Jessie is a freelance writer and blogger based in central Iowa. She grew up in a western frontier town and attended the University of Idaho, working nights and weekends at a local department store to help pay for her education (she was stationed in the store’s intimates section and typically refers to this experience as “that time I was a bra fitter”).

Jessie graduated with a journalism degree in 2005 and promptly relocated to Florida to study at the prestigious Poynter Institute and not, as her mother surmised, to get as far away from home as possible.

She later worked as a newspaper reporter, coffee shop barista, English tutor and Guatemalan bartender before joining The Associated Press in 2008. She was a member of AP’s national reporting team on education and also garnered attention for her in-depth enterprise projects, which included stories about a transgender woman living in rural Idaho and a teenager who waived cancer treatment due to an unplanned pregnancy.

While covering education and politics, Jessie was an occasional pundit on Idaho Public Television’s long-running statehouse news program, Idaho Reports, and was among reporters asked to moderate Idaho’s 2010 gubernatorial debate.

Her stories and images have appeared in publications all over the world and her work has been recognized by The Associated Press, Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and Florida Press Club. In 2012, she won the Idaho Press Club’s all-media special coverage award for her in-depth reporting on the murder of a University of Idaho student in 2012.

In 2013, Jessie returned to community journalism and took a job writing for the Ames Tribune in Iowa, where her husband is a photojournalist for the Des Moines Register. They have a daughter, Jameson.

Scroll down for more on Jessie’s journalism career or peruse a portfolio of some of her work here.

I had a lot of fun with story about barn dances being held in the local area. As with most stories, I started out with a question: Who would actually go to something like this? Turns out, a lot of people.

I ended up staying way longer than I planned and had a lot of fun talking to people about why they came. With technology directing so much of how we spend our time these days, it was just really refreshing to write about something unique.

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Here’s my story:

For those who happened to pass by the former church on the edge of Campustown last Saturday night, the strains of live bluegrass music and sounds of hoof stomping pulsing from the sanctuary proved hard to ignore.

At one point, a pair of college-aged men walked by and one nudged the other.

“You going to the barn dance?” he scoffed before the two laughed and walked away.

Inside, a group of about 50 people were indeed resurrecting a tradition that may seem like relic from a bygone era, but is still practiced in venues across central Iowa, by people of all ages.

And in this university town, on a night when police were citing dozens of underage drinkers amid the revelry that accompanied the start of the fall semester, there were no parties quite like this one.

“You’d be surprised at how many of these dances there are,” said Dan Treadway, a retired network administrator who sits on the Central Iowa Barn Dance Association’s governing board.

You can read the rest of it here.

GILBERT1Gilbert High School seniors pose for a class photo on Thursday, the first day of new academic year. (Jessie L. Bonner/Ames Tribune)

Class photo in front of a row of corn stalks? Must be back-to-school time in Iowa. This was just one of the local stories I did to mark the occasion.  Gilbert is a town of about 1,000 right outside Ames and they were pretty excited because they were starting the new year with a new high school. You can read my story here.

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I’ve been writing a lot about the local school district’s plans to arm every student with a laptop with the hope that it will enhance their education. I’ve previously covered similar efforts in other states and while working on this particular story, where parents and students had to attend orientation sessions before receiving their computers, I decided to put myself not in the place of students (who, were clearly excited) but their parents. I was really interested in what they must be thinking as they watch their children get equipped with the latest technology, what kinds of questions they might have.

Here’s my story and some more of my photos from that day.

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Every year the Ames Tribune picks people in the community to profile for a series called “Unsung Heroes.” It’s meant to highlight those who maybe haven’t been recognized for their contributions. I was assigned to write about a song lyricist and a longtime official at Iowa State University who was named the newspaper’s Citizen of the Year.

I personally love writing profiles, I think it goes back to a class I had in journalism school that was taught by a local newspaper writer who truly believed that everyone had a story. He even has a column where he dials up random people in the phone book and does a short story about them (an amazing feat in itself given that land lines are disappearing rapidly.)

With everyone, it seems, focused on breaking news these days and the race to be first to get something online … even if in that rush it’s happens to be incorrect … I hope we don’t lose sight of story telling.

KNIKER1An ordained pastor and retired Iowa State University professor, Charles Kniker is also a prolific writer of hymns and is hoping to get a book of his songs published. Kniker has been named an Unsung Hero by the Ames Tribune. Photo by Jessie Bonner/Ames Tribune

As a prolific writer of hymns, Charles Kniker might seem an unusual choice for one of the Ames Tribune’s Unsung Hero awards given the countless hours he spends on verses that are meant to be, well, sung.

