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Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the octogenarian founded and still runs

December 5, 2011 2 comments

Even though I know better, I sometimes find myself making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance.  Pint-sized octogenarian Louise Abrahamson didn’t look like my idea of a dynamo not to be trifled with when I first laid eyes on her but as I soon discovered that’s exactly what she is.  This sweet little old Jewish lady has been running, variously with an iron fist and a velvet glove, a thrift shop at the Catholic run Boys Town for decades now and she shows no signs of slowing down.  This story of a Jew deeply embedded at Boys Town reminded me of the deep relationship that Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan enjoyed with Jewish attorney Henry Monsky – a story I wrote about and that you can find on this blog.  While Monsky’s contributions were more advisory, legal, and monetary, Louise’s are more cultural, charitable, and practical.  My story about Louise that follows originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the ocotgenarian founded and still runs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Eighty-nine years ago, Omaha Jewish leader Henry Monsky befriended an Irish Catholic priest with whom he shared a dream of creating a safe haven for troubled youths. The priest found a site, but lacked funds. Monsky, a successful attorney and inveterate do-gooder, lent Rev. Edward Flanagan $90 for the first month’s rent on the original Boys Town building in downtown Omaha. Besides serving, pro bono, as attorney for both the home and the late Fr. Flanagan, Monsky was a member of the Boys Town board of directors from its 1917 inception until his death in 1947. His support of Fr. Flanagan and the youth care program got other civic-business leaders to follow suit. The rest is history. As Boys Town’s approach to serving at-risk children caught on, donations poured in and the organization expanded. Now, it’s become a much replicated national model and the names Fr. Flanagan and Boys Town are synonymous with youth care worldwide.

The role Monsky played in the then-fledging institution’s founding is even portrayed in the 1938 Oscar-winning film Boys Town.

Twenty-six years ago, an Omaha Jewish woman named Louise Abrahamson, a former legal stenographer, small business owner, retailer, grant writer, fundraiser and political advisor, got the idea of starting a thrift shop to outfit children at the home with new clothes and things. At the time, she was a secretary and much more at Boys Town. Struck by how little new arrivals had in the way of clothes or other possessions, she took it upon herself to solicit donations from clothing and sundry manufacturers. Donated goods began arriving at her home and were stored in her garage. She distributed the gifts to Boys Town residents and to other organizations helping families and children. Before long, the operation outgrew her garage and moved to new quarters on campus.

Today, she operates out of a retail store-like setting called The Clothesline. The volume of goods that comes in year-round is enough to keep the store’s neatly dressed shelves, bins and racks filled and to take up floor-to-ceiling sections of a warehouse storage area. At any given time the inventory — a typical shipment contains hundreds or thousands of items — includes everything from apparel to accessories to toiletries to toys. Each box must be unpacked, sorted and labeled. In 2005 alone she collected merchandise worth a combined commercial value of $1.3 million, a record year. And that’s only counting donations of $1,000 or more.

There, she applies her well-practiced people skills and business acumen — “I’ve done a lot of things in my life” — to sweet talk corporations out of in-kind gifts and to ease the transition displaced kids face miles away from home. All her considerable time on the project is given as a volunteer.

More than just a place where children get a new set of duds, The Clothesline is where kids find a friend in Abrahamson they can always confide in.

“She is so wonderful to all these kids. When they come in they get a hug and kiss,” said Betty Rubin, a friend and fellow volunteer at the store. “This is what makes it tick — the warmth of it. I mean, it’s very personal to her.”

“Louise is one of those rare people who flourishes by helping others,” said Fr. Val Peter, recently stepped down as executive director of Girls and Boys Town. “Her joy is in giving to others. She is an expert at human relations. She can talk major manufacturing reps into helping us and she has a way with the kids, too. She is an enormously happy person, and to be that happy you have to work at it.”

“This is my life,” Louise said by way of explaining why, at age 86, she still works at the store four days a week. “I get a lot of pleasure out of this. It’s just kind of a challenge to see if people remember me and send me stuff I ask for for the kids.”

