Robyn Rieckhoff’s bond with Kirkwood Community College has deep roots. Not only did Kirkwood give her exactly what she needed to succeed, it has become an integral part of many of the community events Robyn helps plan as Executive Director of the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival.
It’s as if she’s come full circle. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rieckhoff recalls clearly how unsure of herself she felt the closer she got to her 1989 graduation from Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids. She was young for her class to begin with, and perhaps should have given her studies more attention.
“I was not ready to make the jump to a four-year college,” she explains. But she knew Kirkwood would be a good place to start. The cost was also manageable, Robyn adds, because she was working as a waitress at the Ced-Rel Supper Club. So, she enrolled at Kirkwood.
“I loved it,” Robyn says of Kirkwood now. “I really wanted to go but I’d never taken school seriously, so once I started at Kirkwood, I knew I had to focus on my studies. I had to figure out my own path.”
From the start, she found a much-needed support network. She knew that ultimately she wanted a four-year degree, but recognized she needed Kirkwood to get there.
“The faculty helped steer me,” Robyn says. “If I hadn’t gone to Kirkwood, I don’t know that I would have gone on after high school. Kirkwood gave me the confidence to know that I could do this and continue on.”
Her Ced-Rel job helped her avoid student loans; she had no debt when she graduated in 1992 in Kirkwood’s Liberal Arts program.
“Kirkwood was perfect for me,” Robyn adds. “It taught me the study skills I needed to go on. It taught me how to manage my money. And I did it on my own.”
She finished her associate degree and transferred to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). She started immediately with classes for her major in public relations and marketing. She was able to cover tuition there because of her job and the affordability of Kirkwood, Robyn says.
“I was well-prepared by Kirkwood. I felt even more prepared than the people who hadn’t gone to a community college,” Robyn recalls. “My grades just got better.”
After graduating from UNI, she turned connections with business people into jobs. Former Cedar Rapids Mayor Lee Clancey hired her as an intern with the Renaissance Group in downtown Cedar Rapids. She also served on the Freedom Festival board. In 1995, she was hired as marketing director for Guaranty Bank. When Robyn’s husband Bill was transferred to Minneapolis, she became marketing director for the Soo Line Credit Union, with Soo Line Railroad. After that, she stayed home to raise her two kids, now ages 11 and 15, and she and Bill moved back to Cedar Rapids.
When she was ready to re-enter the job market, Robyn became the first director of the Czech Village New Bohemia Main Street. From there, she was hired as Executive Director of the Freedom Festival in 2011.
Robyn loves the job.
“I’m busy year-round,” she says, especially handling sponsorships. Kirkwood has been a long-time, tremendous sponsor of the Freedom Festival. The festival kicks off with its Tribute to Heroes dinner at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, with Kirkwood as one of the sponsors. This year, Kirkwood will also host a concert during the festival June 19-July 4 and Dock Dogs, a competitive dog jumping event.
When she started at the Freedom Festival, there were about 30 sponsors; today there are 55.
“The neatest thing for me with this job is the support from the community, like Kirkwood’s ongoing partnership,” Robyn notes. “Without that, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of what we do.”
Robyn, her husband and her dad own and operate Morgan Creek Market, a 37-acre vegetable farm they started 16 years ago. The Market also teams up with Kirkwood to offer four internships each summer.
“It’s been a great partnership,” Robyn says. “We also sell a lot of fresh vegetables to The Hotel at Kirkwood Center.”
Reflecting on her Kirkwood connections, Robyn feels Kirkwood was there for her from the start. Today she serves on the Kirkwood Alumni Council. “It’s a natural bond,” Robyn says. “The greatest thing Kirkwood gave me was my confidence,” Robyn explains. “I feel now that I can do whatever I want. And I’m not done yet.”
Alumni update: Rieckhoffs expanding businesses this spring
As it happens, Robyn was right when she said, “And I’m not done yet.” In fact, she and her family will open a new business this spring just across the street from the NewBo City Market.
The Rieckhoffs’ new business – the Chill and CR Popcorn Shop – will open in April at 1121 Third Street SE, right next door to Parlor City. It’s a unique combination of two great treats we all love: ice cream and popcorn. And it’s also a blending of two successful businesses the Cedar Rapids couple’s kids – Sydney, 15, and Carter, 12 – have been operating separately in NewBo City Market, Robyn explains.
The separate operations, the Chill ice cream shop and the CR Popcorn Shop, closed early this year as the Rieckhoffs finalized expansion plans. Now both Robyn and her husband Bill will also be more involved.
“We really wanted to expand our hours so we’d be more available,” Robyn says.
The popcorn shop offers a variety of flavors of the popular gourmet popcorn from Great American Popcorn Company, based in Galena, Ill.
“We will be making our own popcorn with the Great American Popcorn Company’s recipes,” Robyn adds, “And we’ll also have more than 500 different types of bottled craft sodas and root beer.”