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Ruth Berns, who was named Woman of the Year at last month’s Applefest, pictured in downtown La Crescent.

Eric Timmons

Ruth Berns got her first taste for volunteer work in 1969 in the bayous of Louisiana.

It was a long way from the farm she’d grown up on as one of 18 siblings outside La Crescent.

“I remember going down there and being scared to death, driving through Mississippi and thinking how are we going to do this?” Berns said. “I mean there were still ‘whites only’ signs up.”

Berns had traveled to help out in a region riven by poverty with her husband Jerry Berns. She would volunteer in the bayous as a nurse and he as a social worker for two years.

“It was a real eye-opener that there are a lot of people out there with difficulties and problems,” Berns said. “We gained much more than we gave, it kind of opened our eyes up to the world.”

They moved north from Louisiana to Iowa to start their married lives. But Berns would never give up helping people in need and has filled the decades since her time in Louisiana with volunteer work.

Berns was recognized last month at Applefest in La Crescent as Woman of the Year.

She lives in La Crescent, with four adult children and nine grandchildren — enough to keep most people busy — but not Berns.

Since 2013, Berns and her husband have been making annual trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where Berns volunteers as a nurse in what she described as one of the poorest parts of the U.S. Berns makes the trip with a group of other health care professionals from the La Crosse region.

In La Crescent, Berns serves as a parish nurse for the Church of the Crucifixion, making home visits to seniors who need her support. The work involves visiting seniors who may be isolated and need encouragement to stay active, Berns said.

She’s planning to teach a wellness program for seniors in Caledonia soon, helps run an exercise class for seniors in La Crescent and also is involved with a bereavement support program.

“I’m working with some really good women in La Crescent who all want to work with seniors,” she said. “They’ve become my best friends.”

Berns traces her work ethic back to her father, a German Catholic who taught her to work hard, be honest and when you can, share what you have. She remembers her father paid her school fees to attend local Catholic schools. They raised poultry and other food on the family farm.

Her children seem to be following in the family tradition.

“Our kids are kind of service-oriented too, which is kind of fun to see,” she said. “One’s a volunteer fireman, one volunteers for the Red Cross, and one helps with Meals on Wheels.”

Berns plans to continue volunteering. In fact, she hopes to do more, with plans of staying longer at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation next time she visits.

“We’ve been so blessed, we count our blessings every day,” she said. “Our faith is so important to us.”

Jane Welch, who has volunteered alongside Berns for many years to help local seniors, described her friend as a “strong leader in a kind of quiet way.”

“She’s very caring and is just a wonderful advocate for the elderly in the city of La Crescent,” Welch said. “She also never gives up easily and will go after a solution until she finds it.”

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