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A systems approach to addressing food insecurity in North Omaha

August 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Nancy Williams with No More Empty Pots and other players are taking a systems approach to addressing food insecuity in North Omaha.

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity
by Leo Adam Biga

Food insecurity in northeast Omaha is a question of access, education and poverty.

Nancy Williams has designed her nonprofit No More Empty Pots around “equitable access to local, fresh, affordable food” via a holistic approach. It offers the Community Market Basket CSA (community supported agriculture) as well as shared commercial kitchens, a training kitchen and classes. Its Food Hub in Florence is adding a business incubator, community cafe, kids kitchen and rooftop garden.

“We could just do one thing and satisfy a symptom, but we’re trying to address the root cause issue of poverty – of which hunger is a symptom. The food hub concept is a systems approach to not just deal with hunger but to get people trained and hired and to support startup businesses. So we have a multi-pronged approach to supporting local food and supporting people who need access to food and the people providing that food.

“Poverty is not just about food deserts and hunger. it’s about livable wages, adequate education, meaningful connections. It’s about being able to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. It’s about people engaging. You see, it’s one thing to get people to food because they’re hungry or they don’t have access to it. It’s even something more if they have access to living wage jobs where they can then choose their food.”

Pots is based in North Omaha, she said, in recognition of its “rich cultural heritage of food and community” and concurrent “disparities in health, healthy food access, equity and economics.”

“So, we wanted to make a difference there first, then catalyze a ripple effect in urban, suburban and rural spaces. We believe in the reciprocity of local food.”

An effective food system involves a social contract of public-private players. In Omaha it includes United Way, Together, the Food Bank, Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, vendors, producers, schools, churches.

“It’s not a simple thing to talk about food access and deserts,” Williams said. “It’s a whole system of the way we produce food and get food to people, the way people consume it and how we value it. The different ways intersect. It takes all of it. But there needs to be some calibration, hole-plugging and shifting.

“We can get there, but it has to be done collaboratively so we’re not working in silos.”

On the access-education-employment side are community gardens and urban farms like those at City Sprouts, which also offers classes and internships. A farmers market is held there, too. Charles Drew Health Center and Florence Mill also host farmers markets.

Minne Lusa House is a neighborhood engagement-sustainability activator..

Some churches, including Shepherd of the Hills and New Life Presbyterian, provide free monthly community meals. New Life also provides food to participants in its youth summer enrichment program.

“There are food insecure kids that come,” pastor Dwight Williams said. “There is a lot more need than we are able to access.”

Community organizations serving seniors, youth and the homeless have a free meals component to meet food insecurity needs. The Omaha Public Schools provides free and reduced lunches to the majority of its students. Private institutions rely on donations to fill the gap. Local farmer Brian Vencil recently directed a $2,500 donation from the America’s Farmers Grow Communities program to help feed kids at Holy Name School.

Nancy Williams said everything has its place.

“Community gardens make food accessible, help people become more self-sufficient and engage. It’s about community building. You can’t have food without community. At farmers markets customers learn about where the food comes from, talk to growers about production practices and how to use products. It develops relationships. The more food customers get from farmers markets the more likely they’ll continue shopping there and expand their palette, which gives growers the opportunity to grow and sell more and put more money into the local economy.”

Pantries play a role, too.

“On average we have about 600 clients come through our food pantry weekly,” Heart Ministry Center executive director Eric Crawford said. “We’ve been seeing more clients come. We’re on pace to give away more than 3 million pounds of food this year.”

Heart case management services strive to get clients to self-sufficiency.

Project Hope director Lori Lindberg said its pantry serves mostly one-time, emergency needs recipients.

Church of the Resurrection is trying a mobile food pantry starting July 15.

Then there are the aquaponics systems Greg Fripp and his Whispering Roots team build, often with students in schools, that grow vegetables and fish.

“Aquaponics has its place in that next level of production,” Williams said. “There’s education, job training, entrepreneurship. There’s an opportunity to do institutional supply because you can scale it.”

The new Fair Deal Grocery was located on North 24th Street to fill fresh food scarcity in the area.

