These are the amazing, generous, and fascinating Iowans who will be sharing their stories
*BOOKS WITH LIMITED AVAILABILITY
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’ 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.”
Abena Sankofa Imhotep is an award-winning author, transformative thought leader, and the Executive Director of Sankofa Literary & Empowerment Group which creates spaces for lifelong learning that center the literature and scholarship of Black authors. Leading conversations around racial equity and organizational awareness around the country, Abena is an active advocate for education, justice, and humanitarianism.
Abena has presented human rights papers on social impact & responsibility and strategies for achieving racial justice at the Nelson Institute Global Citizen Forum, the Iowa Human Rights Research Conference, and University of Notre Dame Kroc Institute. Abena founded Sankofa Literary Academy in 2021 to expand children’s access to diverse books across the United States. Additionally, Abena serves on several boards of directors, is an International Relations major at Drake University, a TEDx speaker, and author of the beloved children's book, Omari’s Big Tree and the Mighty Djembe.
"As the old song goes, 'time is filled with swift transitions.' Abena Sankofa Imhotep chronicles how, through loss and life, a family can reimagine who they are to each other in the aftermath of transitions."
Alex Rice is a West Des Moines native who left Iowa for college and lived all over the US — and on three other continents — before returning home to Central Iowa in 2021. She holds a Master's Degree in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University and is the executive director of the Willkie House, a youth-serving nonprofit founded in 1917. Alex is fluent in French and is an avid cyclist, gardener, and traveler. Open Book pairs her interest in education with her belief in the power of learning from others' experiences.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" 19 moves in 19 years across four continents helped me answer this existential question and find my home.
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 in conflict-resolution and peace-building in divided societies, including time spent in Northern Ireland, Mexico, and on the US/Mexico border. Curious to learn more about other cultures, Caryn volunteered with an ESL program for immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis and pursued a career in teaching English. For over 15 years, Caryn has taught and trained volunteers and advised diverse adult learners on their educational and career training opportunities. Carynhas worked on LSI’s Community-based English program, EMBARC’s Refugee RISE AmeriCorps, and most recently, the Iowa International Center’s Welcome English AmeriCorps program. Caryn and Lilian Okech (also an Open Book) met as fellow business owners in 2017 and have recently formed Hope to Shine, a new non-profit focused on developing the potential of immigrant and refugee 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."
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 the 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.”
Father Reed Flood may have grown up in one of the smallest towns in the Greater Des Moines Area — Cumming, population 460 — but he's since been able to travel the world. After graduating from high school, Father Reed joined St. John Vianney Seminary, attending the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. There he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Catholic Studies. He began his theology studies in Rome, where he lived at the North American College and studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University. There he obtained his bachelor's in theology and a licentiate degree in fundamental theology. He later attended Catholic University of Avila, Spain, studying the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila.
Father Reed is one of seven children. He loves learning about humanity and how to live one's existence to its fullest potential. As an Open Book, he explores the power of narrative and its ability to build up culture, believing the experience allows humans to go beyond surface-level relationships and truly encounter the other.
"As a teenager, serving as a hospice volunteer is already an unusual way to spend a Saturday. When asked to hang out and play video games with a teenage cystic fibrosis patient, I figured that this would be more fun than my usual hospice requests. I soon discovered a friendship far more profound than I could have ever imagined."
Gabby Guerra is a proud immigrant from Santa Ana, El Salvador. In 2002, she and her family were forced to immigrate to Iowa due to the violent and impoverished conditions in El Salvador. Gabby grew up in Des Moines and faced many challenges in learning a new language and navigating a different culture. Gabby found support in family, friends, and teachers who believed in her potential. She is a proud graduate of the public school system and an alumna of North High School. She attended the University of Iowa as a first-generation student and graduated with a Bachelor's in Ethics and Public policy, a minor in Latinx Studies, and a certificate in Nonprofit Management. Previously, she was the Director of Youth Engagement at Please Pass the Love, and she currently serves as Program Director at Al Éxito.
