The West Liberty Chamber of Commerce presented three awards last week as part of their annual tribute to local businesses, unable for the second year in a row to host their annual awards banquet because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Director Stephanie Martin and President Kayla Stumpf handed out the trio of honors for Community Spirit, Resilient Business and Volunteer of the year. Liberty Dance Center claimed the Resilient Business Award, Jeff’s Market earned the Community Spirit Award Ron and Rhonda Jensen were named the Community Volunteers of the Year.
Martin said 2020 was a year of “so much hardship” for so many and “yet when we looked around us, we couldn’t have been prouder to watch our community pull together, unite, step up to the plate where needed and keep our businesses’ doors from being closed permanently and families needing help the means and guidance to keep going.”
Resilient Business Award
Cindy Padilla, the artistic director for the dance center, provided virtual lessons and, later, knocked down walls to provide more space in her studio for social distancing procedures to be put in place when students could go back to in person lessons. The business has been part of West Liberty life since 1994 and usually provides classes for up to 225 students annually from three-year-olds to high school seniors, although Padilla said classes were down about 25 percent this past year.
Martin praised the business, located at 325 North Calhoun Street, for “being creative to keep going” despite the pandemic.
Padilla said the award is a salute to the perseverance of the studio, having to create changes with the pandemic just to stay in business. “This has definitely been the most talented year we’ve ever had,” noting the studio invested in growing the business to accommodate students and abide for social distancing, adding more mirrors and more floor space.
The owner said they created small buckets for their younger dances to keep their props, taped off the floor to keep youths six feet apart and required students to wear masks.
Padilla said some of the students went the route of taking Zoom virtual classes after the business had to close in April and May of last year like many businesses, but said it’s all come together this Spring and she’s excited about hosting a May 14 dance recital for parents and the public.
“Oh my gosh – it’s been such a tough year,” said Padilla, who teaches dance along with Cami Jones and Alexis Wolfe at the studio.
“We never knew if we were going to be able to stay open another month. When we got going again, we started classes by Zoom and eventually in-studio classes,” Padilla said.
She said some parents “didn’t feel comfortable “ about in person classes and she had no problem providing virtual classes to keep up their skills. “Week by week, we were not knowing if we would still stay open or even be going to work. Being able to do it, it’s exciting. All the work we put in paid off.”
Community Spirit Award
Jeff’s Market earned the Community Spirit Award, stepping in with free lunches right away to feed local students until the school district was able to launch their lunch program last summer.
“They provided meals to those that needed it when they weren’t able to work and so much more,” said Martin. Accepting the honor for Jeff’s Market was store owner Aaron Thoma.
Volunteer of the Year
Ron and Rhonda Jensen were named the Volunteers of the Year by the Chamber.
“You will find these two almost always at the food pantry, running to pick up food, watering flowers downtown, working a blood drive and so much more,” said Martin of the couple.
The couple has lived in West Liberty all of their lives, both graduating from West Liberty High School. The couple lives on the family farm north of West Liberty, where they raised three children including Megan, Wade & Kirsten, also graduates of WLHS.
“We got involved with many of the school organizations while our kids were in school,” Rhonda Jensen said. Today, Rhonda is a member of the Aquarius Club and West Liberty’s 100 Women Who Care while Ron is a member of the West Liberty Lions Club and Muscatine Master Gardeners. The couple are also members of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in West Liberty. Ron helps with watering the Chamber downtown plants during the summer while the couple also volunteers time at the historical Depot Museum.They help with the community blood drives as well.
“We have been involved with Voluntary Action Committee of West Liberty for many years,” said Rhonda Jensen, noting it’s been just in the last three years since their retirement, that the couple has become more involved with the West Liberty Food Pantry. Ron is currently the treasurer and the couples makes weekly/bi-weekly trips to RiverBend FoodBank in Davenport to pick up items for our local pantry
“We enjoy helping others,” the Jensens said, thanking the Chamber for acknowledging their volunteer efforts, while pointing out “there are many others who are deserving of this award.”
Martin said there were many other businesses and individuals that did “amazing things” as well that didn’t get honored and thanked residents for their involvement and investments into the community and local business.
Other members of the Chamber board include Kira Achen of West Liberty Foods, Mary Jo Lugo of Lugo's Gourment Popcorn & Lemonade, JJ Garcia of West Liberty State Bank, Carmela Lechuga of West Liberty State Bank, Cassie Rottink of Big Imprint, Kara Dennis of the West Liberty Community School District, Cassie Pluim of Liberty Communications and Mary Larson, of West Liberty Veterinary Clinic. Garcia served as president of the organization previously.