage children engage in healthier conversations on difficult topics including dating, mental illness, and sexual identity. In 2017, he became the first turbaned Sikh to win the most prestigious high school speech and debate competition in the U.S. As a current AmeriCorps Lead for America Fellow, he is helping Iowans build bridges with their immigrant neighbors.
Jill Bjorklund, teacher and co-organizer of Ankeny Pride, is a passionate ally of the queer com-munity in central Iowa, where she, her husband, and three children make their home. Her passion was ignited as she witnessed her mid-dle child revealing her true self at the age of 5. At the time, Jill didn’t realize that the most common age of onset of gender dysphoria in transgender women is five years old. Her heart quickly transitioned alongside her daughter, and their mission since has been to share their story in hopes of making the world a more safe and accepting place.
“I don’t know how long I can continue to safely raise my daughter in Iowa, but we will stay and advocate as long as we can because we believe hearts can transition.”
Leonard "Lenny" Bell is the Youth Education and Training Coordinator at the Evelyn K. Davis Center. He is also serves in the roles of case manager, mentor, and Instructor for Des Moines Area Community College’s YouthBuild Program. Lenny also works with the Brother to Brother and Dream-to-Teach programs in Des Moines Public Schools. He is a Co-Founder and Host of Say What! Poetry, promoting and supporting the art form of poetry/spoken word. He also serves on the board for I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa – Iowa’s longest running premiere African American cultural arts festival.
“When I left New Orleans, I was like a track star running his most important race. . . only I had no final destination. I’ve been looking for that place ever since. Early on, college was always just something to do for me. Looking back, I could have applied myself more academically, but I was just happy with being on the road less traveled. I've always been a soldier at war with revolutionary scars, yet I can still hear echoes from the ghetto saying, ‘I made you who you are. I'm the reason you get to play those. 'I do it for my people' cards. For seventeen years, I gave you seventeen scars.'"
As a young girl arriving in America, Lilian saw the caseworker who welcomed them to America. Lilian was speechless when she saw the woman in a suit. She promised herself that one day she would wear a black suit and a long brown coat. Lilian has faced many obsta-cles but nothing will stop her to keep her promise of becoming a successful business woman in America as refugee.
Lilian Okech is a motivational speaker, entrepreneur, author, teacher, and visionary. She co- authored two Time Amazon # 1 bestselling books, and is the co- founder of an organization that brings internet services and computer training to people of South Sudan. Lilian was born in Kitgum, Uganda, in a refugee camp a few months after her family fled from South Sudan.
At the age of 15, Lilian started high school in the United States speaking no English. She learned the alphabet while in the 9th grade and within months was on her way to speaking and writing English while identifying her passion and deep-routed need to help others.
After working at a local church to support her four young boys, Lilian started a cleaning service in 2018. Through Cleaning for Hope, she provides support for those who may not have a friend to talk to.
Lori A. Young is a native of Des Moines and a graduate of Tech High School and Grand View University. Her professional experience lies in corporate internal and marketing communications. Currently she is the Director of Communications with the non-profit organization, Just Voices Iowa. In her spare time she’s a feature writer, artist, and social activist fighting on issues such as racial, environmental, and economic justice for over 15 years. She's a mother to two "good and grown" sons and a grandmother of four. She loves to draw and sketch, write poetry occasionally and watch reality TV when time permits.
My journey in life has been a walk, a skip, and sometimes a frantic run. But no matter what shoes I’m in, my God has guided my every step.
My unusual life consisted of graduating from Indianola High School, Indianola, Iowa , in 1969; working at a Free School in New Mexico, 1971; home health care in the Des Moines area off and on for years, working with family on the 996 acre family farm, 1976-2012; Portrait Artist, 1986-1989; Graduated from Drake University in Human Services, 1979 and teacher certified in 1989; Substitute taught in the Des Moines area 1991-2009, World Peace 2000 steering committee member for the United Nations 1994-1996, 1700 Ioway Indian Assistant Site Coordinator, 2000 -2006 and Site Coordinator of the Henry A. Wallis Exhibit Center at Living History Farms 2006 -2009; volunteered at the Iowa State Museum 2008-2010; Two Rivers Story Spinner member, 2001-now; Iowa Baha’i Schools Committee, Summer School Chairman, 2009; North River Arts Council member, 2022-now; Coordinator of the Indianola Barn/Contra Dance, 2022-now; Danish Ambassador and Open Book for CultureALL; just now.
Humanity’s Wings is a story about the social development though the ages and what we can do for our future. As I tell this humanistic, peace story, I illustrate it with origami.