Not by him, though.

“I’m a terrible singer, and not really a musician. But I love hymns,” said Kniker, an ordained pastor and retired Iowa State University education professor.

He seemed surprised he didn’t catch the word juxtaposition between his award’s title and what he does most days, writing songs in his expansive apartment at the Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames.

But then again, he’s a busy guy.

Read the rest of the story here.

MADDENWarren Madden may be among the highest ranked officials at Iowa State University, where he has worked for nearly half a century, but some felt his official biography simply didn’t do him justice.

Sure, it mentions his numerous responsibilities as the university’s senior vice president for business and finance, and it highlights his role in the establishment of ISU’s research park and points out that he’s been active in a number of community organizations.

Madden’s “brief bio” on the ISU website is 600 words and also mentions his prestigious recognition from the National Association of College and University Business Officers, which awarded him their top honor in 1993.

The biography also mentions Madden was awarded ISU’s Alumni Medal last year for his loyal service, but it doesn’t detail the staggering list of campus projects he and his wife have supported over the years.

There’s also nothing about his collaborations with the city on flood recovery, or how some consider him to be the face of ISU at the various community functions he attends, or his efforts to improve town-gown relations between ISU and Ames.

Some also felt the narrative didn’t quite capture the enthusiasm in which Madden approaches his work. No campus building bears his name, there’s no scholarship awarded in his honor.

Betty Horras was among friends and colleagues, both past and present, who felt Madden deserved a larger share of the spotlight, and they nominated him for the Ames Tribune’s Citizen of the Year award.

“I believe he has been ‘unsung’ by the Ames community,” Horras said in her nomination letter. “We just know and expect that Warren is working for the greater good.”

Read the rest of this story here.

A national news outlet recently followed a story I did about a new Iowa law requiring university professors who teach some of the bigger courses to adopt plans to continuously improve their teaching materials. I was intrigued, considering the heavy course loads most professors already have, and it was nice to see someone else take notice.

largecourseRead the rest of the story here.

I wanted to share a few recent stories, including this one about a local resident named Michelle Flattery. I was assigned to write about a fundraiser she’s participating in but ended up focusing more on her journey as a cancer survivor, there’s so much not many of us could imagine. I was so struck by her energy and zest for life (when I showed up to interview her around noon she had already instructed three exercise classes). So, I tried to capture that.

PHOTO2Michelle Flattery is among cancer survivors participating in The Million Dollar Marathon, a coast-to-coast fundraising campaign. The relay kicked off Friday, with dozens of cancer survivors and supporters embarking on a 4,000-mile run across the United States, marathon by marathon. Flattery’s team will run from Adel to Des Moines on July 16. Photo by Jessie L. Bonner/Ames Tribune

You can read the rest of Michelle’s story here

The federal government recently announced new guidelines for school snacks as part of efforts nationwide to combat childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyles. It could have been a boring policy story, but I got lucky and found a local principal who made for a great interview.

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Several years ago, John Ronca recalls the vending machines at Ballard High School could have rivaled any candy store, with rows of Snicker bars, boxes of Lemonheads and countless other varieties of junk food.

“I couldn’t keep them full,” said Ronca, then an assistant principal whose duties included stocking the snack machines. “We’d fill it, you know why? Because it raised a bunch of money.”

Oh, how times have changed.

“We haven’t had snack vending machines in our schools for about four years,” said Ronca, now the principal at Ballard High School. “The only drinks that we have are Vitamin Water, and water. That’s it.”

Ronca is among local school officials predicting that with healthy changes they’ve implemented in recent years, they won’t have any trouble complying with the new school snack rules handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Read the rest of the story here.

I had so much fun with this next story, which was about how much 4-H programs have changed over the years as they try to engage young people and slow a decline in membership. I went to Iowa’s 4-H Youth Conference to check out some of the various things they’re doing to keep kids engaged.

4-HPHOTO-4Iowa teens work on ideas for iPad apps during a workshop at the state’s 4-H Youth Conference on Tuesday. The iPad workshop was one of several at the conference designed to engage members of the youth development organization. Photo by Jessie L. Bonner/Ames Tribune

You can read this story here

 

 

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Stories based on data or “emerging trends” can be boring, so I waited on this one until I could find an actual face to put behind an emerging statistic _ in this case, a growing number of unmarried women raising children. It was worth it, Alison’s story made for a much more compelling depiction of what was happening.

