Heroes Who Help

Meet three Central Iowans who help others navigate the world around them.

Meet three Central Iowans who help others navigate the world around them.

Almardi Abdalla

Vice President of Family and Workforce Programs, Oakridge Neighborhood

His backstory

Almardi Abdalla (pictured above) had just barely become an adult when civil war erupted in Darfur, Sudan, and the government was enlisting high schoolers to fight in the military. Around the same time, both of his parents passed away.

“I couldn’t handle being there,” he said. He escaped to Egypt and then applied for asylum to the United States. He lived for two months in New York City before moving to Des Moines on the recommendation of a friend. “I thought everything would be easy, but it was not.”

He had learned some English in high school, in Sudan, which gave him a head start. But besides one other friend who moved with him, he was utterly alone in a new culture.

He arrived on July 21, 2001, and within a month secured a job at Drake University, within walking distance from where he lived. He did not own a car. He took classes at Des Moines Area Community College. “At times, I had two full-time jobs and was going to school at the same time,” he recalled. “At times, I would have to debate between eating or sleeping, and before I could make a decision, I’d actually fall asleep.”

It was a challenge, but it helped to have a friend who understood what he was going through. Their friend group expanded as other Sudanese folks followed their lead and immigrated to Des Moines, and almost by accident, Abdalla created a small community this way. They helped each other find jobs, acquire cars, learn to drive and settle into their new Midwestern home. This early experience formed the foundation for much of Abdalla’s work today.

His call to action

Abdalla no longer identifies as an immigrant. After more than 20 years of living and working here, he considers Iowa his home. He also figures he can use his own hard-won success to help others achieve theirs. That’s how he became the vice president of family and workforce programs at Oakridge Neighborhood, where he helps residents, including many new Americans, figure out how to thrive. He calls it “teaching cultural competency.”

Back in Sudan and several other countries where Oakridge residents grew up, tightly knit communities function almost like extended families, Abdalla explained. When people leave that, they lose their support system. The group of friends he assembled as a young adult helped him rebuild that support here in the United States, which values individualism and self-sufficiency. He works to create a similar network at Oakridge, to help people get a foothold in their new home and culture.

His work now

Like his parents, Abdalla sees education as a doorway, especially at Oakridge, which welcomes immigrants from all over the world. His staff, who speak 11 languages, help newcomers open bank accounts, navigate the bus system and figure out how to buy cars. They help them understand loans, build credit, get their driver’s licenses and, eventually, teach their children to do the same. (Often, children teach their parents, too.)

That’s how they break the cycle of poverty and build sustainable success, Abdalla said. “Whoever is willing to walk with us will get their goals accomplished.”

In a single month, Abdalla’s programs can serve more than 450 Oakridge residents and non-residents and place 150 people into jobs. The team offers full-day preschool for working parents and English classes for both basic and advanced learners. Many of the programs are free — and designed to be left behind.

“Seeing people accomplish their dreams, getting a job, learning to drive, getting citizenship, getting a [certified nursing assistant] certificate, buying a home — it feels fulfilling,” Abdalla said. It’s “knowing you’re not just working, you’re making a difference.” —Hailey Evans

Erin Husmann

Health Care Navigator, Primary Health Care

Her backstory

Erin Husmann always knew she wanted to help people. She just wasn’t sure how. She floundered in college, in Tallahassee, unsure which major would help her help others.

But one day, it clicked: She had to protect children. Choosing social work as her path, she worked in south Florida, where she grew up, helping kids find safety. But it was tough, and even though she loved it, the work started to take a toll on her mental health.

Husmann eventually took a year off to recover and hiked through Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. She moved to Des Moines and spent five years working at Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services before the burnout hit again. She knew she had to find a better way.

Her call to action

Husmann learned meditation from her mom as a teen, but didn’t get serious about it until ten years into her social work career. She left social work for two years after experiencing compassion fatigue, a type of burnout common in people in caregiving professions.

“It just hurts too much to feel so deeply, so we put up these walls of protection to shield ourselves,” she said. “That’s when cynicism starts to creep in.”

Needing a change, Husmann took a bartending job while she pursued a 100-hour training course to teach meditation. The chaos and stress of bartending offered her a chance to practice the mindfulness skills she was refining. And soon enough, meditation fortified her enough to return to social work with renewed compassion. As she put it, “It felt like somebody had taken a crowbar to my heart and just cracked it wide open.”

Her work now

Meditation has a reputation for putting people to sleep, but Husmann believes meditation should be a wakeful practice. In the classes she teaches, she encourages students to keep their eyes open and accept the world as it is.

“It’s about taking the good, the bad, the joyful, the painful,” she said, “and in the midst of that, recognizing this sort of ‘okayness’ no matter what happens. You’re still there.”