I started out in the New York financial markets in 1970, working as an economist and a banker. By 1985, I’d exceeded my wildest expectations in terms of promotions and compensation, but actually hated my job. After some – but not too much deliberation -- my then-husband and I abandoned our successful careers to embark on the five-year, round-the-world sailing voyage that is the subject of my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam. When the journey came to an unexpected end, I returned to the financial markets as a consultant to multinational corporations, working first in New Zealand, and then Australia, Central America, Europe, and ultimately back in New York. A decade later, I dropped out again, this time to oversee a turnaround of a nonprofit that provided housing and support services to the mentally ill in New York City. In 2000, I returned to high finance as SVP of the Federal Home Loan Bank in Des Moines. Two years later, I dropped out of high finance for the final time. Since then, my “careers” have included a multi-year stint as a non-profit consultant, a decade as author of a memoir and a novel, free-lance journalism, and editing non-fiction articles and books. Throughout my two decades in Des Moines, I have served on a variety of non-profit boards.
“Many people think of me as a risk taker. Not so. From a very early age, I hated repetition and routine, and have been in more-or-less constant search for growth and change. To me, staying put is often a far bigger risk than trying something new.”
Meda Brkic was born in Sanski Most, Bosnia, and later immigrated to the United States. She went into the workforce after graduating high school before attending college at age 28. At that time, seh received her Associates in Management from DMACC, her BA in Business & Finance from Grand View, and Her MBA-HR from Northwest Missouri State. Meda loves to spend time with her niece and has a dog named Louie. She spends her free time cooking, entertaining, and driving her convertible in the summer. Meda is a CultureALL Board Member, and became an Open Book in hopes of helping others find things in common with those cmopletely different from them. She believes storytelling teaches us about other's cultures and journeys and creates the human connection and teaches us empathy.
"As a refugee, Meda Brkic knows what it feels like to be constantly homesick, to be constantly stuck in a state of displacement, and to be overwhelmed with a longing for something that has been forever lost. But her story is not only tinged with grief and sadness, it is also imbued with vivid and colorful experiences that have made her life meaningful. "
Miyoko Hikiji served as an enlisted soldier for nine years and was deployed 403 days in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 – 2004. Her job duties included truck driver, unit correspondent, and administrative sergeant. During the deployment, she completed over 70 supply convoy, security, and raid missions throughout the northwest quadrant of Iraq. Simultaneously, Miyoko wrote a company newsletter, contributed to her support squadron’s newsletter, and wrote articles for a hometown newspaper. Miyoko’s earned 16 military decorations including the Army Commendation Medal (2), Army Achievement Medal (2), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, and Iowa Humanitarian Service Medal. Her transportation company received the second highest unit decoration—the Valorous Unit Award—for extraordinary heroism. Upon her return from Iraq, Miyoko wrote her company’s deployment history for the archives at the Gold Star Museum on Camp Dodge—the Iowa Army and Air National Guard State Headquarters. Her war memoir, All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, was published in 2013 by History Publishing. Miyoko earned B.S. degrees in journalism and psychology from Iowa State University in 2004. She is a current student at The George Washington University, studying political management. Miyoko works at the US Census Bureau and lives in Urbandale with her daughters Grace and Noelle.
"In Iraq, all the rules and labels were thrown out. Though I was a “female” soldier, whatever that meant on paper was meaningless in the sand. Iraq was a non-linear battlefield, meaning the enemy attacked from all sides. There was no place to operate in complete safety. Nearly as terrifying as the threat of being killed on mission was the fear of being assaulted by the male soldiers from other units I was sent to support. That atmosphere brought out the best and worst in soldiers."
Patrick Karemera was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been fortunate to spend time in several other countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. He used his Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology to work with several nonprofits around the continent of Africa. After winning a Diversity Lottery Visa, Patrick was able to immigrate to Iowa. He now works as a Refugee Resettlement Caseworker in one of Iowa’s largest refugee resettlement agencies. Patrick finds value in himself and connection with others through sharing his story and bringing awareness to the Diversity Lottery Visa process.
In 2017, Patrick Karemera won the lottery. But it's not the lottery you might think of. His prize did not come in the form of millions of dollars. Instead, it is a Diversity Visa Lottery that has allowed him to live the American Dream - a reality full of joys and challenges. Patrick gets to pay it forward by helping other refugees and immigrants as a caseworker in one of Iowa's largest refugee resettlement agencies to start their new life in America.
Romnita was born in Chicago and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After high school, she attended Milwaukee Area Technical College before moving to Des Moines to attend Des Moines Area Community College. She studied Criminal Justice and Human Services, as well as receiving her Certified Nursing Assistant Certificate.
Caring for others comes naturally to Romnita. Today, she works at Mainstream Living, which provides supportive services to individuals with a variety of different needs. Romnita has eight children, which includes two sets of twins, and seven grandchildren. In her free time, she enjoys drinking wine and listening to jazz music.
“My story explores how death, grief, and mental health go hand in hand.” Romnita is hopeful that sharing her story will help someone realize that they aren’t alone.