“Whenever you can put food where people are, it’s better than trying to find transportation or other means of getting people to it,” Williams said.

Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders said it’s challenging getting people to try it.

“Sometimes it takes more education in some places than others,” Williams said. “If you’ve never been exposed to it, just because it’s plopped down in front of you doesn’t mean you’re going to go to it. You need somebody to help you make that transition. Sometimes you don’t even know you need it until somebody points out the benefits and then you take advantage of it.”

The Creatives Collective works with north side residents on education-advocacy through classes, events and activities, including culture fairs.

Jody-Ann Coore is community engagement coordinator for the Omaha Economic Development Cooperation, which sponsors the Collective.

“Education is a big gap for people,” Coore said. “Residents say it’s something the community needs. They often don’t know how to shop for healthy foods or don’t know some of the foods or don’t know how to cook them so they are tasty and appealing to the palette.”

Partnerships with local organizations help built food literacy. Still, getting residents’ buy-in takes time.

“It’s a neighborhood difficult to engage because they’re so used to being told what to do and not asked how to solve those issues. But we’ve seen progress. Resident committee members are taking part in the planning. We’re working on getting more residents involved. The beautiful thing is that each has personal networks they can tap into, so it’s pretty much radiating out.”

Greg Fripp’s sustainable practices dream is taking shape at Highlander Village on North 30th Street. The world headquarters for his Whispering Roots will include a greenhouse, education center and production center. Steelhead trout and vegetables will be grown there. He partners with farmers markets, Hy-Vee stores and others to get food to market. Roots teaches youth and adults how to build food systems and grow food.

“Highlander’s goal is about community development- engagement, and that’s exactly what Whispering Roots does. We say, ‘we grow, we feed, we educate.’ We need to draw more attention to North Omaha. it’s not that students in underserved communities can’t learn and don’t want to learn, they just need access to support, materials and resources. And then they can compete.”

Fripp said he’s learned “you have to meet people where they are and understand that community in order to deliver them a solution that actually works.”

“You provide solutions tailored for that specific community because every community’s different. Everybody needs food, but the way you implement these techniques, policies or systems needs to fit within that community.”

He sees more inclusivity happening.

“We’re getting more organizations that want to spend time with community and collaborating.”

“I am a fan of any model that works in a community with the community that produces what the community needs in the way the community needs and that values people in that process,” Nancy Williams said. “It’s not going to look the same everywhere and frankly most things shouldn’t look the way they’ve always looked because those things aren’t working.”

Fripp sees a need to bridge a disconnect between policymakers and “people implementing change on the ground.” “When that happens,” he said. “we’re going to see an acceleration of change in terms of how some of this stuff gets delivered. You still have some people who make decisions not really connected to the community.”

“We’ve made progress getting access to lots,” said Fripp, who also does community gardens and urban farms. “That was something that didn’t happen in the past. We put together a team to write new policies to allow people to use city lots to grow food.”

Similarly, he’s seen acceptance of aquaponics grow.

“We’re not as advanced as other cities, but we’re coming along. People are starting to see the power of what we do – from growing food to educating children to engaging public. They’re starting to see it really works
and at whatever scale you want to do it.”

Poverty in Omaha: Breaking the Cycle and the High Cost of Being Poor

January 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Vicious Circle

Breaking the cycle of poverty in Omaha

The December 2016 issue of the Reader featured a cover package on Poverty in Omaha, The High Cost of Being Poor. There are three stories on poverty and I have two of them, including this lead piece titled Vicious Circle, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Omaha. My other piece is headlined The High Cost of Being Poor, Aggressive Creditors Exploit Nebraska Law. My blog, leoadambiga.com, features many other social justice stories I have written over the years.

