When Jessica Lowe Vokes looked out from the podium Jan. 24 during the Newton Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner at Legacy Plaza, accepting the 2019 Community Service Award, she truly was among friends.
“Everyone in the room has either been on a committee with me, provided funding for an event or something I’m working on, encouraged me, volunteered alongside me,” Lowe Vokes told Newton Daily News in a Jan. 29 interview at the United Way of Jasper County office. “I couldn’t think of anybody in that room — through their company business or individually — who didn’t help make something happen.”
The honor was the culmination of a 14-year love affair between Lowe Vokes and the City of Newton. The 37-year-old director of the United Way Jasper County is originally from Brighton, Iowa — a town of about 656 people. She said it’s a real “give you the shirts off their backs” kind of community. There, Lowe Vokes’ parents taught her to be a person who has trouble saying “no” to a worthy cause.
“I remember growing up and Dad goes and helps someone put siding on their hose while Mom goes and make the lasagna because somebody’s sick,” she said. “It’s part of how I was raised. You do what you can to help others as much as possible.”
In Newton, Lowe Vokes lives that mantra. She moved to town in 2005. As a reporter for Newton Daily News, journalism, she said, felt like a community service.
“I honestly thought I would be here for a couple of years, get some clips and move on to a bigger paper,” Lowe Vokes said. “When I was in journalism, which I miss, I loved telling stories because I felt like I was helping people through informing people. I felt like I was making a difference.”
Newton quickly made an impression on her.
“I remember the first time I went and bought groceries in town. I clearly must have looked lost, looking for something. This woman stopped — I don’t know who she was — and said ‘Oh, I can show you where that is.’ She did work at the store. She was just being nice, and that was just the very beginning. Everybody here is like that,” Lowe Vokes said. “They are kind and gracious and giving. If you get your car struck, they’re going to help you push it out. If you need help, they’re there. It’s really amazing how kind Newton people are.”
Shortly after Maytag’s closure, Lowe Vokes became the membership director for Newton YMCA where she spent 4.5 years. That position led to her current role as UWJC director.
Beyond a career in the fourth-estate and nonprofits, Lowe Vokes has arguably become one of the most visible members of the community. Currently, she is president and a founding member of The Friends of Newton Parks; co-organizer and founding member of NewtonFest; and volunteer for both St. Nick’s Christmas Club and Newton Athletic Boosters.
Beyond the official designations, Lowe Vokes has taken up many tasks on her own, like gathering donations for 75 Jasper County teenagers during the 2018 holiday season and hosting a huge gift-opening party with the kids four days before Christmas. Lowe Vokes put out a call on social media for specific items and she said Newton, true to form, delivered.
“I’m amazed when I put something out there on Facebook, like, ‘I need a coat for a girl at this school, this is the size.’ It always gets filled. That’s Jasper County. That’s amazing to me. ... I’ve been very fortunate and been on the receiving end of generosity, and I think it’s important to pay it forward, honor it, and do in-kind for other people,” Lowe Vokes said.
Lowe Vokes has a willing partner in her husband Erik. An avid volunteer in his own right, Lowe Vokes said his desire to participate in things like Beepball (baseball for the blind and visually impaired) gives him an understanding of her drive and makes her non-stop schedule easier. The duo barely took a break for their wedding, hopping off a plane right after their honeymoon to get to NewtonFest 2018.
“Literally, we’d been married for like 10 days, and he’s out there moving trash cans with me and setting up barricades,” she said. “He’s very supportive.”
Earning the 2019 community service award, Lowe Vokes joins the ranks for other Newton leaders including Liz Dodd of Dodd’s Trash and Recycling, Toni Peska of Iowa Realty and Newton City Councilwoman Lin Chape.
“It was a really nice honor because if you look at the names of the people who have received it, there are folks who have done amazing things,” Lowe Vokes said. “So to be in that company is kind of crazy and humbling.”
Contact Mike Mendenhall at 641-792-3121 ext 6530 or firstname.lastname@example.org