Sara Krzyczkowski is a Michigan native by birth, and a Spartan by choice, with a BA and a BS from Michigan State University. Her family was far more accepting of her coming out than they were of her turning down an education at the University of Michigan. She continued her love of learning (and student loan debt) by garnering graduate degrees from Drake and Iowa State after she was transplanted to the Des Moines area, and spent her first decade after graduation teaching middle school, enjoying the eccentricities and enthusiasm of teenagers whenever she wasn’t rolling her eyes at their crazy shenanigans. She currently leads several amazing teams at Wells Fargo and considers herself fortunate to be part of such a truly inclusive company.
“It is always said that ‘life takes you down paths you don’t expect’. Join me on a voyage of self-discovery and learn how I came to grips with who I am, and how I defined myself as I have come out to my friends, family and community.”
Sonia Reyes is a multicultural professional, national speaker, consultant, and advisor on equity, representation, inclusion, and racial and social justice. She is the Director of the Iowa Office of Latino Affairs and the President & CEO of Reyes Equity Institute.
Sonia was born and raised in El Salvador, travelling to the United States when she was sixteen years old. She was an undocumented resident when she graduated from high school in Pomona, California and went straight into the workforce. She attained her green card in 2018, at which time she enrolled in college. She graduated with her Bachelor's Degree in Intercultural Communication Studies from Simpson College in 2022.
Sonia chose to become an Open Book to be able to share her story with others. She enjoys hiking, camping, volunteering, spending time with her friends, and traveling. She has two children, Lizbeth and Yahriel, and a 6-month-old-kitten named Michi.
"Having multiple intersectional identities has not always been easy. But it is what has made Sonia the person she is today."
Tone The MoveMaker is a street hustler from Chicago's Southside, who has found his calling as an artist and designer in Mainframe Studios in downtown Des Moines. His mission is to help others turn their struggles into their strengths. In the same way, he has turned his street knowledge and experience selling cocaine into an innovative brand called "Designed by the Streets."
Tracy Codel is a Des Moines native whose childhood home sat on a cul-de-sac in the Beaverdale neighborhood. Summer days were spent in endless games of kickball and hide-and-seek, or exploring the deep woods, creeks, and ravines of two nearby parks. She developed her sense of wonder about nature during that time when some of the best toys were magnifying glasses, sticks to turn things over, and hammers to crack things open.
After attending Drake University on a track scholarship, she ventured to San Antonio and St. Louis to teach mathematics and computers, and coach cross-country. She met her husband on a St. Louis YMCA masters swim team and then found herself back in Des Moines when his job required them to move to Iowa to develop his career. After she gave birth to the first of their two sons in 1999, Tracy became a stay-at-home mom and was actively involved in leading several committees at both church and her children’s schools, where a repeating focus with her efforts was on building community. She now enjoys the empty nest transition with her husband and finds great joy in tutoring high school math students online. She replenishes herself through yoga, hiking, biking, traveling, participating in her women’s adventure group, and is contemplating taking up piano lessons again.
"In order to combat the loneliness of COVID and to cope with an unknown medical condition, I began a year-long journey in February of 2021, whereby I walked with a different friend each week and blogged about it on Facebook. Come walk with me as I share my uplifting story about the restorative power of nature and human connection."
Vinh Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam. After the Vietnam War ended, life in South Vietnam changed completely. In the summer of 1981, Vinh’s parents arranged for him to be smuggled out of the country along with other 134 Vietnamese on a tiny boat that was barely seaworthy. After the boat was rescued by an oil tanker, Vinh lived in refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia before finally being accepted by the United States and relocating to Des Moines.
At the age of 22 with no English language skills, Vinh had many difficulties adjusting to life in Iowa. He has never forgotten the help he received, and he now works to help others, lending his skills and support to many projects and activities in the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian, and Language Minority communities. He also serves as a story teller, speaker and consultant for many topics related to Vietnam, refugee and resettlement process, and second language acquisition issues throughout Des Moines area and surrounding areas.
“I was one of the hundred thousand “Boat People” – refugee who fled harassments and persecution by the oppressive communist regime in Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. I will share my story of the tribulations and challenges of the beginning a new life in Des Moines, Iowa in the early 1980’s".
Warydi is an entrepreneur, mother, artist, and a masterpiece. Warydi was born and raised in various cities in Kenya: Kericho, Nanyuki, Thika, Bomet, Nairobi, and Mombasa. After graduating high school, she worked in Kenya before migrating to Iowa. She then received an Associate's Degree in Liberal Arts from DMACC. She went on to receive a Bachelor's Degree in Business Management Administration and a Master's Degree in Public Affairs and Advocacy from Drake University.
Warydi is now self-employed and owns WARYDI International. She's working on creating a talent and etiquette school and a fully equipped entertainment house with studio, film, and talent representation. She loves spending time with her four children and her dog. She knows that her journey is a story worth sharing and telling, and hopes to motivate someone into understanding that as long as they have breath in them, anything is possible.
"Warydi's expectations when migrating from Kenya to the United States were challenged by the reality she felt once she arrived. Some of those truths she realized were life changing. After living in Iowa for years, her take on America and life as a migrant has changed."
Complete the form and start your journey to become an Open Book.