 

 

Owing money makes the poor a vulnerable target

Predatory creditors stop at nothing to collect from impoversihed minority communities

Economic Justice

 

Poverty in Omaha: The High Cost of Being Poor

December 3, 2016 Leave a comment

Check out the December 2016 issue of the Reader for the cover package on Poverty in Omaha, The High Cost of Being Poor. There are three stories on poverty and I have two of them, starting on pages 8-9 with Vicious Circle, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in Omaha, and then on pages 12-13 with The High Cost of Being Poor, Aggressive Creditors Exploit Nebraska Law. Link to the stories at the link above or on The Reader website, www.thereader.com. Print edition should be at newsstands this weekend. Soon to appear on my blog, leoadambiga.com, where you can find many social justice stories.

 

You can also link to the stories at–
ISSUU.COM

Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck

October 24, 2014 1 comment

The set-up for the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert sounds like the kind of heartache country music sagas that Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette made famous with its single working mom protagonist living, as the title goes, paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet.  But Gilbert ‘s situation mirrors that of millions of American women facing real struggles.  This story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) riffs off the documentary, whose Oct. 28 Omaha Film Streams screening will be followed by a panel discussion, to look at what some local single mothers contend with in getting by.

 

 

 

Katrina Gilbert

 

 

Thereader1410123

Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

In the Gloria Gaynor anthem “I Will Survive” a woman declares her personal autonomy. Not needing to find validation in another is a liberating thing worth celebrating in song.

Life imitates art whenever a poor single mother breaks free of the shackles of fear, self-doubt and shame that hold her back, say women who’ve been there and now help others out of that trap.

Ericka Guinan was a single mom trapped in a cycle of despair before finding the courage to seek guidance from women who’d been in her shoes. Today, she’s the self-sufficiency programs facilitator at Heart Ministry Center, 2222 Binney St., where she helps women like Aja Alfaro, a young single mom of two, find the confidence to move toward their dreams.

Since graduating from the center’s Pathway program Aja’s turned her life around. She works as a SNAP outreach specialist at Heart Ministry, assisting women apply for food stamps she needs herself. Guinan’s been there, too. Each woman’s gone through the wringer of bad relationships, no work, low pay, food and housing insecurity, unpaid bills, creditors and feeling like there’s no getting out from under.

The stress facing many single moms is the subject of the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck showing at Film Streams Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. The film, executive produced by Maria Shriver, follows a year in the life of Katrina Gilbert, a Chattanooga, Tenn. certified nursing assistant and mother of three. Gilbert’s trouble making ends meet and finding financial stability are emblematic of many women.

The free screening is a collaboration between Film Streams, the public advocacy group Coalition for a Strong Nebraska and Women’s Fund of Omaha, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of local women.

Guinan will be part of a post-show panel discussing issues raised in the film. Joining her will be Women’s Fund executive director Michelle Zych, Coalition director Tiffany Seibert Joekel and Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook. Alfaro will be there, too.

Joekel says barriers to single parents, especially women, include difficulties affording high-quality child care, unfriendly workplace policies, inability to access high-quality, affordable health care and limited educational opportunities.

Zych says Women’s Fund studies find stark economic disparities among Omaha women, particularly single mothers of color.

“Katrina Gilbert’s story is just one example of how women often live paycheck to paycheck. We expect the audience to learn more about poverty in Omaha and what efforts are being made community and statewide to ease this burden for families,” Zych says.

“It’s not easy living paycheck to paycheck,” says Alfaro, who knows from first-hand experience. “It’s hard, it’s a struggle.”

Alfaro’s made progress toward independence.

“It’s still hard but I’m getting there. Things started changing a lot just this year, when I finally got my own place for the very first time at the end of January.”

Alfaro’s steady income though sometimes makes her ineligible for certain benefits even though her earnings are barely above poverty level and she hasn’t reached self-sufficiency. It’s called the Cliff Effect and it plays havoc with the working poor. Tanya Cook introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would help some working parents continue qualifying for child care subsidies well beyond current limits.

Despite roadblocks to aid, Alfaro’s hopeful for the first time about the future. She plans resuming nursing studies.

“There is hope if people can get connected to the right resources. Once people have hope they can do things they never thought they could,” says Julie Kalkowski, co-director of the Financial Success Program through Creighton University’s Financial Hope Collaborative. The program works with single mothers for a year to undo old habits.. “We ask our clients to do small, actionable steps – little changes that add up to real money. Once people start to feel like they are moving forward they are willing to do things they have been too intimidated or overwhelmed to do, like calling creditors. We also offer debt consolidation loans.”

