Jessica Balk volunteer

Using volunteer time off to advocate for children

The first time Jessica Balk, a personal lines assistant underwriter, had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., it was for an organization that is near and dear to her heart.

Balk travelled to D.C. with 13 other Iowa volunteers to attend the National Summit for Save the Children Action Network (SCAN) March 31–April 2. While on Capitol Hill, 270 SCAN advocates from around the U.S. received training, networked, attended speeches, and met with their representatives to discuss child-care and safety issues.

SCAN describes itself as “the political voice for kids,” and its members meet with lawmakers to push for policy changes that focus on early childhood education and protecting children in conflict zones.  

Learning the ropes

Balk first joined SCAN almost a year ago, after learning about the organization at a music festival. Touched by how passionate its members were, she joined a chapter and quickly became the outreach leader in Central Iowa. Balk hosts and organizes events, recruits volunteers, and champions children’s issues at the local, state, and federal levels.

SCAN has worked hard to build strong relationships with presidential candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, as well as Iowa’s elected officials. In fact, SCAN is so committed to persuading lawmakers to support its cause, politicians have nicknamed the volunteers as the “Red Shirt Brigade,” for the red T-shirts they wear, which are easily visible in the throngs of people at rallies and speeches.

“It’s interesting watching some of those candidates go from being afraid to talk to us to looking for us in a crowd,” Balk said.

But what does it take to speak up to powerful people?

Lots of training and mental preparation, according to Balk. “The main thing to remember is that they work for you. You don’t work for them,” she said.

“It’s important for them to hear what you have to say because they are the people who help make these decisions. Advocacy and activism can go a long way. It’s amazing the difference you can make just by showing up.”

Speaking up

The annual Summit event helps prepare volunteers for their meetings with lawmakers by offering training on how to speak to them. This year, the goal was to convince Iowa’s representatives to cosponsor H.R. 1488, the Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act of 2019, which addresses the problem of child-care “deserts,” and to cosponsor a resolution to protect education for children living in conflict zones.

Balk’s first job was to make it personal for lawmakers. So, when she and other volunteers met with Iowa Congressman Dave Loebsack, Balk was able to use data from Loebsack’s hometown of Sioux City to demonstrate the importance H.R. 1488.

Working to solve child-care deserts

Even if you haven’t heard the term “child-care desert,” you are probably familiar with the problem. As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, an area is a child-care desert if more than 50 children under the age of 5 have no child-care providers in their area, or when there are three times as many children needing care than there are licensed child-care slots. This is especially burdensome for single, working parents.

In Iowa alone, almost a quarter of the population lives in a child-care desert, according to the Center for American Progress. And that’s at the low end — in Utah, a whopping 77 percent of people live in places without adequate child-care resources.

Woodbury County, where Loebsack is from, is no exception. To Loebsack’s surprise, Balk had the data: “In Woodbury, there are 7,556 children, and there are only 6,356 child-care slots available.”

For Balk, who was a single mother for some time, the issue hits close to home. In Jasper County, where she lives, there are very few providers, with only one slot available for every eight children who need one. This forced her to leave her son with an unlicensed caretaker, a decision that she found hard to make.

“It took me weeks just to find somebody who could watch my son, and I didn’t even know who they were — and they were doing it out of their own home,” Balk said. “You have to take the risk of trusting a complete stranger with your child, because there are no centers available.”

Support from Grinnell Mutual

That’s why Balk believes so much in SCAN’s mission — and why it meant so much for her to receive Grinnell Mutual’s support, both financially and personally. The company donated $200 to the group, which helped the volunteers travel to the National Summit.

Balk said, “Grinnell Mutual has been great. I think it’s amazing that they give you volunteer hours — being an avid volunteer, that means a lot to me. To be able to take eight hours to attend one of these events, or go somewhere and do something for somebody else, and not have that counted against me at work is just amazing.”

While National Summit is over, the work for 2019 is just beginning. Balk says she’s excited to continue meeting new people and having a relationship with her representatives.

“I didn't realize how much of an impact you can make as a constituent and a member of the community, until I was introduced to this organization.”


Learn about our employee benefits Learn how we're in the community