IOWA AGENCY “GETS DOWN TO EARTH” TO WIN THE ROUGH NOTES COMMUNITY SERVICE AWARD
Tomatoes, squash, celery, kale … and The Accel Group
By Alice Ashby Roettger
Last year, when Millhiser Smith Agency of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, merged with The Accel Group in Waverly, they had no idea that a community effort of Millhiser was to earn the combined firm the coveted Rough Notes Community Service Award.
Feed Iowa First
A few years ago, a business acquaintance of Millhiser Smith’s Lynne DeVore told her about Feed Iowa First (FIF), the brainchild of Afghanistan war veteran Sonia Kendrick. Intrigued, DeVore met with Kendrick, was impressed, and enthusiastically jumped on board.
By chance, a college agronomy course had inspired Kendrick to found Feed Iowa First. She had learned that although Iowa is rich in agricultural resources, many of its people were food deprived. Passionate in her desire to help, she set up her organization with two goals: “to grow fresh produce for those in need as well as to educate and assist beginning farmers.” Approaching companies with “green” leanings, she persuaded them to “grow, not mow” by donating land and providing volunteers to plant and harvest food for distribution to communities that were food deprived. In addition, she taught the elements of farming, particularly to refugee groups who then could grow food that was native to their land.
Wintertime was not an idle time for Sonia; it was then that she solicited funds for her organization. FIF also used those months to produce the seedlings for volunteers to plant.
Accel enters the picture
In 2015 Lynne approached the other partners of Millhiser who, sensing her enthusiasm, also jumped onboard. Upon the 2018 merger of Millhiser and The Accel Group, Feed Iowa First became an integral part of the new organization. The firm is one of the largest agencies in the state, with offices in Cedar Rapids (the site of the FIF effort), Waverly, Cedar Falls and Des Moines.
FIF gardens are located throughout Cedar Rapids. Some participants, such as churches, use their own land. Accel does as well. Over the past four years, Accel employees tended 16 100-foot-long rows and produced 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, 2,865 pounds of squash, 3,412 pounds of celery, and 1,038 pounds of kale. From a 40-member staff, 10 to 15 volunteers planted seedlings, harvested the vegetables and transported them to FIF for distribution. The total retail value of that effort was $20,054.
According to Lynette Richards, acting director of FIF, “The Accel Group is one of the largest participants in terms of production and takes on many financial responsibilities. For example, they purchase landscape fabric and poles for vining and go above and beyond by contributing financially and participating in events such as the FIF harvest pot luck and silent auction. Accel has proved to be an essential part of the organization.”
DeVore adds, “The Accel Group can proudly say that we have been one of the more self-sufficient groups that managed our garden and provided the monetary and volunteer resources to independently ‘get it done’ without taxing the Feed Iowa First organization with follow-through or expense.”
She hastens to credit FIF with more than just organizing the creation of gardens that provide fresh vegetables to needy Iowans. “FIF teaches all of us—volunteers as well as recipients,” she says. “As gardeners, they are knowledgeable. They will come out and teach how to take care of plants and look for pests. When they distribute the produce, they provide recipes and teach recipients how to prepare them. They both provide and educate.”
Sonia Kendrick’s untimely death a year ago hasn’t diminished the commitment of participants in the program she so enthusiastically created. As an Afghan war veteran struggling with PTSD, Kendrick unfortunately took her own life. Ironically, that condition indirectly contributed to the success of FIF. Never sleeping more than four or five hours a night, she was able to devote a daunting 20 or so waking hours daily to her passion. That devotion is shared by the individuals and groups she inspired, and they have vowed to continue her work. Lynette Richards is one of those individuals. Because she had been planning to retire and because she lives near the FIF headquarters building, she recently took on the role of acting director.
Going forward, The Accel Group intends to increase its involvement in the project. This year they will add peppers to their crop list, which will allow them to give even more back to their community. In addition, although the Waverly office is too far away to participate in the Linn County effort, it is hoped that an anticipated move to a new building will give them space to start a garden and provide produce to local food banks. Thus Kendrick’s efforts have become contagious, and The Accel Group has become an integral part of the perpetuation of her dream.
“We are proud of the way The Accel Group participates and are happy that they received this award,” Richards says. “They are very deserving.”
Conceived by Robert Kretzmer and his friend Walter Gdowski, owner of The Rough Notes Company, Inc., the Community Service Award honors independent agents, brokers and their firms for “giving back” to their communities and thus enhancing the success of philanthropic groups in their areas. The winner is selected from a list of reader nominations.
The award is presented to representatives of the winner at Rough Notes magazine’s Agency of the Year celebration in Indianapolis. The winner receives a trophy in the shape of a sculptured eagle, and the charity receives $5,000 in the name of the winning agency.
Potential nominators for next year’s award can look for the nomination form in an issue of Rough Notes later this year.
For more information:
Feed Iowa First
The Accel Group
Above in top picture – The Accel Group leaders (from left) Mike Byl, partner and president; Lynne DeVore, partner and chief operating officer; and Tim Gassmann, partner and chief executive officer, received the Rough Notes Community Service Award at a dinner in Indianapolis.
Alice Ashby Roettger is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. She also serves as an editorial assistant at Rough Notes magazine.