Gabby enjoys giving her time to her community. She was a co-founder and tri-chair for a new community organization, Iowa Queer Communities of Color Coalition. Gabby completed a fellowship with the Des Moines Chapter of the New Leaders Council and served as Recruitment Director on the Board of Directors. She joined the Iowa Safe Schools Board of Directors in 2021. Currently, she is a HealthConnect Fellow with the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. She is a proud small business owner of the residential cleaning business, L & Co. Cleaning LLC. She is passionate about amplifying youth voices and creating a more inclusive Iowa for immigrants and BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities.
"Have you ever made someone else’s dream come true? Who helped you make a dream come true?” Gabby revisits her biggest dreams with her readers and how those dreams came to life with support of those who have always loved her and the people she met at the right time. She shares how she has experienced her dreams through the lens of a queer, immigrant Latina woman in Iowa.
JJ Kapur was twelve years old when the unexpected happened. His family was worshipping at their Sikh temple in West Des Moines, Iowa, when a group of news reporters interrupted their service. His congregation received news that a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, had just become the site of a mass shooting by a white neo-Nazi gunman. The shooting happened in a small, Midwestern town only three hundred miles away. JJ remembers thinking, "It could have been us."
This turning point became the beginning of JJ's interfaith work in Iowa. In high school, JJ started a youth organization called "The Turbanators," which was focused on "turban-ating" the negative stigma surrounding Sikhism in Iowa through awareness building and community service. In 2017, JJ became the first turbaned Sikh to win the most prestigious high school speech and debate competition in the U.S. After graduating in 2022 from Stanford University with a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Theater and Performance Studies, JJ returned to his hometown of Des Moines as an AmeriCorps Lead for America Fellow, where he is currently serving with CultureALL to help Iowans build bridges with their diverse neighbors by cultivating a human library across his home state called "Open Book."
James grew up in a large Burmese family and now lives in the United States. He is starting his own family as a newly married man. He is a leader in the Mara community of Burmese refugees, publishes articles in his own language, and is employed as a case worker for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Des Moines.
"My story is about being a Burmese refugee who lived in Malaysia while in transit to America. My father taught me the lesson of resilience through his experience as a prisoner of war under a dictatorship. From starting work at age eight in my home country to earning a GED in America, my story shows what hard work can accomplish."
Joshua was born in Botswana and raised in South Africa in a Zambian family. Growing up, he traveled between quite a few countries in the southern part of Africa. He found it fascinating to see how something that can be so normal in one place can be unheard of in another. Joshua developed a love for traveling and embraced the simple truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know" and that the only way to find out is to expose yourself. His parents raised their children to think big and go after bigger. So, at the end of high school, Joshua hopped on a plane and flew 26 hours from Johannesburg to Dubuque, Iowa, to earn a degree in computer science at Clarke University.
"One gets an unparalleled joy and pride from using what they have, despite it not being ideal, to get what they want. It starts with focusing on what you have to offer. My family does not like the cold. But my mother, the innovator, had a brilliant solution that involved Tupperware. Her change of perspective—taking something useless and making it useful—helped me change my view on small and large things in my life."
Josephine (Josie) Shaw is a native of Kenya and a member of the Luhya tribe. She came to the United States in 1989 to attend Central Missouri State University. In addition to sharing her culture as a Cultural Ambassador for CultureALL, she advocates for Swahili-speaking immigrants, many of whom are refugees from Central Africa. Through her company, Sunshine Affiliates, Josie works as a translator and is involved in helping East African refugees by delivering donated items and assisting them with paperwork. Josie has a passion for educating people about Africa and wants to correct misconceptions that many Americans seem to have about Africa. She also believes that all children should have pride in their own cultures. She has noticed that children of African heritage are more confident and more likely to embrace their family’s cultures after participating in a presentation about Africa. Josie currently lives in Clive with her son and their dogs.
