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2016 award recipients

Educator of Character - Frank Merz (Video)

Frank Merz has spent a lifetime teaching in north central Iowa. If you’ve met him in his 61-year career, you may also know him as a coach, bus driver, advisor, mentor, confidant, and organizer of class parties. At 80 years old, Mr. Merz continues to be a positive influence in his community. Though he officially retired in 1997, he is still a substitute teacher.

Mr. Merz was fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful mentors who encouraged him to do his best. He pays those lessons forward by being a mentor to thousands of young people who have relied on his help to become the men and women they are today. 

Mr. Merz listens and makes good, informed decisions. These traits make him someone who students turn to when they are in trouble or need someone to talk to. Over the years, and with his wife’s help, Mr. Merz built classrooms of caring. Together they created rewards to help students celebrate their accomplishments. Students can receive rewards such as baked goods, gift certificates, and items donated from area businesses. 

Mr. Merz is the kind of citizen every community needs more of. Every day, in the classroom and in the community, he continues to set a positive example for everyone. 

Organization of Character - Train to Inspire (Video)

Train to Inspire is a non-profit organization started by trainer Joe Hogan that provides opportunities to socialize and have fun for people with special needs. Joe and his team demonstrate trustworthiness every day as they deliver on their promise to provide fun, safe activities for their participants.

Respect for others is at the core of how the Train to Inspire team operates. They work with peoples’ differences to prove to participants that they can do whatever they set their minds to. 

By making athletic and social events available to Iowa’s special needs population, Train to Inspire makes sure that everyone gets to play. Activities like laser tag, paintball, and canvas painting are just a few of the ways the Train to Inspire team practices inclusion, empowerment, and encouragement. 

Not only does Train to Inspire help people of all different abilities feel included through their many initiatives, but they also advocate for other causes, promoting Breast Cancer Awareness and Research, Autism Awareness, and more.

School of Character - Poyner Elementary School (Video)

The students and staff of Poyner Elementary, in the Waterloo Community School District, are great examples of what it means to be a School of Character. 

Poyner students and staff are responsible and respectful. Student ambassadors take responsibility to help integrate students with disabilities into their classrooms. At Poyner, everyone is responsible for setting and achieving goals. The school recently won the Waterloo School District’s Swartzendruber Award for Academic Excellence with gains of 23 percent in reading, science and math scores.

The Poyner Elementary School cares for its community. One student-initiated project involved raising money to buy supplies for a girls’ school in Bangladesh. The school conducts various services activities to help families and community members, such as providing food baskets for needy families at Christmas. 

The Poyner Elementary students and staff are an excellent example of how one school can have a significant impact in their community and beyond.

Citizen of Character - Ethan Eiler and Joe Reck (Video)

Ethan Eiler and Joe Reck are a pair of young men who work together to make the world a better place. Together they founded Blank Tales, with the mission of helping homeless people in the Des Moines area.

Joe and Ethan anonymously interview members of the homeless community to share their stories. In doing so they increase awareness of the homeless problem and promote volunteerism. Their approach to writing and distributing Blank Tales demonstrates respect, caring, and citizenship. 

Ethan treats everyone with the same degree of kindness. Many of his Saturdays are spent distributing items to the area’s homeless. He encourages his suburban friends to get involved and volunteer for good causes. While Joe maintains a full academic schedule, including AP classes and advanced orchestra, he also devotes time to visiting homeless camps around Des Moines and meeting with area aid organizations. Joe has said, “There is no better feeling than helping others.”

Ethan and Joe believe they can make this world a better place. Their sense of fairness is evident in one of the founding principles of Blank Tales - the lives of all people are equal.

Citizen of Character Award - Henny Ohr (Video)

Henny Ohr is a great example of how much one caring, motivated person can do to help so many. In 2009, Henny met a group of refugees from Burma. She learned about their lives of persecution in Burma, their struggles in refugee camps, and the challenges they face living in Iowa. She offered to help. After more conversations and much planning, Henny founded the non-profit organization, Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC) in 2013. EMBARC now offers assistance to many of the 7,000 ethnic minorities from Burma who have settled in Iowa over the past eight years.

As a child of Korean immigrants, Henny experienced the frustrations of living in a new culture and not speaking the language. She shows respect every day as she treats the Burmese ethnic community members as equals who need a hand, rather than strangers who don’t quite fit. 

Henny follows in the footsteps of Governor Robert D. Ray by helping secure new, safe homes for refugees of war and persecution. She is an exemplary Iowa citizen, working to continue our state’s legacy as a community of caring people, willing to reach out and help others.

