That I helped recruit Sara Huddleston is a highlight of my 20 years in Greene County, Iowa.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, June 7, 2024 – This is Bell Tower Festival weekend in Jefferson and Greene County, and there are two things about this one that I am especially celebrating.

One, it was 20 years ago this weekend that I moved here, after five previous years in Storm Lake, and even earlier, 27 years in Des Moines.  Greene County has been a wonderful home for me, and I’ve done the best I can to help make it better for everybody.

The second thing I’m celebrating is that this week, my friend for 25 years, Sara Monroy Huddleston, moved here from Storm Lake to become the first director of the new “Multicultural Family Resource Center” (MFRC). 

That is the growth and diversity initiative of the Greene County Development Corp., our economic development organization. In the 2 ½ years I served as chairperson of the steering committee for the MFRC, I told people we were going to build “A multicultural workforce that uses the Iowa work ethic to produce for the global market.”  

We detailed how we intended to grow our five manufacturing plants; our agricultural operations; our retail businesses; our providers of healthcare, hospitality and tourism services; our schools, and our community organizations.  And, yes, I believe we can reverse 100 years of population decline in the county and our small towns.  Today, Greene County has about 8,700, and the county seat, Jefferson, is the largest town with about 4,100.

As I told some other friends here, I really believe that my having helped recruit the 58-year-old Huddleston to head-up this new effort here, will turn out to be my most significant contribution toward building a better future for Greene County.

Sara Monroy Huddleston. (Photo furnished.)

You’re going to love meeting Sara. 

She’s probably the most widely-known person of Latino heritage in the state.  In fact, she was the first Latina to be elected to public office – she served three terms on the Storm Lake city council.  And U.S. Senator Tom Harkin is said to have promoted Huddleston to be the lieutenant governor candidate when Jack Hatch was the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor in 2014. She declined.

“She’s gregarious, approachable and a good politician when she needs to be,” said Art Cullen, the editor and publisher of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, who has been one of her mentors as a community leader there. “That means she knows how to make people feel good, even when she’s having to tell them to go to hell.”

The best way I can introduce her is to share the letter of recommendation I wrote this past February to the committee that hired her.  That group included officials of the Greene County Community Schools, the City of Jefferson, the county’s development corporation and some individual representatives of our larger employees – all of which are partnering in the MFRC.

Here’s what I wrote:

I’m writing to recommend Sara Monroy Huddleston, now of Storm Lake, for the position of director of the new Multicultural Family Resource Center in Greene County.   From the beginning of this effort by the Greene County Development Corporation in the fall of 2021, I have believed that Sara is the perfect person to lead our initiative. 

That’s because I have known her well since 1999, and I’ve observed closely how much she has helped the community of Storm Lake as its population grew, diversified and helped create real economic prosperity.  I moved to Storm Lake that summer to teach at Buena Vista University and continue my journalism career.  I was asked then to join the “Storm Lake Diversity Task Force,”  which had been formed by the community’s economic development group and Chamber of Commerce, with support from the city government, to help unite all the different cultures that were represented in the community.  Sara also served on that task force, and we worked together on several projects. 

I learned that she is a native of Merida, Mexico, and grew up in a family of professionals who have had leadership positions in business as well as provincial government.   Her family was able to send her to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, to start her college studies and become proficient in the English language.  There she met a student from Storm Lake, Matt Huddleston, son of a well-known pastor in the Storm Lake area.  Sara and Matt fell in love, married, first settled in Mexico, and then decided to move back to Storm Lake to raise their daughter Alexis, who graduated from Drake University a year or so ago and now works and lives in Des Moines.

You’ve seen Sara’s resume.  What it might not make clear is that Sara was one of the first persons of Latino heritage to settle in Storm Lake 30-plus years ago.

You’ll see that since then, she started her career working in a local bank, where she quickly became a favorite of all the customers.  She went on to run a local non-profit social service agency for several years, applying for and winning several state and federal grants to help fund the agency’s operations.  Along the way, she hosted her own radio show offering news items and helpful tips to help newcomers and native Storm Lakers all get to know each other and get along.  She also resumed her college work at Buena Vista U and, years ago now, graduated. 

When she ran for the Storm Lake City Council, I walked the west side of the city with her, knocking on doors, and introducing her to all the town’s coffee groups.  I quickly discovered just how well-known and popular Sara already was in the community – among people from all the different heritages.  She won easily, was re-elected twice more and completed 12 years as one of the city’s most effective councilpersons. 

She served on the State of Iowa’s Latino Affairs Council, and ran twice for the Iowa House of Representatives with narrow losses.  In recent years, she has worked with the esteemed Hamilton Law Firm in Storm Lake, and has been responsible for a huge growth in the firm’s service to the newcomer population of the area.

Through all of the above, Sara became one of the best-known people of Latino heritage not only in that community, county and region, but the whole State of Iowa.

Matthew and Sara Huddleston. (Photo furnished.)

Continuing with my letter of recommendation:

With that background, here are the specific reasons I think Sara Huddleston is the right person for our job:

–She is bi-lingual, at least, but can already “get along” in several other languages in addition to her mastery of Spanish and English.  She has also worked extensively with people who’ve moved to Storm Lake from across the nation and around the world – specifically Southeast Asians, Indians, Sudanese, Micronesians, Cubans, Middle Easterners and, yes, from a dozen or more Latino countries.

–She has worked successfully in all these different fields — business, education, media, government, law and also the non-profit sector.

–She has the experience of having the public be her boss when she was such a successful city councilperson.

–She knows Jefferson and Greene County well.  She and husband Matthew – who is an IT pro working for a health care service company – are excited to move to Greene County for the job,  and also to be a bit closer to their daughter who is planning to remain in Des Moines.  They have made several stops in our community the last two years on their trips between Storm Lake and Des Moines, and they’ve already met people in several of our coffee klatches and other groups.

–Sara has been following our development of the MFRC initiative closely, right from the start, has already done some volunteer work for us when we’ve had conversations with Spanish-speaking newcomers, has advised others on immigration law, and has advised GCDC leaders at several points along our way.

–She has lived and participated in the tremendous growth and prosperity of Storm Lake, and knows how to help make that happen – from all her different perspectives.

We have a very rare opportunity to hire a person with deep experience in exactly what we’re now trying to accomplish in Greene County – grow our workforce and population while embracing multi-culturalism.   She is at the top of her game, and looks forward to years of additional success here.

Finally, I once again want to thank the Greene County Community Schools for stepping up to leadership among the partners in this initiative.

Before the MFRC director was hired, and while the economic development group was installing new officers, I decided it was a good time of transition for me, too.  In early March, I resigned my leadership position. 

As I wrote in a column then, I’m 76 years old, had already worked hundreds of hours years on the initiative, kicked in a couple thousand dollars, pledged a continuing contribution, and I figured that was enough from me. 

My role going forward will be to write occasional columns about the MFRC.  I’ll continue to encourage all Greene Countians to think and act big enough to enable growth. And I’ll be reminding them how good they really are.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

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