Guinan agrees hope is essential before women buy into changing their lives. At Heart Ministry she says “we let each women define her own pathway to success,” adding, “We ask what are your dreams, where do you want your life to be and then we try to figure out what we can do to help her get on the path to that. We have a therapist that meets with them once a week. We have a lot of resources and relationships within the community they can access. ”

She says setting boundaries, getting an education, budgeting, building healthy relationships and having a positive support network is key.

It’s all about removing obstacles and Guinan says “a lot of the obstacles are in our head because we have a big fear of doing something new or of failure or of success. We a lot of times don’t believe in ourselves.”

She says overcoming negative self-talk and taking responsibility for one’s life is necessary for success. Guinan lived it all out herself – the self-pity, the denial, the hitting bottom before asking for help.

“I was lucky enough to meet several strong, healthy women just far enough ahead of me to relate to my struggles yet offer solid solutions and advice. I think I trusted them because they were sharing their own person struggles with me. I related and saw myself in their stories yet they obviously had overcome so much.”

Aja Alfaro’s found a similar sisterhood at Heart Ministry. Its self-sufficiency programs help women navigate out of tough situations by matching them with mentors, enrolling them in classes that address financial planning, parenting and life skills and plugging them into school or training programs.

Women who’ve gotten their lives together like Guinan share their own stories – struggles, successes and all – with young women like Aja, who says Guinan and a mentor, Nancy, have taken her under their wing. “I needed to learn how to get on my own two feet to take care of my family and they’ve helped me to come pretty far. They helped me start college and get this job. I think the biggest thing was learning how to care about myself. I’m more focused now on me and my kids.”

Empowerment helps but working a low wage job won’t cut it. It’s why Cook supports a minimum wage hike and advocates women explore training programs for well-paying nontraditional jobs in high demand like welding and traditional career-track jobs in health care fields.

“A disproportionate number of women work at a wage level that could not support a family without public assistance. Nebraska’s behind the power curve in terms of offering a fair, living wage or the kinds of opportunities that allow families to work themselves out of poverty.”

Cook says financial literacy “is very important” for women who don’t know how to manage money. “The way many families are compelled to live whatever money comes in goes right out to some emergent or past-due need, so they don’t learn to save.”

Ericka Guinan calls for more services: “I believe we need more job training, quality childcare, affordable and safe housing options, mental health and mentoring for single mothers.” She says women’s voices must not be lost in the process. “In the Pathway Program we strongly believe each woman has valuable experience and feedback to offer.” She says lawmakers need to hear from more mothers about the tough choices they must often make, such as buying food versus meds.

Creighton’s Kalkowski says, “One of the things that has always amazed me is how brave so many working parents are to keep getting up every morning even though their situation is bleak. Most of us have no idea how desperate so many families are.”

Guinan says no matter how hard it gets, single moms have a knack for making do. “We’re survivors.”

For advance tickets, email molly@filmstreams.org. For more on the doc, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Omaha, Neb. is a still rather nebulous place to most Americans.  Say the name of this Midwestern city and most folks draw a blank or else associate it with the Great Plains and agriculture, and therefore as some featureless, white bread, flyover zone with little to recommend it.  Or, if they do know Omaha, it’s likely for its high rankings among the best places to live and raise a family, its strong schools, its thriving arts and cultural scene, its relatively booming economy.  Some may know it as the home and base of billionaire Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, a total of four Fortune 500 companies, the College World Series, and a popular zoo that attracts nearly two million visitors.  Unless you live here or keep close tabs on the city, what you don’t think of with Omaha is a predominantly African American inner city with endemic problems of poverty, unemployment, and youth violence that, per capita, are among the worst in the nation.

The following story, which appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), profiles one of many social service agencies addressing the problem of poverty through a pantry program and resource/referral center.  It reflects the harsh realities and tender mercies that many urban communities experience every day.

