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Deb Dunkhase continues with multiple efforts to help the younger generation

A love of fostering the future is what motivates Deb Dunkhase's journey to help the younger generation.
Published: Jan. 23, 2022 at 11:22 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - A love of fostering the future is what motivates Deb Dunkhase’s journey to help the younger generation. She’s made it her mission to make sure each child has the opportunity to find a journey of their own.

Dunkhase spent more than 20 years as the Executive Director of the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville. During her time there, she heard about a mission trip to Guatemala that would change her life.

“I had heard about this Rotary Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Mission for years,” Dunkhase said. “I applied to go on the mission as a non-medical volunteer. I was turned down five years in a row, but I kept at it.”

In 2013, she was accepted to go with the Miles of Smiles team from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on the annual mission trip she now helps organize. Iowa MOST also performs cataract surgeries. To better communicate with the people who live there, she began taking classes from a woman in Guatemala, who encouraged Dunkhase to think about bringing her mission home.

“She says, I know there are immigrants living in Iowa, what are you doing to help them? Because she knows how much they struggle,” Dunkhase said.

Dunkhase gathered cardboard, tape, and markers and visited mobile home parks in Iowa City, where they found kids who needed support.

“We got to know the kids, we built all kinds of structures,” Dunkhase said. “For five days a week one entire summer, the summer of 2019, we went to mobile home communities and played with the kids.”

That turned into a school supply drive in the fall, then a collection for winter gear. And in 2020, the pandemic hit families hard.

“Families were losing their jobs, they were becoming more food insecure; more housing insecure,” Dunkhase said.

Together with her friend Elizabeth Bernal, they co-founded Open Heartland in Iowa City, primarily serving Latino immigrant families. They offer a tienda, or store, for basic needs, medical and vaccine clinics and classes, and interest groups for adults and kids.

“It’s really important for families to find a place in this community where they feel welcome, where they feel safe,” Dunkhase said. “Because most of the families that we work with don’t have documents to be here legally so they are at risk every day of being deported.”

With all volunteers and no steady income, Dunkhase hopes to keep the mission going, passing leadership roles onto the families she serves while continuing to support kids.

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