Rotarians at Work: Tackling Rural Poverty


In rural America, people struggling to get by depend more on the community than they do government assistance. Large government programs and policies are generally made for urban areas to help as many people as possible, yet urban and rural poverty rates are nearly the same. Although Iowa’s poverty levels are lower than most other states, there are still issues in many towns throughout the state. Rotarians at work make a difference.

Thankfully, more than anything else, Rotary is tuned in to the needs within their communities. Rotarian Deb “Crabby” Ockenfels saw a need in Iowa’s Rotary District 6000 to provide adequate winter coats to economically disadvantaged children. Realizing the severity of the need, she on-boarded 18 clubs and, within a three-week period, wrote 18 separate grants applications for clubs to do similar projects with Operation Warm in her first year.

“Once people understand that there is a problem with kids not being warm in their own communities, that’s somewhere they want to help. Those are the kids they may see in their towns, on their school grounds, or even playing with their own children or grandchildren.”

Since then, Crabby’s district-wide project has provided over 25,000 coats to children in need in Iowa. The project has spread to include nonprofits, Kiwanis clubs, businesses and Rotary clubs in other districts that all want to keep their communities warm.

One such club is the Rotary Club of Waterloo, IA, in District 5970. Rotarians Steve and Liz Thorpe have been giving coats to kids for eight years. “Having worked in the school district for years, we see nearly 70 percent of the children enrolled in free/reduced lunch programs,” Liz said. The Federal and state governments fund free or reduced lunches for children living below the state poverty line. Looking the enrollment in that program is how many Rotary clubs identify schools with need in their area.

This project with Operation Warm provides more than a coat. It gives Rotarians and communities a sense of what they are doing is both needed and appreciated.

“When we gave a little girl gave a new winter coat, she ran to hug the principal. Later, the Principal explained the girl and her family had been homeless, and living in their car,” Steve detailed. “We have many special moments from the years we have been doing this.”

Read more about Rotarians at Work across the country!

A Millennial’s Experience as a Rotarian

Detroit and Grosse Point Rotary Clubs, MI

Rotary Club of Centreville, OH

Want to learn more about Rotary and Operation Warm? Contact your fellow Rotarian Brandon Smith at

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