 

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Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Tender mercies come in all forms. For those folks living on the margin, the difference between getting by and going hungry may be the kindness of strangers.

Sara Hohnstein and her small staff with the Heart Ministry Center at 22nd and Binney in north Omaha are part of a nameless, faceless army of professionals and volunteers in the human-social services arena working the frontlines of poverty. They represent the safety net that thousands in Omaha depend on to squeeze by.

The center is a nonprofit community outreach arm of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2218 Binney St., which has been a neighborhood presence since 1902.

Where the church is an old stone Gothic Revival monolith, complete with a 124-foot spire, the center is a low-slung, nondescript building of brick, glass and steel erected in 2005. No matter, each targets the neighborhood’s needs with the same compassionate mission, one that also guides the parish’s Sacred Heart Grade School. Just as the students the school serves are predominantly African American and non-Catholic, so are the bulk of the center’s clients.

The Heart Ministry is a calling for executive director Hohnstein.

“I think ultimately what inspires me to do this is I have a real strong belief that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met,” she said. “They deserve to have food on the table, a roof over their head. It’s really the concepts of mercy and justice. I really feel like I was almost born to help relieve suffering in this world. I have a strong faith in that. I have a passion for it. I really enjoy it.”

The chronically poor most rely on helping agencies like hers for subsistence. Caught in a cycle of public welfare dependence, they are the first to seek help and the first to feel cutbacks in service.

Hohnstein said some center clients fall into a “very low income” category that finds them earning as little as $200 to $300 a month. Some are homeless.

But in this economic tailspin of downsizings, slowdowns, shortages and vanishing 401Ks even individuals and families who seemingly have it made are feeling the pinch. Desperate straits can be as near as a lost job or a missed mortgage payment. Those living paycheck-to-paycheck can ill afford any bumps. A few weeks of lost income here or a major medical crisis there, and savings can be wiped out.

More and more clients don’t fit the classic down-and-out profile. Hohnstein said her center’s “seeing a lot of new faces,” including middle class folks struggling to make it. Count Tamara and Preston King among them. Despite their dual incomes  — she’s a nursing assistant and he’s a phlebotomist — the Omaha couple just can’t provide everything their 10 children need without some outside aid.

“It’s very helpful for me and my family,” Tamara said one spring morning as she waited for center volunteers to bag her family’s allotment o groceries. Clients qualify for different amounts of food items based on income and family size. Food pantries are available by referral from school counselors, social workers, case managers. Walk-in pantries are available select days. Proper ID is required.

Hohnstein said the center is seeing the same sharp spike in demand for services reported by food banks, pantries and shelters across America. In October she said the center had 2,991 services go out — encompassing everything from food to household items to toiletries to clothing to financial assistance — compared to 1,421 service outputs the previous October.

“It has been a significant increase. The need is greater. We’re trying to do more.”

healthcenterAnother indicator of how tight things are for more people is the number of holiday food care packages the center’s providing. “We delivered 380 baskets this Thanksgiving. Last year we delivered 190,” she said. “The 380 baskets will feed 1,718 people.” The demand was so high this fall, she added, the center was unable to satisfy all the requests. She expects the adopt-a-family Christmas program will deliver baskets to about as many clients, 130 families, as last year. “However, this year we’re also a Toys-for-Tots distribution site, and that will add hundreds more children to the number we are serving.”

Thus far, she said, the economic downturn hasn’t slowed donations.

“At this point we haven’t seen our cash donations go down but they haven’t gone up either. As the need increases we need to increase our budget,” which she said is presently $250,000. “We have seen people being more generous with material donations of clothing and food as compared to last year.”

Service requests typically peak the end of any month, she said, as people get paid early and then scramble to make ends meet. “The end of the month they run out of food stamps and they just need something to kind of fill in the gap,” she said. Single moms comprise “our biggest users,” she said. “We also have a smaller but still significant elderly population. And then disabled folks that aren’t able to work for whatever reason.”

There’s a core of “regulars” who access the center’s services, which clients are restricted to using once every 90 days or four times a year.