Besides, the need that inspired her to start the store in the first place, is still there. Then, like now, newcomers arrive with few possessions and little trust. If anything, she said, kids today present “a lot more problems than when I first came here. I have just taken it into my heart to care about the kids. Generally, when they come in, I don’t settle for a handshake. I have a hug. I want them to know I truly care what happens to them. That, to me, is what sets the pace for a youngster. Rather than have them feel like a stranger or a truant, I want them to feel welcome,” said the former Louise Miller, an Omaha native and Central High graduate. “That’s why I tell them, ‘We want you here. It’s a great place to be. Make the most of it. If you take advantage of what we offer, we’ll never let you down.’ I love that about Boys Town. I like what we do for children.”

“Louise is a great ambassador for those kids,” Girls and Boys Town Public Relations Director John Melingagio said. “She manages to take some of the fear and anxiety away for them.”

On a typical day at the store, the pint-sized Abrahamson, crisply-attired in a pants and sweater suit and her hair nicely coiffured, is seated at her command center at the front of the shop, her phone, computer and files within easy reach. An adult man saunters in with a teenage boy trying hard to suppress his unease. The man’s a campus family teacher and the youth a newbie in need of threads to replace the banned gang clothes he’s come with.

She greets the teen. “Good morning. How are you?” He says, “What’s up?” “And you are?” “Tavonne,” he tells her. “Where you from?” “Baltimore.” “Baltimore, well you know cold weather then. You just pick out what you want, bring it up here and we’ll check it out. That’s all there is to it,” she explains.

A few minutes later, after trying on some pants, shirts and shoes, Tavonne’s back. Louise asks him, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” “Yeah.” “So now you’re all fixed up with dress clothes, right?” “Yeah.” “That’s good. How long have you been here?” “This is my second day.” “Second day, you’re an old-timer.” He smiles shyly. “Probably by the end of next week you’ll be sworn in as a Boys Towner. We’re glad to have you here.” The boy, warming to her, replies, “Thank you.” She tells him, “We hope you do well. It’s a great place to be. Now, I have these…if you want a watch,” she says, pushing a basket filled with nice men’s watches near him. He fishes through the bunch and finds one he wants. “I like this one.” “It’s yours.” “Thank you, I appreciate it.” “You’re very welcome. I want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Same to you.” “And I hope things work out for you, dear.” “Thanks.”

It’s this kind of human exchange that keeps Abrahamson coming back day after day. “Yeah, that tells a story,” she said. “We get a lot of new kids in this time of year. Family teachers will come in with new children, most of them with little or no clothes other than what they have on their back. All our clothes are new and appropriate to wear at church and school. The kids pick out what they want.”

She said her empathy for them extends back to her own childhood. “I knew my folks loved me, but they were busy making a living and really didn’t have much time for me. I was lonesome. I needed somebody I thought cared. And I think that’s why I feel a special need to help children,” she said.

It was while working as a secretary in Boys Town’s Youth Care program she saw first hand the want and conceived the idea of a free clothing center. She got it up and running out of her home in no time.

“I’d see these unhappy youngsters come in carrying a grocery sack and I’d say, ‘Where’s your luggage?’ They’d say, ‘This is it.’ My husband and I used to be in retail — we had a shoes and clothing store — and I wondered if I called on our old dealers, would they help and send me what they have. So, those were the first people I wrote to. They were very giving and began sending merchandise to me.”

With the chutzpah all doers possess, she just thought it up and went ahead. “I did this strictly on my own. I didn’t ask anybody’s permission. I just started doing it,” she said. “Once I’d get the merchandise in, I’d open up the boxes and I’d send out a memo and invite the family teachers and the kids to come over my house.”

