2021 Good Neighbor Awards Honorable Mention
When a derecho packing 140 mph winds slammed into Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in August 2020, toppling power lines and battering homes, REALTOR® Raymond Siddell was ready to act. The derecho—a violent, high-velocity windstorm often referred to as a hurricane on land—killed four people and damaged thousands of homes in the city. Nearly all of Cedar Rapids, a town of more than 133,000 people, lost power. Within 24 hours of the disaster, Siddell, a sales associate with Keller Williams Legacy Group, created a Facebook page where people could request or donate basic items like food, water, and medicine. In its first three days, the Facebook group swelled to 21,200 members. Ultimately, that figure rose to 70,000.
Initially, Siddell set up a table outside his real estate office for donations, which included batteries, flashlights, tarps, canned food, and other emergency supplies. As the extent of victims’ needs became apparent, Siddell’s operation took over his brokerage’s entire building. A year after the storm, he’s still coordinating relief efforts through his newly formed nonprofit, Together We Achieve, for storm victims who continue to experience hardship. The organization is now housed in a 17,500-square-foot building, an indication of the size of the effort.
“You would think the need for our organization would cease to exist as people regained access to food and electricity, but we learned that so many people were overwhelmed by the storm that we knew we had to continue our efforts.” – Raymond Siddell
“We still have people who are struggling to recover,” says Siddell. “We have people who are still staying in hotel rooms because they haven’t been able to rebuild their homes. We have people who still need food and basic household supplies to get by.”
Recovering From Disaster
About 500 households went weeks without electricity while temperatures reached into the 90s with high humidity. Debris along some roads piled six to 10 feet high, as half the city’s tree cover was lost. In this farming area, 14 million acres of crops were ruined.
Siddell coordinated thousands of volunteers in the first few harrowing days following the derecho. He organized a free yard cleanup service and loaned out chainsaws to help homeowners remove dead trees. He helped people with insurance and legal questions find resources that could help. “Raymond is a force of nature,” says Matthew Salger, vice president and treasurer of Together We Achieve. “If you’re in a room with him, you can feel his passion for our cause, and he’s selflessly put his real estate career on the back burner to make Together We Achieve a success.”
Aleasha LeClere can attest to Siddell’s drive. She and her husband and three children were forced to move out of their home because of mold contamination caused by water from the storm. The pounding winds “left a 4-inch-wide gap in our roof, which flooded our attic, and then the water trickled through the rest of the house behind our drywall,” LeClere says.
The family, which is still living in a rental home more than a year later due to insurance disputes, visits Together We Achieve’s food pantry once a week. “The center has allowed us to put food on the table while we pay for a roof over our heads,” LeClere says. “Our family is still struggling, but knowing the center is going to be there for us gives us a sense of comfort in this period of chaos.”
Assistance for All
Siddell, Salger, and other volunteers keep Together We Achieve’s food pantry open six days a week. “Anyone who comes in is welcome to our services,” Siddell says. “Other food pantries restrict how often people can come, or they have income guidelines. We don’t ask any questions. We have zero restrictions. We’ll help you no matter what.”
The nonprofit also delivers food and supplies to people in heavily impacted neighborhoods, mobile home parks, and apartment complexes. “Raymond recognized that there are a lot of people who can’t travel to our facility, so we added home delivery to our services,” says Salger.
“It brought to light how many people here were experiencing food insecurity before the hurricane.” —Raymond Siddell
Siddell’s broker, Karrie Schultz, says he’s a role model for other agents who want to give back. “To see Raymond do everything he can to help people on such a massive scale is inspiring. He has a heart of gold,” she says.
Despite the circumstances that gave rise to Together We Achieve, Salger says the organization does more than help Cedar Rapids residents recuperate from the devastating derecho. “What the storm did was it exposed the gaps in our support systems for the underserved, but Raymond has gone above and beyond to help fill those gaps,” Salger says.
Siddell has no shortage of goals when it comes to Together We Achieve’s future. The organization is in the process of purchasing its current building; making its location handicapped-accessible; adding warming and cooling stations; procuring computers that people can use to apply to jobs; and hiring a director of programs and events.
“You would think the need for our organization would cease to exist as people regained access to food and electricity,” Siddell says. “But we learned that so many people were overwhelmed by the storm that we knew we had to continue our efforts.” The storm also “brought to light how many people here were experiencing food insecurity before the disaster,” he says. Indeed, 369 people visited the food pantry in July.
“Raymond’s vision for Together We Achieve was a one-stop, no-questions-asked place where people could go to find food and other basic needs, and it’s become that and so much more,” says Salger.