SHELDON—Thirty years after Iola Whitsell first signed up to run the ticket booth at a track meet, the Iowa High School Athletic Directors Association recognized her for decades of charitable work on Jan. 15 with its Outstanding Volunteer Service Award.
The lifelong Sheldon resident has played a range of supporting roles, from a community helper to the secret-keeper at the end of the school lunch line. No matter where assistance is needed, Whitsell said she is always happy to lend a hand.
Iola credits her motivated spirit to her late husband. Tom Whitsell was a transportation worker who suffered a brain injury on the job in 1979 that required him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“I realized how much a little bit of help or a little encouraging word can do when you have someone with an injury,” Iola said.
The disability rights movement was not yet a major force in the United States. It would not be until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed. Iola said that awareness “is a passion” for her, and she has taken that perspective into her life of service, especially in those early years.
“People just didn’t realize that they are just normal people that just need help,” she said. “If you know somebody that’s disabled, it makes it a lot easier to accept that and help that person.”
Iola began her volunteer career early in her employment as a lunch lady for the Sheldon School District. At the time, employees were given free admission to events if they clocked enough service hours. With her four children involved in sports, she said signing up was a way to save money as her husband was unable to work.
“Pretty soon, I did more than just track and pretty soon, I was volunteering at everything,” she said.
When Iola retired in 2003, she was eligible for a senior pass to sporting events, but she said she wanted to keep helping out.
“When Eric (Maassen) took over as activities director, I said ‘Hey, I’ll still volunteer for you,’” she said.
After growing her avocational roots in the school district, she branched out to other fields in retirement. She said her son, Barry Whitsell, who later would become the chief executive officer of Village Northwest Unlimited in Sheldon, suggested working at the Village Treasure Chest as a way to get out of the house for a few hours per day. It was not long until she was getting calls from a diverse list of organizations, including the Sheldon Prairie Museum, American Red Cross and local religious groups.
“Word in a little town like this travels fast if someone is willing to help out,” Iola said. “It just kind of manifested.”
“Whatever the case is — like if someone couldn’t do a wrestling meet — they’d call me. ‘Iola, we’re short. Can you come and help us?’ And I’d say ‘Sure, I’ll help you.’ It just gets around, and I enjoy it. I don’t begrudge anyone who calls me.”
Looking back on her decades of volunteering, Iola could not recall a single negative memory.
“Everybody is just so good to you,” she said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating if things don’t go right, but that’s just nature. You have that no matter where you go.”
Iola said she looked to make personal connections through her work, even when she was getting paid. During her 30 years on the lunch line, she fostered many relationships with the students she saw every day.
“Many parents would be surprised what all the kids divulge to you and how close you get to them,” she said. “Even to this day, if they come into the Treasure Chest, I’ll say ‘Are you so-and-so?’ — ‘Yes I am, Mrs. Whitsell,’ they’ll say. You’re part of their life.”
“I was the last person at the lunch line, so when they got to me, they didn’t feel like they had to hurry. They felt like they could talk for just a minute.”
Iola said her eight grandchildren kept her hooked into school sports, and that still appreciates the chance to serve Sheldon.
“I don’t know why or how,” she said. “I just enjoy it.”