Humans of the Keweenaw: Interview with Iola Brubaker

My experience with my children’s health problems, my son’s learning disability, and being a single parent has made me very passionate about providing the same resources I depended on as a parent to my community.

July 20, 2017

This is the fourth in a series of planned interviews highlighting humans in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties who are working to improve our community’s quality of life.

Interview conducted on 7/14/17 by Kyle Krym
Photos courtesy of Carrie Rich


Please, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am the Executive Director at the Keweenaw Family Resource Center (KFRC), and am new to my role, having started here in May. I’ve always been passionate about serving the community I live in and working with families and children in particular.

I moved to the Copper Country three years ago because it was closer to my brothers who work in forestry. I’m a single mom with four kids aged 17, 15, 14, and 12.


Where were you before the Copper Country?

I moved here from the small town of Atchison, Kansas, although I hadn’t been there very long. Previously I lived in Grand Rapids and a lot of other places, including Chicago, but I grew up in Bronson, MI, next to Coldwater. It’s an itty bitty town, a farming and manufacturing community, about eight miles from the Indiana-Michigan border. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked in the factories. I can remember in high school when we got our first McDonald’s and second stoplight—that was a big deal!

Having graduated high school from such a small town, I had to leave home to attend college and pursue career opportunities. I went to Bourbonnais, Illinois to study at the Olivet Nazarene University for a degree in Speech Communications with an emphasis in Journalism. Later I went to The Salvation Army College for Officer Training in Chicago to become a Salvation Army Officer. Sort of similar to a seminary preparing someone to become a pastor, it prepared me to dedicate my faith and skills to service. I was an Officer for six years in South Bend, IN and Sturgis, MI, before moving to Grand Rapids, MI to work in The Salvation Army’s development department.


What did you do when you first moved here?

I moved here without a job, which made for an interesting first couple of months. I needed to take the first thing I could find that would allow me to make an income to support my family. I worked for U-HAUL when it first opened here, but not too long after I was able to get a job at the Upper Great Lakes Houghton Family Health Center—a nonprofit health center committed to providing quality healthcare regardless of an individual’s ability to pay.

My work there was funded by a grant designated to helping people learn more about insurance and the Affordable Care Act. I helped clients figure out if they qualified for the Healthy Michigan Plan and how they could find alternative insurance plans through the Healthcare Marketplace. Due to my background in Journalism and Marketing, I also handled some of the promotional materials, including press releases, social media, and event organization.

It was very interesting work, and I learned a lot. The whole insurance realm was changing so quickly! But it was fun figuring out how to help people. I’ll take any job to support my family, but I always try to find a job that allows me to give back to my community in some way. I think that stems from my own personal faith.

When the Executive Director position at KFRC opened up, I knew it was a perfect fit for my personal philosophy and my passion for child development and supporting families.


What role does the Keweenaw Family Resource Center play in the community?

The mission of the Keweenaw Family Resource Center is to support, enrich, and strengthen family lives in the Keweenaw Peninsula by providing a variety of programs that focus on families with children from birth through four years of age.

At the Resource Center, our Baby Closet provides families with things they might need, including diapers, shoes, winter coats, etc. And our indoor playground, the Treehouse, is a great place for children age zero to four to play and explore, especially during those long U.P. winters!

Alternatively, we can come to you! We offer a Home Visiting program providing home-based support. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals, so it can be really helpful to have a home visitor stop by and answer questions. Through our Hospital Visitation Program, we also visit new mothers at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital and Portage Health to provide them with a “Welcome Baby” bag and information about what to expect.

Other important programs we offer include Mommy, Daddy, and Me playgroups, which help provide supportive and nurturing environments for children to play, and our T.R.A.I.N.S. (Targeting Reflex development And Improving Neuro-sensory-motor Skills) program, which includes developmental evaluations and individual and group therapeutic activity sessions for three through five year olds.


How does the Keweenaw Family Resource Center work with other community stakeholders who focus on early childhood care?

