BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – An unlikely candidate, but a passionate ally, will be taking over as director of the Lee County Veteran’s Affairs Commission.
Current Director Paul Carroll is set to retire at the end of the year, and current Deputy Lee County Auditor Nikki Sugars will be taking over the job.
Sugars isn’t a veteran herself, which she said has surprised some people already. But she said she has a passion for helping people and Lee County’s veterans are at the top of her list.
“I’ve watched my family and the commitment and sacrifices they’ve made for our country,” Sugars said.
“And the veterans of this county have put such an effort forth and have sacrificed for us. I’m excited to do something to help these people. I’ve kind of been hovering above the ground since I was hired.”
Sugars will take over the post on July 1 and work with Carroll until the end of the year.
Sara Helenthal, a current administrative assistant with the Lee County Auditor’s office has been hired to replace Sugars as deputy auditor.
Sugars’ father George, her brothers Geoff and Todd, her sister-in-law Lisa and three nephews all have military service backgrounds. Their combined service has given Sugars a unique perspective on how military service impacts families as well as individuals.
She said this will give her an opportunity to be a voice for those people. She’s already been taking minutes for the five-member Lee County Veteran’s Affairs Commission so she’s versed in how the group operates. She’s also volunteered with many groups in her own time.
“I’m starting to realize that a lot what I do outside of my job involves helping others in some way or another,” Sugars said. “I believe this will be a really good and rewarding fit for me.”
One of the first things she wants to do in the post is create more awareness of what the commission does and get people comfortable coming and asking for assistance.
“When I interviewed for the job, I told them that Veterans Affairs was the best kept secret in Lee County,” she said.
“We need to be more out there and project who we are and what we can do for people,” she said.
Sugars worked her way up through different positions with the county and she said that experience, along with her current role as deputy auditor have given her a special skill set that can be beneficial in the new role.
“I have administration skills. I did benefits for a while with county employees and I see this as kind of benefit assistance for veterans and I want to do what I can to help these people,” she said.
One of the most telling signs of her commitment is that she’s leaving a job that pays close to $59,000 a year, for a job that pays $14/hour at the outset. That rate will increase as her training progresses and then when she takes over the post herself at the beginning of the new year.
But also said she realizes there will be a learning curve.
“I don’t know all the paperwork Paul does and I have to be certified before he retires, but I don’t anticipate any problems,” Sugars said.
“Of course there’s a learning curve, but as that’s going on I still want to go out and connect with people and let them know we are there for them if they need help.”
She said America’s veterans are proud people and sometimes it’s difficult to get them to ask for help. But Sugars said that outreach is what is vitally important
“That’s what I’m hearing from the public. I’ve already received calls from veterans and what they’re telling me is that they need someone out there saying, “we’re here,” Sugars said.
“It’s tough for veteran people to ask for help. They are very proud people.”
Sugars said the Veterans Affairs office is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the North Lee County Courthouse, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at Keokuk’s American Legion Hall at 727 Main Street.
The office can be reached by calling 319-524-7831.