Exploring the History of EveryStep Hospice's Kavanagh House: Kenneth Voltmer's Story

Early this year, EveryStep celebrated the grand re-opening of EveryStep Hospice’s Kavanagh House in Des Moines. The $3.6 million renovation updated the hospice home with modern amenities, medical equipment, new technologies and other enhancements. While upgraded in nearly every way, Kavanagh House was still recognizable to 90-year-old Kenneth Voltmer when he recently paid a visit.

Kenneth has many memories of the “original” Kavanagh House because he was there when it was built.

In the early 90s, Kenneth was a hospice volunteer, visiting the homes of those being served by Hospice of Central Iowa (now EveryStep). It was because of his hospice work that he was asked to join the board of directors. He was serving on the board when construction began on the freestanding hospice home that would be named Kavanagh House.

A house that stood on the property where EveryStep Hospice’s Kavanagh House would be built had to be torn down before work on the new structure could begin. Instead of taking the lumber and bricks from the previous structure to the dump, Kenneth volunteered to haul it away to his property in New Virginia.

“I hauled the lumber that I took out of here and dumped it in the pasture on my farm. I bet you don’t know anybody who tore a house down and used it to build another house!” says Kenneth. “It was beautiful lumber. I built that thing myself – every lick of it.” How did he acquire the skills to build his own house? “Well, I’m a farmer and I’ve built a lot of buildings,” says Kenneth humbly.

When construction began on EveryStep Hospice’s Kavanagh House, Kenneth was on site to make sure the architectural plans were followed. “I was here every week to watch the engineer – to see that they built it according to plans. I made sure the [ratio] was correct in the concrete mix – I did that for about a year and a half.”

When the hospice house was complete, Kenneth added his own personal touch. “I made bird houses for all the rooms so the patients could look out and see the birds eating. Each room had a bird house hanging outside the window. That made the squirrels real fat. They ate all the food, so I came up here and took all the birdhouses away!”

When the Raccoon River flooded the Des Moines Waterworks in 1993, most of the metro area was without running water, including EveryStep Hospice’s Kavanagh House, which was already serving patients. Again, Kenneth showed his dedication to the house and its mission.

“I hauled water up here to flush the toilets. I made trips from New Virginia to the Kavanagh House with a tank of water in the back of my truck.” Kenneth hauled water from the tank to a box he had built from some old doors inside EveryStep Hospice’s Kavanagh House and from there, used buckets to flush the toilets. “I don’t know how many loads of water I brought, but each tank held 300 gallons.” Each round trip from New Virginia to Des Moines was over 65 miles.

Born and raised in Detroit, Kenneth and his wife moved to Iowa when he returned from the Korean War. Both sets of Kenneth’s grandparents were Iowa farmers and they urged him to do the same. “I started farming in Sigourney, then we moved to New Virginia.”

Kenneth and his wife raised a family there and eventually moved into the home he built using the lumber from the Kavanagh House site. Kenneth’s wife died in the home, after he served as her caretaker for over three years. He says as much as he loves the house he built, he is lonely now.

Kenneth will soon leave the house he built and take up residence in a retirement home. But the house he built in New Virginia and the hospice house he served remain in his heart.

To learn more about EveryStep Hospice including locations and services offered, visit www.everystep.org/services/hospice.  

If you or someone you know needs care or support, complete the confidential "Find Care" form at www.everystep.org/find-care. The form sends a message to EveryStep staff who then follow up with a phone call. It's a great way to start a conversation and get answers with no cost or commitment. EveryStep can connect the individual to its own programs and services that may be helpful, as well as services offered by other organizations and providers in the community.