BVU Grad Debbaut is Iowa Western Alum of the Year

Deb Debbaut earned her degree from Buena Vista University in Council Bluffs after completing her associate's degree at Iowa Western Community College.

Courtesy Iowa Western Magazine

Given how ingrained Deb Debbaut is in the community, it might come as a surprise to those who know her to discover just how much time she’s spent exploring the rest of the country.

Debbaut and her husband, Marion, have visited 49 states (Alaska remains) — 48 of those on the couple’s Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle. Fortunately for Council Bluffs, Debbaut always returns — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve been a Manawa Girl all my life,” she says.

She still is, too, living only about two miles from where she was raised near Lake Manawa by her parents, Ed and Frances Milburn. Her Council Bluffs roots go deep. Debbaut graduated from Lewis Central High School in 1973, then from Iowa Western Community College. And for more than two decades she’s been building up her hometown as director of Grants Programs for the Iowa West Foundation.

“Council Bluffs is a thriving community thanks to incredible individuals like Deb Debbaut,” says Tara Slevin, vice president of Volunteer Services and Foundation at Jennie Edmundson Hospital. “From the first moment I met Deb, I was inspired by her passion for our community and commitment to providing leadership, guidance and support to dozens of organizations that impact some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Numerous others echo Slevin’s praise of Debbaut, the Iowa Western Alumni Association’s 2019 Outstanding Alum.

Popcorn for Dinner

Getting her IWCC degree was no easy feat. Debbaut attended classes nights and weekends, usually carrying 12 to 15 credit hours while working full time at First National Bank of Council Bluffs. She had begun working there immediately after graduating from Lewis Central. Initially, Marion was attending Iowa Western while working full time, too. But they became ships passing in the night.

“We decided it wasn’t working for us,” Debbaut says. Their marriage meant more than a degree, so Marion finished his studies while Debbaut “kept the home fires burning.”

A few years later, though, after Marion earned his IWCC degree, Deb began taking classes again. Often, that was with like-minded individuals.The classes were comprised of a diverse group of individuals in age, professional and life experiences.

“I’m not unique; many nontraditional college students have to juggle family life, work and their studies. At times it wasn’t easy,” she says. “I would go directly to campus after work to be on time for class. There were many evenings of popcorn for dinner in the college library before class.” Or study sessions for statistics or quantitative methods that went past midnight.

But she persevered, earning an AA in Business Administration in 1984. Both she and Marion also would earn degrees from Buena Vista University on its IWCC campus, Deb with a BA in Management, Systems and Personnel and a Minor in Banking and Finance.

Staggering their studies paid off not just for their education, but also for their marriage.

“We recently celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary,” Debbaut notes.

Foundational Success

Debbaut also is celebrating 23 years as the longesttenured employee at the Iowa West Foundation. And this after 23 years with First National, where she had become assistant vice president of Operations.

Debbaut joined the foundation in 1996 at a time when financial institutions were being restructured, bought and sold, merged and even closed.

“There were many who were losing their jobs and only had completed their high school education,” she says. “I was fortunate that I had a college degree.”

The Iowa West Foundation had just begun, and Debbaut was the first employee hired by then-Executive Director George Beno.

She made her impact with the foundation not long after arriving, implementing STARS, a scholarship program developed in collaboration with other organizations and launched in 1997. The program assists parents and custodial grandparents with college expenses that are beyond most financial aid packages. More than 300 Pottawattamie County residents have received an associate’s and/or bachelor’s degree through STARS. Often, that’s at Iowa Western.

“Out of the nearly 500 scholars that have participated in this program, more than 50% chose to attend Iowa Western Community College,” Debbaut says. “It is a special privilege when I have the opportunity of speaking with a STARS participant and share that I, too, was a nontraditional college student. They see firsthand that there are huge opportunities for them. The ‘Big Hug’ I receive at the end of our conversation is so affirming to me that we are meeting the significant needs of these special scholars.”

Debbaut didn’t stop with STARS. She has continued to impact others in the two-plus decades since, helping IWF become the third largest foundation in Iowa with more than $500 million issued in grants and initiatives. She’s overseen much of that disbursement working with the foundation’s Healthy Families portfolio, its multiyear funding and its Small  Grant Programs.

She makes her work personal, often visiting organizations seeking IWF’s help.

“Many of the nonprofits I work with do have real challenges,” Debbaut says. “It is exciting to be a part of making Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County a better place to live.”

Among the multiyear funding beneficiaries is MICAH House. When its executive director, Jaymes Sime, started at MICAH in 2015, he made sure Debbaut was one of the first connections he made.

He says Debbaut has a talent for making a partner organization’s mission her own. And she gets things done, often through creative connectivity.

“As an example of Deb’s creative thinking about our work, she recently connected us with Opera Omaha,” Sime says. “That connection started an amazing art program at MICAH House for the women staying in the shelter. The fellows from Opera Omaha are now coming a couple times a year to facilitate programming.”

But Debbaut’s connections aren’t just in Council Bluffs or the surrounding area. Debbaut connected Jennie Edmundson to a national foundation that awarded a $1 million grant toward a state-of-the-art linear accelerator in its cancer center.

Says Slevin: “One of Deb’s many strengths is her ability to make connections and foster collaborations on the local, state and national level.”

Molly Noon, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Iowa Western, says Debbaut often has walked IWCC staff through the sometimes stressful grant application process, then its implementation.

“I first got to know Deb in 2007, when she helped with a grant for the Arts Center,” Noon says. “I have found her to always be supportive of the college’s grant applications and of me personally."

“Deb deals with a large number of individuals and organizations, but she makes time for every interaction. After a conversation with Deb, you can tell that her job is more than professional; it’s personal.”

Home is Where the Heart Is

She extends that personal care for others outside her job with professional and community service. Debbaut currently is chair of the Midwest Region of PEAK Grantmaking. It’s the second largest PEAK region, composed of eight states and more than 500 members.

“She is soft-spoken but never afraid to say what needs to be said and is truly one of the most caring, warm and humble people I know,” says Sara Sanders, regional chapter manager of PEAK Grantmaking. “She loves to give back to her community and elevate the voices of those around her.”

She and Marion also have been involved with youth sports in baseball and girls volleyball. And she’s participated in the Breast Cancer 3-Day walk four times. Participants walk 60 miles over three days to raise money to fight the disease. She’s walked twice in Los Angeles, once in Kansas City and also crewed an event with Marion in Kansas City.

All that while still finding time to travel. Next up is the Debbauts' annual trip to Long Beach, Washington, where they’ve been participating in the Washington International Kite Festival for more than 20 years. There the couple flies kites they’ve designed and built, with her brother Rod Milburn and his wife, Marti.

“We have found this hobby to be very relaxing and have met many great people,” Debbaut says. “If you tell us to ‘Go fly a kite,’ we would be happy to oblige.”

But she’ll always return home. You can often find her and Marion at their favorite spot — Lake Manawa State Park — where they like to photograph the wildlife. This is home. And Iowa Western helped her make it.

“Council Bluffs is where I was born and raised. This is where I have chosen to live, receive my education and work. Iowa Western and the education I received was one of the cornerstones in building this sense of community.”

“It is my hope that the current and future students of IWCC will decide to stay in our community and make a difference.”