By then, Louise and her late husband of 58 years, Norman Abrahamson, lived alone. Their two sons, Hugh and Steve, were grown. She credits Norman for her success. “He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to greet people. He taught me how to go for the product. He taught me that being kind is unusual. He was very supportive. He encouraged me. He said, ‘Go for it, honey. You can do it.’ He was there when I asked for advice and when I faltered.” A former Edison Brothers shoe salesman, he opened his own retail men’s apparel and shoe stores, Hugh’s. He later became a real estate builder-developer.

 

Louise Abrahamson, second from left, and family

 

 

 

Soon, the amount of donations was too much for the couple’s garage. “My husband said, ‘Don’t you think Boys Town would give you a spot?’ So, I went to Fr. Hupp (the late former executive director of Boys Town), who knew I was inviting the teachers and kids over to my house to get clothes, and he said, ‘We’ve got space down in the boiler room (of the Youth Care building). Can you hack that?’ ’Any place would be good,’’ I said. So, we had our stuff delivered there, and this is pretty much the way it started.”

She wore a mask to protect against fumes in the cramped boiler room. It was under Fr. Peter’s watch the operation moved from that dank place to its pleasant environs today — in the building that houses the U.S. postal station on campus.

“When Fr. Peter came aboard, we just went on from there. He and I worked very closely, especially at Christmas-time. The store grew and grew, as did the demand.”

She’s done it almost entirely on her own, too, running things the way she sees fit. “There’s nobody that’s been put here to watch me.”

Generations removed from Henry Monsky helping make the dream of Boys Town a reality, fellow Jew Louise Abrahamson is helping Boys Town fulfill its nonsectarian mission of providing a caring environment to homeless and abused children of all faiths and creeds. She’s familiar with Monsky’s legacy, too, as she helped organize a touring Nebraska Jewish Historical Society exhibit on him in collaboration with Boys Town. Fr. Peter said that if Monsky is the grandfather of Boys Town, then Abrahamson is “the grandmother. She is loved and appreciated here.”

Playing the role of matriarch to kids with severed family relationships appeals to her. “While they’re here, I am like their grandmother,” she said. “A lot of the young people come in and tell me their problems, and I’ll listen very carefully. They’re welcome to come in anytime. They don’t have to make an appointment.”

Louise and her family

Her contact with the children often extends well past their graduation and departure from the home. “Even two or three years later,” she said, “kids can have hard luck. I’ll get a call that says, ‘Louise, so and so is going out on a job interview and doesn’t have a thing to wear.’ And I’ll say, ‘Send ‘em over.’ Now, where else can you go and get that kind of a feeling that you’re needed and wanted?”

The ties go well beyond that. Her desk at the front of the store displays photos sent by former Boys Town students, many pictured with families they’ve begun. She exchanges cards and letters, just like any good grandma does. “I keep in touch with a lot of the children after they leave,” she said.

Just don’t assume her kindly ways and diminutive stature mark her as a pushover.

“Louise is a very pleasantly, disarmingly assertive little old lady,” said Dan Daly, Girls and Boys Town’s Vice President and Director of Youth Care. “You see this pleasant looking, smiling, tiny person and pretty soon she’s got her hand in your right back pocket. That’s how Boys Town was founded. Her and Fr. Peter, made a very, very potent tandem. He knew what kind of talent she has at doing this sort of thing and he was very supportive of her. It’s grown and proliferated because of her personality and her keen business sense.”

So savvy is this nice little old Jewish lady in sizing up people, Daly said, that he and other Boys Town officials would steer family teacher candidates by her desk, so she could observe them. Her assessment factored into new hires. Her counsel was also sought ought off-campus by candidates for mayor, governor and senator. She even wrote a booklet to help prospective candidates weigh bids for public office.

Using her political skills, she routinely contacts corporate giants like Target, Wal-Mart, Dillards, Lands-End, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate, and gets them to donate surplus items. Her personal appeals, scripted herself, are laced with tug-on-your-heart pathos and practical let’s-do-business talk. She tells them, “We have so many young boys and girls who…desperately need clothing…I am asking for your help. If you have any donation department of your discontinued styles, over-stocks, irregulars or out-of-season merchandise, could I ask that you place us on your recipient list? Any merchandise sent can be a tax write-off…Thank you. I hope you will share in Boys Town’s grand mission.”