The summer finds an uptick in pantry requests, she said, because kids don’t receive the free and reduced meals they get at school, putting more of a strain on poor households already stretched thin. The center won a grant from the Ronald McDonald House to hold a Back to School event in August that provided students free physicals and school supplies.

Food is the main service the center provides. In the last fiscal year she said 9,865 people were supplied with a week’s worth of groceries. Hohnstein said “a family of four usually walks out of here with between $70 and $90 worth of food” per visit.

 

 

Heart Ministry Center's photo.

 

 

With so many mouths to feed, the Kings went home with two bags full of assorted edibles. But not necessarily the groceries of their choice. Not that Tamara King’s complaining. She makes do with every last product.

“Everything we get, we eat,” she said. “You have to come up with creative meals sometimes, but it’s fun putting together the meals.”

Until recently the center, like most pantries, operated a bag system whereby clients received presorted groceries volunteers filled from the pantry’s shelves. Brand differences aside, every prepared bag contained the same mix of canned and packaged goods, including staples like macaroni, rice, cereal and peanut butter. The benefit to this approach was consistency and fairness. The drawback was some clients ended up with items they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat due to dietary restraints or personal preferences. The potential for unused food seemed a waste.

Hohnstein sought a self-select process to give people a voice in what they receive. She calls it “a more empowering way of getting food.” That’s why the center recently transitioned to a list system that allows clients to check off what groceries they want. USDA guidelines still put a cap on the amount but within limits pantry volunteers now fill customized orders. Tracking what people select may result in better inventory control. A next step may be a shelf system that enables clients to go back into the pantry with a volunteer to “shop” and fill their own bag.

As before, clients get a choice of frozen meats and as much frozen vegetables as they desire. Fresh dairy products are offered until supplies run out. Special items, like prepared tortilla and ravioli entrees, are available in limited quantities.

The list system wasn’t in use yet when the Kings got their groceries that late spring day. Told of the coming change, Tamara said, “That’ll be even nicer.”

Hohnstein said reception to the list system, which went in effect in June, has been “awesome. In addition to the tough economy I believe it is another reason that our pantry is being utilized more by clients. They love being able to pick their own food, and we have seen that they actually only take about 70 percent of what is offered to them because they don’t want to take food that their family is not going to eat. They prefer to let people who are going to eat it have it.”

As much as the help’s appreciated, King said, it’s disconcerting to her and her husband they must seek assistance at all. “Two grown parents working full-time jobs and it’s still not enough,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Our oldest daughter’s going to college, so you know that’s more money for things we have to spend on.” Without the free groceries, she’s not sure how they’d make it. “It really helps us out a lot. It’s a blessing.”

Where the Kings are working homeowners living the American Dream and yet barely scraping by, Udale L. Barnes has more of a typical skid row story. The unemployed resident of a local homeless shelter is trying to pick up the pieces from a run of hard luck that’s left him high and dry. The center is one way-stop in his recovery.

“I’m down at the (Siena) Francis House, so I’m just looking for some help right now,” he said waiting for his food allotment. “I’m trying to get me an apartment and get back on my feet. I lost my home. So I’m trying to do the right thing now instead of being out in these streets. I’m trying to get back on that right track.”

America’s social compact with the needy is an imperfect one. For the better part of a century the nation’s turned to a hodgepodge of local, state, federal governmental programs as well as churches and social service agencies to meet people’s emergency needs for food, clothing, housing, rent, utility payments, employment and other essentials.

Omaha’s landscape for helping the at-risk population mirrors that of any community its size. A network of pantries, shelters, thrift stores and other basic human service providers operate year-round as stop-gaps people can access during tough times.

Pockets of need exist across the metro but widespread poverty among African Americans in northeast Omaha presents special challenges. Sacred Heart’s charity has always extended to the poor in its midst. As the neighborhood’s demographics changed in the post-Civil Rights era from a racially mixed working class core to a poor black majority the church has responded with new social ministry efforts. For example, its Human Needs Door Ministry opened in ‘82 to provide food and other items to families facing shortfalls or just hard times. Sr. Mary Ann Murphy headed up what was the precursor to the Heart Ministry.