"This simple and privileged African girl was not ready for the 1989 Warrensburg, Missouri she walked into."
English, Swahili, Luhya
Kevin Spire is a native Iowan who has spent most of his adult life in Des Moines. He shifted from an interest in healthcare to developing skills in the field of mainframe computer programming. He discovered that technical support areas were more his strength, which allowed him to build foundations in troubleshooting and analysis. Later, as a manager of QA teams spread across the US and India, he was able to build on that foundation.
After a 30+ year career in IT, Kevin was laid off from his job. He decided to try something different. His long passion for genealogy research and advising others in ways to achieve their research goals led him to establish Inspired Connections, an LLC that would offer research assistance and support with a client’s family-history related projects in 2021. Kevin has also held the roles of President and Vice President of the Iowa Genealogical Society. He continues to teach classes about genealogy-related topics.
"This is a story of the 1892 emigration of my great-grandmother, Biena, from northern Germany to the USA. I am proud of my great-grandmother and the courage she had to sustain through this experience. Not only does her story offer me insight into the woman that she became, but it also offers perspective on so many of our challenges of today. Each of us has at least one story about our family. That story might be from many generations ago or as recent as last week. If the stories are not shared, they will be lost forever."
Leo Bird is a motivational speaker who uses drawings as a visual aid. He grew up in Ames, Iowa, and graduated from Central College where he studied actuarial science and physics. He works as a mail handler at the United States Postal Service. When not working, he performs at open mics using drawings as a visual aid, rock climbs at Climb Iowa, and lifts weights. His memoir is called "The Words He Cannot Say." He tells true stories about fitting in, building talent and character, and having autism. Stories are a way for Leo to express his feelings and discover ways to make processes more effective. He continues to learn that his challenges are more universal amongst people without autism than he thought.
"Deciding what to include on a birthday list helped me to define how to approach bigger life decisions about career and passion."
Leonard "Lenny" Bell is the Youth Education and Training Coordinator at the Evelyn K. Davis Center. He also serves in the roles of case manager, mentor, and instructor for Des Moines Area Community College’s YouthBuild Program. Additionally, Lenny 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 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 obstacles, but nothing will stop her from keeping 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-rooted 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.
Lindsey Page was born and raised in Central Iowa on a llama farm where she fostered a love for the land and all of its inhabitants at an early age. At Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa, she studied music education, and during her last semester, an environmental science class turned her world upside down in the best way possible. After changing career paths, Lindsey attended Iowa State University where she earned a degree in forestry, minoring in animal ecology and focusing on interpretation of natural resources. Three words she uses to describe herself: naturalist, feminist, and optimist. She is currently part of the environmental education team at Polk County Conservation where she teaches a variety of audiences all about nature. Outside of her professional career, Lindsey is an avid music lover, proud Disney adult, cat and dog mom, national park superfan, amateur gamer, and thrift store enthusiast.
“Walk a mile in my pink cowgirl boots as we navigate the many dualities of life. The moral of my story is that your 'roots,' interests, passions, and goals can all exist in one world. Being authentically you - is enough.”
Lorena Dorado-Robles is the Iowa 4-H Recruitment, Retention and Engagement State Specialist, specifically working with diverse and untapped audiences. She is doing state-level work in the areas of College and Career Readiness, while improving ways to specifically impact volunteer development and management with new audiences through Iowa 4-H programs.
Lorena was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to the US with her family when she was fifteen years old. She struggled as an undocumented resident during her high school years, losing hope in the vision to better her life with an advanced postsecondary education. After a series of life lessons, she graduated from Buena Vista University with a BA in Human Services and a minor in Psychology. She started her Extension/4-H career ten years ago, and she continues to find joy and learning experiences every year and continues to impact Iowa communities through her professional life.