I am also the Director of the Copper Country Great Start Collaborative. KFRC works with the Collaborative to support families with young children, but the Collaborative itself is more educational with similar, but unique outcome goals. Specifically, the Collaborative is about bringing all the early childhood players together to meet Michigan’s four Early Childhood Outcomes: children are born healthy; children are healthy, thriving, and developmentally on track from birth to third grade; children are developmentally ready to succeed in school at time of school entry; and children are prepared to succeed in fourth grade and beyond by reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Collaborative members include parents, community leaders, business owners, charitable and faith-based organizations, health and human services agencies, and educators. Together, we are creating and sustaining a comprehensive and inclusive early childhood system—one that promotes the physical and emotional well‐being of children and families in addition to creating supportive and flexible early learning opportunities.


Why are the first years of a child’s life so important?

When a child is born, their brain is rapidly developing. It’s important to make sure the neural connections in the brain are strengthening during these early years, as studies have shown a positive correlation between strong neural networks and success later in life.

I’m currently working with a group that is focusing on toxic stress and how it can inhibit healthy development. They find that if a child has a lot of adverse experiences during their early years, their brains get hardwired differently. They have more problems in school, more heart issues, and lower life expectancies. It all goes back to the experiences they had as a child.

If we can build resiliency and stronger neural networks during these early years by reducing adverse experiences, we can improve the long term outcome for the child, which improves the long term outlook of the community as a whole, because our children are our future.


How has your work been influenced by your own experiences raising children?

I sometimes sit and wonder what it would be like if my children didn’t have issues when they were younger. When they were born, our lives constantly revolved around hospital visits, and they went to lots of specialists for (thankfully) small health issues. We moved around a lot, away from our family, and didn’t have a lot of family support, so the support we received came from the community.

One of my sons is on the autism spectrum, and I remember what it was like being a parent of a child who was different. He is great, I wouldn’t change him for the world, but I remember how difficult it was with so little family around. I am so thankful there were resources available to us.

KFRC provides similar support for families so they don’t have to feel isolated when they have children who are just a little different from others. The Resource Center is here for everyone. It has resources for all children and families in the Copper Country. My experience with my children’s health problems, my son’s learning disability, and being a single parent has made me very passionate about providing the same resources I depended on as a parent to my community. I feel very strongly about giving back.


What do you do for fun?

This is where I’m not so exciting. I love being outdoors, but most of my time is spent my children. I have very little downtime. I don’t play in a rock band or go on many trips. I do like hiking and camping and going to new places, but I don’t do as much as I like. I’ve been to Mammoth Cave and really enjoyed that. And Canyon River Falls out in Baraga County—I love hiking there! Luckily, living here is like being on a vacation all the time. The weather is great, and I even like the snow.

I am very involved with my children’s activities, including First Robotics, and I volunteer with a lot of youth programs. This is only the third time in eighteen years I haven’t volunteered at a Salvation Army Youth Camp for a week during the summer!

We also watch a lot of movies as a family and are huge Marvel and Star Wars fans. The original Star Wars came out around the time I was born, and I remember watching the original trilogy as a child. Later, I went to Episodes I, II, and III while I was in college. Now I’m having a lot of fun going to the new Star Wars films with my own children. The Force is strong in my life. It’s followed me.


Which movie is better, Frozen or Tangled?

Tangled. You just can’t beat a bunch of ruffians singing at a bar.


What advice do you have for young families?

Enjoy the time when your children are young. Time goes by very, very fast. On days you feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember that tomorrow is a new day. I sit here with my 17-year-old and I ask myself where those 17 years went. There were tough days, easy days, good days, and bad days, and they all went by way too fast.


For more information on the Keweenaw Family Resource Center, please visit their Facebook page or their website at  Donations can be made through the KFRC Endowment at Keweenaw Community Foundation HERE.

Through philanthropic services, strategic investments and community leadership, Keweenaw Community Foundation helps people support the causes they care about, now and for generations to come. For more information on Keweenaw Community Foundation and how to give, explore our website at

Contact: Iola Brubaker or Kyle Krym