Life is learning, finds city's new CE leader

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

"You start learning the moment you are born, and hopefully, you never stop until the day you take your last breath," she says, settling into the subterranean catacombs known as Community Education headquarters.

"It's sad, isn't it - that people sometimes give up on learning. Learning is just experiencing. It's all about finding something new every single day to put into that folder that is our lives."

For Pat Cowan, the chance to take a breath and philosophize is rare this week, and her own learning folder is suddenly stuffed to overflowing.

On Monday, she took over the reins of Community Ed - the Storm Lake agency with over 600 volunteers, almost 60 ongoing programs, hundreds of clients from children to senior citizens, and a mission to bombard its community with never-ending opportunities to learn, grow and play.

"The first things I discovered were the location of the bathroom and the coffee pot, and then what really good people we have here. I imagine that most people many have no concept of the talent that exists in this office," Cowan said.

That staff is celebrating the beginning of its second decade in Storm Lake. It is funded jointly by the Storm Lake School District and city of Storm Lake, with additional help from grant programs, fundraising, Community Chest, Iowa Central Community College and the city of Lakeside.

As a hub between all of those elements and the public, teamwork is the secret to success in this bustling den of activity located underneath the school administration building.

"I've had the chance to visit with many community leaders, all they all have had a very positive mindset. Community Education is fortunate to have so many good partnerships all through the community, and they are all supportive of its mission," Cowan said.

Storm Lake is going to need all the positive energy they can muster.

"I've was gone from Storm Lake for two and a half years, and came back not quite a year ago. I'm back because I love Storm Lake. It is a great community that is facing a lot of challenges, just as so many other places are. The difference is that Storm Lake always takes on its challenges and gets even better. I have all the confidence in the world that it is going in the right direction," she said.

Storm Lake and education are often synonymous. "You find many people coming right into our school buildings on any given day to see how we are doing it. The good leadership in the community has a lot to do with it," Cowan added.

In that mix, Community Education's role is to be the facilitator, the collaborator to fulfill unmet needs, she suggests. "We are in the position to work with the schools, local government, organizations, volunteers, the health community. We can pull all those together to work for the community.

Ten years ago, Community Education was being founded simply to address the concept of lifelong learning - that same cradle-to-the-grave attitude that Cowan subscribes to today. "It's expanded a lot from there. It isn't just adult classes, and it isn't just recreation. It's been customized to meet Storm Lake's vision."

Cowan doubts that the general public realizes all that Community Education has done. Ten years ago, the schools were locked at 5 p.m., and the public wasn't allowed to use their gyms and classrooms. Today, the facilities are used almost constantly. Community Ed has founded a dozen youth sports and recreation programs, from the Challenger baseball league for special needs children to a new sailing academy. It runs a dozen children's camps every year - sports and dance and cheerleading.

It sponsors trips, parenting workshops, community clean-ups, family outings, diversity programs, contests, holiday events, Prime Time for seniors, and many enrichment classes. It handles six adult recreation leagues, and maintains open gyms and open walking in the schools programs. It is integral in the Elementary Tornado Academy programs, serving some 300 children every day with before and after school programs at all four public elementary schools.

"I think we make up our own definition of what we are as we go along," Cowan smiled, noting the ever -changing nature of the organization.

There's plenty of room for even more, she feels, such as more opportunities for the community's elders to go on learning. "Sometimes seniors need a little encouragement, but they have so much to share, such as in foster grandparent pairings and seniors helping seniors programs."

Parenting education is another area she plans to address right away with her Parent-Child subcommittee.

"You have to talk with people and see what the community's wishes are. When you are in touch with them, it's easier to see where we might be able to help," Cowan said.

Bob Swanson, who has represented the Storm Lake Police Department on the CE Council, is about to be named as the next chairman of that advisory board, Cowan revealed. "We will be looking at goals for that group. I think the council could be a real catalyst."

Capturing Storm Lake's involvement will take a little time. "This is such an active community. Everybody seems to be going 80 different directions all the time - and I mean that as a high complement," she smiles.

Cowan also hopes to help market the community and its education system. "There's a whole lot of good stuff there to build on," she says.

She may be new at her post, but she isn't new to education in Storm Lake.

Cowan came to Storm Lake in 1975, and has lived here since, aside from her recent time in Seattle to be near family.

She was twice elected to the Storm Lake Community School District Board of Education, serving from 1986-1992 - putting her in on the creation of Community Ed, the controversy around demolishing old South School, and the planning of a new middle school.

She has served as executive director of Faith, Hope & Charity facility for special needs children, and most recently as head of the Commercial Bank Emerald Club, which provides life experiences for seniors in the area.

She enjoys spending time with her son Todd and his family, including grandson Spencer, in Pleasant Hill; and daughter Stacey, who recently returned to Storm Lake and will soon wed Buena Vista University coach Steve Eddie.

"Storm Lake is my roots. It feels right to be here." Even if here is an underground office with a myriad of things to learn all at once. Bit by bit, day by day, she adds it to her folder.

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