Pursuing Victory with Honor Award - Kingdom Cares (Video)

Kingdom Cares brings kids together to play basketball and learn what it means to have good character on and off the court. Led by Jake Sullivan, Kingdom Cares offers unique development opportunities to over 300 young people each year. The organization develops elite basketball players in an environment of integrative inclusion.

Kingdom Hoops teams include players from 3-5 different schools, representing more than 50 Iowa communities. Together they learn to embrace each other’s differences. They demonstrate responsibility, citizenship, and caring through the Kingdom Hoops food program, which provides dinner for over 40 children four times each week. Their Beyond Ball program helps Des Moines inner city youth with athletic scholarships, tutoring, and mentoring.

The programs of Kingdom Cares continue to develop some of Iowa’s most elite young basketball players. But more importantly, they are developing young men and women of character who will represent Iowa with tremendous pride for years to come.

Aaron Eilerts Community Service Award - Hank Bohling (Video)

Hank is a young man who truly epitomizes the spirit of community service. His involvement in his community and the world is inspiring. Among Hank’s many contributions, he organized the local Holiday Mail for Heroes project, securing local drop sites and working with limited resources to buy greeting cards and supplies. He used local media and church bulletins to enlist help from the community. He researched and received a grant to help with expenses. Hank hosted card-signing events with 4-H, churches, and civic organizations. In the seven years since starting the project, Hank has collected over 14,000 holiday greetings for distribution to veterans and troops around the world. 

Hank organized some of his friends to revitalize a local recreation area. After securing three grants to help with funding, they completed the community improvement project and hosted a re-opening celebration. Since joining 4-H, Hank has organized and managed their concession stand at the Adair County Fair. Under Hank’s leadership the stand has grown and profited each year.

As an effective leader and a contributing member of his community and the larger society, Hank is truly having a positive impact in his community and the world. He is a great role model for us all.

Character Champion- Brooke Rabon (Video)

Brooke Rabon has been a passionate advocate for The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center since she began as an intern at KDSM FOX 17 in 2001. In 2006, KDSM Fox 17 began creating Iowa Character Award recipient videos. These videos are played each year at the annual banquet to give Iowans a glimpse into the lives of our award recipients and their demonstration of good character. Since the videos began over 12 years ago, Brooke has and continues to be the lead on this special project.

Leading a team from KDSM Fox 17 each year, Brooke spends countless hours traveling the state of Iowa to capture the stories of individuals, organizations, schools, and educators on camera. Recipients are always greeted with a warm smile and friendly conversation as Brooke is an exceptional example of good character and professionalism.

Over her many years working with The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center, Brooke has captured 145 Iowa Character Award recipients on video. Her dedication and commitment to sharing the stories of Iowans making positive impacts on others has made a significant impact on our work.

Partner of the Year - Hormel Foods (Video)

Hormel Foods began its partnership with The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center in 2001. With an initial connection through the Hy-Vee Kids Triathlon, Hormel Foods has become an integral part in expanding our mission and goals across the state of Iowa. 

Joe Fleskoski and the Hormel Foods team deepened their relationship and commitment to our work in 2010 with their support of our Parent’s Guide to Teaching Good Character. 

With Hormel Foods financial support, The Ray Center has printed and distributed more than 70,000 Parent’s Guides to Teaching Good Character. These guides are distributed to families across the state of Iowa at libraries, schools, and special events.

Hormel Foods has a tradition of giving back to the communities they serve. Their commitment to our organization is reflective of their integrity as a business leader in our community and across the nation.

Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award - Jim and Patty Cownie (Video)

Jim and Patty Cownie have been advocates of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center since its inception as Character Counts In Iowa in 1997. 

They articulate and demonstrate good character in their everyday lives as well-known business professionals and philanthropists in central Iowa. 

When Governor Ray first approached the Cownies about the concept of Character Counts In Iowa, Jim became instrumental in the development of our business model. 

He encouraged the organization to think bigger and plan for the future. Jim continues to provide guidance for our organization. 

Patty has made an impact on central Iowa through a lifelong commitment to volunteerism. She served many years on the Drake University Board of Trustees and currently serves on the Board of Regents. 

Jim and Patty exemplify what it means to invest in the community. Through generous contributions of both time and resources, they have made a significant impact on various organizations such as the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation, Meals from the Heartland, and Bravo Greater Des Moines.

August 21, 2020
August 20, 2020
August 18, 2020