She doesn’t stop there, either. She follows up with phone calls and letters, always gently reminding potential donors of the need. Her persistence often pays off. “I’m after them all the time. I don’t take no for an answer. I keep pitching, and pitching kindly.” Every donor receives a personal thank you note from her.

 

 

 

 

Melingagio said the donations she brings in help Boys Town “leverage our dollars. Those in-kind gifts she gets from corporations allow the monies we get to go to things that help the kids get better.”

When she approached Fr. Peter with her concept for the store, he embraced it. “I knew that if we let Louise loose at The Clothesline, that it would become very big,” he said. “The best thing to do is to let Louise do her work. She does it better than anyone else.” He said the store’s proved a winning venture. “Oh, yes, it’s a great idea. We needed it badly. It helps everybody. The best ideas come from people like Louise who have talent and a willingness to make their ideas successful.”

He added there’s never been any thought of taking it out of her hands. “It has been Louise’s baby from the get-go. What we do here is we give people a job and say, You’re in charge of making it a success, and she’s made it a success. We’re all proud of her.” He confirmed there’s also been no talk of what will happen once she’s gone. “We don’t want to think about that. We tell her, Take your vitamins. Stay healthy. We need you for years to come. She’s it.”

Before she came on the scene with her business-like practices, Daly said, the home didn’t have a formal apparatus for processing donated goods: “There was a day when, without Louise, you would have walked in and seen just big piles of stuff, and Louise moved the organization away from that way of handling donations to a very effective, modern way where things are very attractively displayed to the kids and to the adults.”

Daly said Abrahamson is quite adept at “networking with family teachers. She alerts people when new stuff comes in. She’s always pushing the product, so to speak. Louise has her favorites. If she gets something in that she knows one little girl would like, she makes sure that little girl gets the first crack at it.” He said it’s not only the 500-some kids on campus who benefit from the fruits of her labor. Another 200 or so in foster care settings also have dibs on what she collects. When supplies or shipments exceed the Boys Town demand, she places the extra goods with places like The St. Francis House and the Salvation Army.

Her office is also the base for a whole other category of gifts she acquires for children. Daly said she manages to get kids passes to movies, concerts, athletic events, skating rinks and many other activities. She gets donated food for parties. She ensures every Boys Town resident has gifts at Christmas and graduation. “It’s a lot bigger than just The Clothesline,” he said.

Service to others is a lifelong habit. Whether advising politicos such as Kay Orr and Hal Daub, or helping run their campaigns for public office or volunteering with the American Red Cross, the Arthritis Foundation, the March of Dimes, Hadassah, the Special Olympics and the United Way or serving as a member of the credit committee of the Boys Town Federal Credit Union or as president of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, she gives her time in many ways.

Then there are the two years she devoted to caring for her son Steve after he was left a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident. He now lives independently. She became a vocal advocate for the rights and abilities of the handicapped. She was also careprovider for her husband after he contracted cancer.

Her good works have been recognized. Under her watch the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society won the Federation’s Achievement Award. She was nominated for  the National Council of Jewish Women’s Humanitarian Award for “her great compassion for the needs of others.”

Nothing slows her down, either. A bad back that laid her up last year only kept her away from the store a few months, during which time she did all her business from home. The flow of merchandise never stopped. But she knows she can’t do it forever. That’s why she’d like to work out a plan for a successor — ideally someone like herself who, as Melingagio put it, “goes the extra mile.”

“I worry what’s going to happen to this place when I no longer can do it,” she said. “My hope is that there is somebody who has pretty much the idea that I have. That they’re caring and want so much for the kids that they know how to express that caring. Because that’s the bottomline. That’s what it’s all about.”

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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.

 

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.

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.

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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