Lorena believes that the essence of humanity is storytelling. The power of our stories is what shapes our societies. Becoming an Open Book allows her to share her personal story and create connections with those that are willing to listen. The "Metamorphosis of a Monarch" is a personal philosophy of life for her. Monarch butterflies go through four stages during one life cycle and through four generations in one year. Lorena believes that as human beings we also transform as we go through the seasons and life cycles, just like monarchs. Her story is shaped around her cultural roots, ancestral wisdom, life lessons, moments of transformation, personal observation, and a journey to an unknown future.
“Outside of my professional life, I describe myself as a joyful, vulnerable, and realistic being. I enjoy outdoor activities that connect me with nature. I find joy in cooking because it takes me back to my cultural roots and helps me connect with my ancestors by bringing their wisdom through my cooking skills. Painting, drawing, crafting, singing, and creative journaling fulfill me and help me better understand myself and those that are part of my life journey.”
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 been a feature writer, artist, and social activist fighting for 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."
Lyssa was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and graduated from Grand View University. She majored in Mass Communications with a concentration in photography. While completing her studies at university, life took her on a different trajectory. She still has a love for photography, however, an interest in food production, sourcing, and aggressive urban farming took precedence which led to several lifestyle changes and the birth of Veggie Thumper, a plant based food bus.
Lyssa has an amazing host of past and present ancestors, a son, two parrots, and a flock of chickens. Lyssa has been acknowledged for her contributions to the Des Moines food scene and is a passionate food, water, land, and air protector. Lyssa is forever grateful for Earth’s offerings and is disappointed and ashamed at humans' lack of respect given to Earth. This has been fuel to feed her lifestyle changes which were accelerated by loss and later, the experience of rebirth and taking the time to discover her true self. She shares her story as an Open Book because sometimes experiencing a moment vicariously and only having a hint of insight can evoke change. If she can help be the catalyst that inspires a change, why not?
"The darkness began to shadow over my spirit. The sun was gone. Little did I know, a rebirth was on the horizon."
Manar Yaseen is a passionate individual hailing from Iowa, who proudly expresses her Islamic faith and Palestinian culture. She completed her undergraduate studies at Drake University, where she earned a BA in Biochemistry, Cell, & Molecular Biology. Her dedication to education and continuous learning has led her to continue pursuing higher education, further expanding her knowledge and expertise. Outside of academics, Manar is an accomplished martial artist. Through her training with Des Moines Traditional Tae-Kwon Do, she has achieved the rank of a black belt and even serves as an instructor.
In her free time, Manar's creativity flourishes through storytelling, writing novels, short-stories, and poetry. Her passion for storytelling extends beyond the written word. She finds joy in exploring various forms of media, such as watching anime, playing video games, and engaging in the imaginative world of Dungeons & Dragons.
"When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the basement, where I could create any world I desired and become anyone I wished to be. My brother and I, surrounded by our collection of toys and homemade props, would embark on the most fantastical tales and adventures. As I grew into adulthood, the basement has transformed, but I have managed to keep its essence alive."
My unusual life has taken many turns: graduating from Indianola High School in Iowa (1969), working at a Free School in New Mexico (1971), providing home health care in the Des Moines area off and on for years, and working with family on the 996 acre family farm (1976-2012). I’ve been a portrait artist (1986-1989), graduate of Drake University with a human services degree (1979) and teacher certification (1989), and a substitute teacher in the Des Moines area (1991-2009). From 1994-1996, I was a World Peace 2000 steering committee member for the United Nations. I’ve been the assistant site coordinator at Living History Farms’ 1700 Ioway Indian Farm (2000-2006) and site coordinator of the Henry A. Wallis Exhibit Center at Living History Farms (2006 -2009). My volunteerism has spanned diverse interests as well. I have volunteered at the Iowa State Museum (2008-2010) and served on Iowa Baha’i Schools Committee as Summer School Chairman (2009). I continue to be a member of Two Rivers Story Spinners (since 2001) and North River Arts Council (since 2022) and serve as Coordinator of the Indianola Barn/Contra Dance (since 2022). I’m eager to continue my journey as a CultureALL Ambassador for Danish culture and an Open Book.
