By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Nora Dvorak has devoted her life to helping those in need, both through work and volunteerism. October is Respect Life Month, which seeks to protect the dignity of the person from womb to tomb. For her selfless dedication to the dignity of all persons, Dvorak will receive the first “One Among Us” Award during the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award ceremony Oct. 22. The ceremony begins at 2 p.m. in St. Ambrose University’s Christ the King Chapel. All are welcome.
“Nora has truly gone to the peripheries over and again. She has helped newborns, refugees and human trafficking victims, to name but a few, know that they are safe, will be cared for, loved. And she has done so right here, because that is where she saw need,” said Kent Ferris, director of Social Action for the Diocese of Davenport and leader of the Pacem in Terris Coalition. “The takeaway? We are to follow Nora’s lead and to find what is ours to do.”
Dan Ebener, director of stewardship and parish planning for the diocese and former director of social action, said “Nora is truly a servant leader. A servant of the poor, a leader of social change.”
Dvorak, 82, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish-Davenport, began her lifelong quest to help people when she worked for Iowa’s Department of Human Services (DHS). She worked in direct service with families and later with families experiencing abuse. When she arrived in Davenport in 1975, she supervised private agency workers, planned services for families and was an advocate for clients.
While at DHS in Davenport, Dvorak was looking for a program for one of her young clients, a refugee. Dvorak discovered Big Brothers/Big Sisters did not exist, nor anything really comparable. She invited herself to a meeting of Heart to Heart, which paired immigrant youths with adult volunteers in a friendship and cultural exchange. Dvorak became a board member. That program expanded and eventually became Big Brothers/Big Sisters. “Today there are several sites in the area,” Dvorak said.
In the early 1990s, while DHS was undergoing some changes, Dvorak was asked to apply for the position of director of refugee resettlement for the Diocese of Davenport. She thought this new line of work might suit her, and accepted the job in 1991. She took a more hands-on approach to the program, established in 1975. “I went to the airport to greet the refugees. I checked their homes to make sure they were up to code. I made sure they (refugees) had their needs met.”
The refugees, primarily Vietnamese, had much to learn about living in the United States. So she started monthly community meetings. “We had people come to talk about guidelines with them. We taught them about putting out the trash in cans for pickup. Wild animals, such as chickens, were not acceptable in homes. They were taught about police, ambulances, cars and insurance.”
An English as a Second Language teacher was available to translate. “We needed to change attitudes on both sides (refugees and police, for example).” A newsletter featured useful information and highlighted academic and band honors or “anything positive. We wanted them to feel good about something in their lives.”
Community Health Care worked with the refugee resettlement program to provide two health appointments when refugees arrived, she said. “Many (refugees) came in poor health and some had diseases that were not known here.” The first appointment covered blood work and a urine test. The second appointment reviewed the lab results and included a physical. “This was highly praised and Community Health Care was so accommodating.”
The refugee resettlement program was housed at diocesan headquarters until Jan. 1, 1997, and then moved to Family Resources in Davenport. Dvorak continued working there until retiring in 1999. She thought about learning to quilt and play the guitar. But those hobbies were set aside. “My dad was my role model,” she said. He believed that you don’t wait around to help others.
Dvorak has been involved in many project that focus on different aspects of social justice and life issues. Two bigger projects: Newborn Safe Haven and Attacking Trafficking. Her interest in a safe haven for newborns began years earlier when she read about healthy newborns being abandoned. “I had a physical reaction like nothing I had before,” she said. She went to work on a project that would allow a newborn to be dropped off at a designated site and to be cared for. Her work paid off when a memorandum of understanding was drafted with Scott County. It allowed an unwanted newborn up to 14 days old to be dropped off at a local hospital with no questions asked and no charges filed for abandonment. The individual dropping off the newborn would be asked to complete a form regarding parental health and some other questions. The form noted that the birth mother had 30 days to “change her heart” and potentially get her baby back. Eventually, a Safe Haven law passed in Iowa. It included other sites besides hospitals where a newborn could be brought.
Another passion that has kept Dvorak busy is human trafficking. She participated in a Catholic Relief Services teleconference on the topic. “I read some more and I listened more. I felt I needed to do something. Human trafficking is alive and well in the Quad-City area and in our diocese,” she said.
Attacking Trafficking was born. The nonprofit involves Catholic and non-Catholic churches working together to provide education, information and conferences on the subject.
Other organizations she has been involved with in her “retirement” include Quad Cities Interfaith, working primarily with refugees and immigrants; Davenport Civil Rights commission; One Human Family; and the Davenport Community Advisory Panel.
“Life has been good,” Dvorak, widow and mother of six, said. “I have met some wonderful people over the years. I wasn’t looking for any of these groups – they just fell in my lap and I answered the call.”