In 1997 Murphy and parishioner Pattie Fidone launched the original Heart Ministry Center, located two miles northwest of the church. The center increasingly focused on families in crisis and began the holiday food basket tradition.

Sacred Heart pastor Rev. Tom Fangman led the move to relocate the center to the parish campus. By the time the new, larger facility opened just west of the church in ‘05 its expanded and formalized services included a full pantry and a large surplus clothes operation that’s since been named Iva’s Closet for its manager, Iva Williams.

 

 

Heart Ministry Center's photo.

 

 

Since Hohnstein came to the center in ‘07, the Heart Ministry’s continued growing to address the ever more acute poverty problem and the health issues facing the poor. She serves on a North 24th Street Providers board that focuses on better serving the area’s impoverished. The center partners with Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and area physicians to offer on-site blood pressure and diabetes screenings and health workshops focusing on nutrition and pregnancy. The center also offers occasional life skills and employability classes.

A Grand Rapids, Mich. native, the thirtysomething Hohnstein is a social worker with a wealth of experience serving the poor. She credits much of her passion for the field to another Sr. Murphy — Sr. Mary Alice Murphy — she worked with in Fort Collins, Colo., where Hohnstein earned her master’s at Colorado State.

Hohnstein described Murphy as “a phenomenon,” adding, “She’s done some amazing work. She started several homeless shelters in northern Colorado and she started Care Housing, a 700-unit complex of affordable housing. She’s fabulous. She was my mentor and I was her protege for two years, and that really got me interested in more broad-based community work.”

The two remain connected.

“We still e-mail and talk on the phone at least once a month,” Hohnstein said. “Whenever I’ve got kind of a complicated issue here I’ll call up Sister and see what she has to say. She’s been there, done that, through and through.”

Hohnstein said the example of Sr. Murphy doing social work through the church became the model for how she, as a lay woman, could apply her professional expertise in “a faith-based” framework. When Hohnstein and her husband moved to Omaha in 2007 so he could continue medical school studies at UNMC, she took a temporary job as a hospice social worker. She liked the work but when the Heart Ministry post came up she leapt at it.

“When this job opened it was really like a perfect fit for the experience I had had in Fort Collins, and the type of work I wanted to do.”

The Heart Ministry can’t do it all though. It has finite resources to meet select needs. It doesn’t pretend to be a one-stop service center. She said “the parish community really supports us with volunteers and finances. It’s a wonderful community and it’s a great fit.”

Sometimes people show up or call seeking aid the center doesn’t have to give. Referrals are made to other helping agencies, but being turned away or redirected can be interpreted as rebuff, rejection, run-around. Yes, there’s satisfaction that comes with being a good Samaritan, but not being able to help everyone hurts.

“I think the toughest days here are the days when the phone is ringing off the hook with people that need things,” she said, “like financial assistance. Or they got evicted, and so they don’t have a roof over their head right now. Or they have kids in their home and their water and heat got shut off in the dead of winter. That kind of stuff — and we don’t have any resources to help them.

“You get one or two phone calls like that a day and you can kind of push them aside and do your job, but when you get 15-20-25 calls, and that happens very regularly in the winter, especially at the end of the month, than those types of things get a little bit emotionally wearing.”

Then there’s the reality of doing a largely thankless job that pays less than a teacher makes and that involves long hours.

“There’s just some days where everybody’s grateful, everybody’s happy and it’s fun to be working out in the pantry, and there’s other days where everybody collectively just seems to be in a bad mood,” she said. “Those are hard days to be here, especially when you sacrifice a little bit to work in a job like this and you don’t feel appreciated.”

Fortunately, she said, most “of the days here are good days.”

She also likes the fact her work entails engaging the community in many ways. She does everything from tend the pantry produce garden she began last summer to help unload and stock truckloads of food or clothes. She makes presentations before CEOs and civic groups, she attends board meetings, she leads strategic planning sessions, she fields phone calls asking for help.

All these duties are expressions of those tender mercies she feels called to give.

“We think of addressing poverty as acts of mercy and acts of justice.”

 
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