Humanity’s Wings is a story about 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 I 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.”
Mayra de Catalan is a solution-focused individual who is a giver. She values the time with her family and friends. Throughout her career Mayra has held titles as Vice President of Analytics, Investor, and Director of Decision Science, but her most prized title has been that of a loving and devoted mother.
She began her career while attending Drake University. Soon after graduating with a bachelor's degree in actuarial science, Mayra became a leader in numerous roles including scoring, modeling, and analytics. Mayra also has a master’s degree in management. She has been active serving as a leader in her community. In the Des Moines area, she has served as events chair, chapter co-chair and chapter chair for several organizations. She is also the founder and president of the Marco Fagoada Scholarship and has been treasurer of several other scholarship funds. She volunteers at Cornerstone of Hope Orphanage. It makes her very happy to help our local community. She is fluent in Spanish, English, and French. She enjoys running, biking, reading, swimming, and living a healthy lifestyle. Mayra has a passion for education and helping youth.
"My journey began in El Salvador. My family made the decision to move us to the United States. My parents were hard- working and encouraged me to achieve higher education to have a better life and achieve 'the American Dream.' I obtained a career that allowed me to climb the corporate ladder and give back to my community. When I lost a brother, it made me reconsider my goals, and I started thinking more about my future. I began to invest in real estate and in myself. I rose to vice president of a financial institution but decided to give entrepreneurship a try. As I ventured into a new world, I worked tirelessly until I was hit by a drunk driver, causing me to lose my four-year-old nephew. I had to learn to walk again. I am picking up the pieces again, learning, exploring, grieving, but finding hope and gratitude in the little things in life."
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, she 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 completely different from them. She believes storytelling teaches us about others' cultures and journeys, 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. 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 BA 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 to start their new lives 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.
Salem Peterson is autistic and disabled. Since earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Iowa State, Braeden has had many roles. He has collaborated with two opera companies in Iowa, and even taken up improv acting with a dinner theatre group. However, the most important role to him has been as a supportive partner to his fiancée, Salem. Braeden felt it important to share his experience with Open Book to encourage healthy communication, support, and understanding.
This is a story of love and acceptance, and a reminder that we are more than other people's expectations of us.
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. She 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 goofy 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.”
Shabana Gupta is a youth counselor, a student, and an unpublished writer. They attended Grinnell College and are about to enter a Masters of Psychology program at Palo Alto University, intending to obtain their PhD and take on mental health counseling as a full time gig. In their free time you can find them reading excessively or working on their next big creative project—anything ranging from writing a story, painting a giant canvas, or getting ready for a drag performance. Their big motivators in life are spite and sugar, which works out better than you'd expect.
"I use the lens of story to craft my own self-narrative of pain and perseverance. Sometimes it's easier to deal with what life throws at me by shifting the narrative and turning it into writing. It helps me process. I take a look into the future of a terrible possibility of what could be, alongside what I'm doing now to prevent that future. Pain is an interesting thing when you've lived with it your whole life; it's familiar and novel at the same time. I look at the view of hopelessness, confusion, and uncertainty, then turn it to comedy."
Shuang Nozomi Flyr was born in Shanghai and grew up partly in China and partly in Japan. After experiencing the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, she moved to Iowa with her husband and daughter two years ago. Today, she works as a relationship banker with Bank of America.
Shuang Nozomi believes in the power of storytelling. For her, stories bring people together, heal our wounds, and help us build communities. She believes we are all storytellers by nature. Everyone has a story worth telling, because to be alive is to have a story to share.
"Amidst the chaos of COVID-19, a couple's planned visit turned into a two-year journey through lockdowns and unexpected turns, as if they were trapped in a cage. In Cambodia, an unplanned pregnancy added new challenges, but they discovered the key to unlocking their resilience and finding joy amidst adversity. Finally, they welcomed their daughter, a symbol of freedom and newfound strength. This is a story of hope and liberation from the confines of life's challenges."
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.