Here’s my story:

Alison Eschen may be among a growing number of unmarried women raising children, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, but she wouldn’t know it.

Raising a kid on your own, she said, can be lonely.

She had given birth a month before she turned 21 and couldn’t really engage in the same social activities as other people her age. She had followed her sister to Dubuque to attend a community college, but dropped out before her son was born, unsure of what she wanted to study.

“I kind of got really depressed for a while because I didn’t really have a social life,” she said. “A lot of the people that I knew who had kids were older, and married.”

Now at 28, Eschen is enrolled at Iowa State University and lives in student family housing off 24th Street in Ames. She still feels isolated more often than not, she said, and most of the other residents in the development are married.

On a recent Saturday, she sat on her front steps and watched her son, Dominic, who just turned 7, play with a group of children. He wore a blue shirt and shorts emblazoned with pictures of sharks. He screamed to get her attention as he climbed onto a picnic table and looked disappointed when she told him to get down.

Eschen pointed out a boy who was playing with her son, noting that he has two parents, as do most of her son’s friends.

“I haven’t really found anybody that’s single and has kids. I don’t know, maybe they’re just hiding,” she said, adding that she’d heard there were lots of other single parents at ISU.

“I’m like, well, where the heck are they?” she said with a laugh.

You can read the rest of it here 

A few recent stories, it’s been a surprisingly busy couple of weeks considering things usually slow down in the summer…

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PHOTO1U.S. Senate hopeful Matt Whitaker shakes hands after speaking at the Ames Area Conservative Breakfast hosted by the Story County Republican Party on Thursday. Photo by Jessie L. Bonner/Ames Tribune

U.S. Senate hopeful Matt Whitaker highlighted his humble beginnings and local roots while decrying the federal deficit and taking shots at President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul during a Republican gathering in Ames.

Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who grew up in Ankeny and played football at the University of Iowa, was ribbed only a little about being a Hawkeye, though he was quick to point out his mother’s alma mater.

“My mom’s an Iowa State grad, so I’ve always felt safe in Ames,” he said.

Whitaker, whose past campaign experience includes a failed bid for state treasurer in 2002, addressed the Ames Area Conservative Breakfast early Thursday, speaking to a crowd of about 30.

A few days after formally announcing he would seek Iowa’s first open Senate seat in three decades, Whitaker joked that his campaign was being headquartered in the back of a Ford Explorer.

Read the rest of this story here.

 

PHOTO-ONEStudents graduating from Gilbert High School lined up outside the school on Friday while practicing for the ceremony. This year’s graduates reflected on the recession that marked the start of their high school careers and how it impacted their plans for the future. Photo by Jessie L. Bonner/Ames Tribune

Most journalists have covered a high school graduation at some point in their career. It can be a tedious part of the job, covering these types of events year in and year out. I wanted to do something a little different with this story, so I started thinking about what the world was like when these kids were starting high school.

Turns out, they were reaching this pivotal moment at a time when the world was a pretty scary place. The story of the recession has been told through so many lenses, businesses, government, out-of-work employees. I wanted to hear from these kids, what was it like from their perspective, and how has it shaped what they plan to do with their lives.

PHOTO-FOURErick Estrada works in the front office at Ames High School on Thursday, May 16, 2013. (Jessie L. Bonner/Ames Tribune)

I was really impressed with the students I talked to, they had really thoughtful answers to my questions and even though some hadn’t been directly impacted by the financial downturn, it had made an impact on them.

Here’s my story:

When Christopher Grice started high school four years ago, he was feeling the same pressures facing every other freshman, stresses about whether he’d fit in or be able to handle his classes.

But then, for Grice, there was other stuff.

With the nation trying to crawl out of the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression, Grice recalls how the economic downturn hit home for him in central Iowa as both of his parents took pay cuts.

“My family had always struggled with money,” said Grice, adding that their situation only worsened when his parents both lost hours at their jobs.

Grice, 18, now a senior at Ballard High School, will be among the hundreds of local students graduating during ceremonies today and next weekend.

As students don their caps and gowns and cross the stage to receive their diplomas, they’ll probably wear giant smiles as they’re cheered on by proud relatives.

But don’t be fooled by the celebration: These teenagers have worked hard to prepare themselves for the so-called real world. They’ve thought a lot about their future. They couldn’t help it, not after witnessing — and in some cases experiencing — the fallout from the economic downturn.

You can read the rest of it here