This method has proven successful for Husmann’s clients at Primary Health Care, where she helps military veterans navigate health care. She said meditation helps them overcome trauma, just as it helped her overcome her compassion fatigue. Our individual struggles are more similar than many of us realize, she said, and meditation can help us connect to ourselves and each other.

In her current role as a health care navigator at Primary Health Care, Husmann helps veterans break down barriers to health care services and does outreach in the community to connect with veterans who need support. Through all of this, she integrates meditation.

The weekly meditation sessions she leads at Central Iowa Shelter Services provide a moment of respite for up to 50 people at a time. She leads a similar session for veterans and their families at the Central Library and hosts educational sessions for people experiencing homelessness, to help them learn about mental health, for example, and how to stay safe when sleeping outside.

“I wanted to be able to help people develop this space, in between the thoughts or in between the breath, to be able to rest for a minute and develop a friendly attitude toward themselves, at least in their own mind,” Husmann said.

On the surface, meditation may seem like an insufficient tool to help with homelessness, but Husmann believes in the importance of being kind to ourselves and gentle with our own minds. Research shows that meditation can lessen the impact of isolation, trauma and addiction, all factors that can contribute to homelessness.

“I can’t wave a magic wand and make everything feel better all the time,” Husmann said. But she can help people cope with life’s inevitable struggles.

“Being human is weird,” she said, “but we’re all here, and we’re all doing this together.” —Mathany Ahmed

Zach Ellingson

Orientation and Mobility Teacher, Iowa Department for the Blind

His backstory

Zach Ellingson was in fifth grade when he started having trouble reading the chalkboard at school. The old overhead transparencies were worse. “I couldn’t see those worth a darn,” he said.

He got glasses, but his eyesight kept getting worse. It was a mystery until a trip to a specialist in Iowa City, who determined his optic nerves were deteriorating. So he went home to St. Ansgar, a small town in northern Iowa, and tried to adjust to his new reality. “Honestly, it was harder for my mom. There was a lot of sobbing and crying,” he said. “It was exhausting.”

He managed OK. He learned to adapt. He remembers one summer when RAGBRAI rolled through town and he could hear the cyclists jumping into the river to cool down.

Things got harder when his friends started getting their driver’s licenses. He fell into depression, got kicked out of school. He floundered for a while but eventually finished school in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and got married. When a son arrived soon after, Ellingson worried about being a good role model. He said he “felt that sinking feeling settling in again.”

His call to action

At the urging of a friend, Ellingson went to Minneapolis to enroll at a training center run by the National Federation of the Blind. For the first time in his life, he got professional coaching to walk with a cane, make meals in a kitchen, read Braille and to practice other skills that sighted folks tend to take for granted. “It was liberating,” he said.

He returned home to Austin, Minnesota, after six months and worked a few odd jobs before he was invited to apply for a teaching position back at the training center. Soon enough, he became an outreach teacher and traveled around the area to help visually impaired people live independently. He worked in Minneapolis for a decade, pursued a similar opportunity in Florida and landed at the Iowa Department for the Blind in 2017.

His work now

If you ever spot people walking around downtown with white canes and sight-blocking sleep shades — they call them “learning shades” — there’s a good chance Ellingson is just a few steps away. He teaches students the finer points of tap-tap-tapping and sweeping their canes, like antennae, always listening for directional clues. He can tell you, for example, that the poles that mark DART bus stops are square and ring with a distinct resonance when you tap them with a cane.

After months of training, his students get dropped off at various undisclosed locations about 5 miles away from the department’s headquarters, at 524 Fourth St., and then have to find their way back on their own. They get their bearings through the feel of the sun and wind, the sounds of traffic and trains. “I tell them to listen and to just start walking,” he said.

But long before he teaches them that, he has to build up their trust — in him and in themselves. “If someone is terrified of going downstairs, we practice that skill over and over,” he said. “I’ll stand a couple of stairs down and have them approach me. We’ll do that 30 or 40 times, just to get that repetitive motion down.”

A few months ago, he was coaching David Gillmore, a lifelong biker and former crane operator from Dubuque who lost his sight from an injury a few years ago, at the age of 42. He was an impatient student who tended to move too quickly, but Ellingson helped pace him and encouraged him whenever he got frustrated. “Literally everyone here (at the department) believes in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself,” Gillmore said.

He is so confident, in fact, that he wants to visit Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and hop on a motorcycle again. He’s also training to join the Iowa Department for the Blind as a travel teacher in eastern Iowa. “I’m the most excited I’ve ever been in my life,” he said.

Ellingson recalled one of his own breakthroughs as a student in Minneapolis. He was on a solo walk, approaching a busy intersection when someone offered to help. Ellingson pulled away, determined to figure it out on his own, and walked right into traffic.

“It wasn’t very successful, but it made me focus and pay more attention. It was kind of like an ‘aha moment,’” he said. “As a teacher, you see your students have those moments, too, and it gives you goosebumps. It’s what I work for.” —Michael Morain

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