Sonia takes you on her personal journey as an immigrant-queer-Latina as she finds herself and learns where her strength comes from.
Stefanie Kaylor is a Des Moines native who now works as a librarian. She attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where she earned a BA in English and Education. She went on to UNI to earn an MA in School Library Studies. She is an avid reader and writer and publishes her own zine. She lives with her husband, her five-year-old child, a dog, and a cat. As a reader, writer, and librarian, Stefanie knows that reading and hearing stories allows us to experience lives both similar to and different from our own, see worlds we've never seen, and witness the world we know in a new light.
"I am autistic and I am queer. This is a story about how I came to recognize these traits in myself and live more fully in those identities. It's a story weaving the barriers to self-acceptance with the joy in finding strengths growing out of weaknesses."
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, 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 and surrounding areas.
“I was one of the hundred thousand 'Boat People' – refugees who fled harassments and persecution by the oppressive communist regime in Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. I share my story of the tribulations and challenges of the beginning a new life in Des Moines, Iowa in the early 1980s."
Yahriel is a "Universal Man" with knowledge and experience in many disciplines. He works as an aerospace engineer researcher and is in pursuit of a PhD. Born in Iowa to undocumented immigrant parents, Yahriel had a unique experience and set of challenges growing up as he navigated a foreign society with no instructions included.
Was Albert Einstein born a genius, or did a fateful encounter result in the greatness of Einstein as we know him today? Yahriel Salinas-Reyes, an inquisitive youngster with a passionate and unruly mind, ascended through the Aerospace Engineering program at Iowa State University and eventually journeyed to the empire of Einstein at the California Institute of Technology (where Albert Einstein taught). Yahriel walked the same halls Albert Einstein once did and engaged some of the world's most powerful minds at work.
Yahriel had undertaken a number of different projects and work environments, but nothing could have prepared him for the new world he had just stepped into. While Yahriel experienced every challenge and emotion possible, it enabled him to see the collateral beauty of his journey as he discovered the influential power of mentorship.
Yerliana Reyna was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. She moved to the Bronx, New York, in 2005, where she finished high school and completed both her bachelor's degree in psychology and master’s degree in school counseling with a certification in bilingual school counseling. In August of 2020, she moved with her family to Iowa. Yerliana has experienced first-hand the different flavors of life during her many life transitions: from moving at a young age to a different country to learning a different language and adapting to a different culture. Yet she conquered all different barriers that she has encountered. Yerliana takes her learning experiences as opportunities to guide the younger generations. Yerliana is also becoming an active advocate for the Latino community in Central Iowa. She is constantly supporting those around her to achieve their goals. She believes in the power of motivation and consistency and that the right time will come whenever you are ready to move on.
“I view life like the four elements. Wind means movement and expansion. Being able to start my life in the Dominican Republic and moving to the United States in my adolescence gave me the opportunity to grow up in both countries and experience two completely different cultures. Fire means life and energy. My toughest situations are the ones that help me understand and appreciate the small pieces that have developed me into the woman I am today. Water means adapting. I know that hardships can leave a bitter taste. However, I understand the bitterness and making it a positive experience and adapting to the new changes. Earth means stability. With all the other elements, I found stability in Iowa with my family and my career. These elements help me remain grounded with every journey I have encountered. Also, I remain grateful for every smile and frown I have had.”
Zach Mecham is a disabled entrepreneur, filmmaker, and self-appointed martyr. At 22 years old he was working two part-time jobs, going to school full-time, and serving as the interim preacher at his church. That is, until his lungs gave out on him.
Since then, Zach has started his own business and learned the life-changing power of the word "no." He currently helps amplify the voices of mission-driven organizations through digital media marketing. Sometimes he also makes silly things and posts them on the internet.
"I share my journey as a young man single-handedly holding the weight of the world on my shoulders; working tirelessly to prove my value to the world. Now that I've reached the advanced age of 29, I have had to develop a new standard for judging myself and my value. I hope to share what I've learned about my new standards of measurement."
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