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Health and healing through culture and community 

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Donna Polk was raised African-American but she’s also part Native American, which is a common story. Still, she never imagined she would one day head a Native agency, but she has for decades now. The story of Natives being among us and yet unseen is also a common one. Csn Native Americans be any more invisible in this country? Were it not for the travesties of Whiteclay and Dakota Access Pipeline, where would Native voices be heard and Native faces seen? This marginalized people constituting many sovereign tribes and nations presents very real health challanges that only an organization like the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition (NUIHC) can meet while still respecting Native cultural traditions. This long-standing nonproft has, until recently, been nearly invisible itself as far as the majority population is concerned because its clients are so far off the mainstream radar. But with the Coalition now in the news for plans to establish a new campus, director Donna Polk and programs director Nicole Tamayo are out front and center taking about Native needs and how the organization responds to them. Read my story about NUIHC in the November 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Health and healing through culture and community 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the November 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Donna Polk and Nicole Tamayo decry developer-led gentrification driving their Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition out of downtown Omaha.

Headquartered at 2240 Landon Court on 24th Street, between Farnam and Leavenworth, the nonprofit feels the squeeze enough from encroaching development  that it plans moving to South Omaha to be closer to its Native base and to have larger facilities.

“We intend to move because we’ve outgrown this facility and we no longer fit into the demographics of this area. Gentrification is chasing us out. Our target population is no longer here and we need more space,” said Polk, longtime CEO of the agency formed in 1986.

The 12,000-square foot building contains residential and outpatient treatment, youth and elders programs, communal-event rooms, all within close proximity,

“By moving into a larger building well be able to have one floor more for the community and a second floor for programming. We’re very excited about that.”

She plans a small culinary training program.

Meanwhile. she and Tamyao don’t like how rising property values and rents displace residents in a long dormant, mixed-use urban area being revitalized.

But Polk is also practical enough to work with one of those gentrifying developers, Arch Icon. For the new NUIHC site, they’ve fixed on the former South Omaha Eagles Club at 24th and N. It has more than double the square footage. Adjacent to it, she wants to build 44 low-income transitional housing units to “provide secure, sober housing for a displaced community.”

Tamayo, NUIHC Youth and Family program director, said the city’s Native community once lived near downtown but long since dispersed. Transportation’s an issue but will be less so with the move.

Both women are mixed heritage like most of their clients, “There aren’t that many pure bloods,” said Tamayo, who’s Mexican and Native. Polk is African-American and Native. The agency has an all-Native board of directors except for one member. Board and staff dislike any efforts, intentional or not, that further marginalize an already nearly invisible population. Though not widely seen – the census estimates 3,400 reside here  – Natives have real lives, families, issues and needs NUIHC responds to with culturally competent programs and services.

Tamayo oversees the Soaring Over Meth and Suicide (SOMS) program that gives young people preventive tools to avoid abusing substances or doing self-harm. The mother of four brings “a lot of life experience” to the job. People close to her have committed suicide, battled drug addiction and suffered mental illness.

She sees herself in the clients she serves.

“I grew up in the area. i did the gangs and the drugs and the running around. Anything positive that I can keep my kids in and the bigger support system that I can put around them is definitely a plus.”

NUIHC provides that safety net.

“There’s not a whole lot else here. There’s no Indian (community) center. There’s nothing for the kids. The family supports for most of them are not there.”

Omaha’s lacked a full-fledged Indian center since 1995.

“We try to fill that void,” Polk said, “but our focus is heath basically.”

NUIHC accepts some clients other Indian Health Service (IHS) centers don’t.

“You have to be an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe to be able to receive services from an IHS,” said Tamayo. “A big part of our push, especially with the Adolescent Health Project we’re part of through the Women’s Fund of Omaha, is to build bridges and fill gaps between the different services so that other organizations work better with our community.

“That way clients will have better options.”

NUIHC operates a federally qualified community health clinic in Lincoln, Neb. serving Natives and non-Natives and a free transportation service in Sioux City, Iowa.

“At our Lincoln clinic we provide healthcare services to a large population of undeserved people in Lancaster County,” Polk said. “Incidence and prevalence of chronic disease in the Native community probably puts them at greatest risk than any racial or ethnic group with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, respiratory issues. It’s horrific. It mirrors the mortality and morbidity rate of the dominant culture but the effect is more devastating because diagnosis is often in late stages.”

In Omaha, NUIHC offers mental illness counseling and drug-alcohol addiction treatment. The brick building houses 10-in-patient beds. The campus includes five transitional living units across the street owned by the Winnebago tribe and leased back to NUIHC.

“When people graduate from this (treatment) program or any program in the country, they’re eligible to go to the transitional housing.”

NUIHC’s not seen an upsurge in treatment referrals since since Whiteclay, Neb. liquor stores closed, though alcohol remains a huge problem.

The agency’s broader health focus extends to teaching young people healthy choices and life skills and providing social-recreational activities for elders.

“The programming we do, even sex education, is working with the culture, bringing back traditional values in how to conduct yourself to have high self-esteem and self-worth for making healthy choices,” Tamayo said. “In the majority of our families, the youth do start to drink, use, smoke, whatever, by 10-11 years old.

“It’s looking at underlying issues rather than just educating them about using condoms and getting tested. We have to help them change their mindset. It’s getting them to understand what’s important and how to take care of themselves. We tell them you may not be able to control the environment you’re put in or what’s going on around you, but you still have control of the choices you make going forward  What you did yesterday doesn’t have to dictate what you do today. If you choose to go to school today, then that’s one step closer to doing what you need to be doing to better your life. We keep encouraging them.”

Two annual NUIHC events happen this month: Empowering Youth to Lead a Healthy Life: Native American Health Conference on November 10 and Hoops 4 Life 3-on-3 basketball tournament on November 11. Both are at NorthStar Foundation.

The organization works closely with local colleges and universities. Some Native post-secondary students mentor Native high schoolers.

“We want our kids to see that this is possible – that this is something they can get to,” Tamayo said.

NUIHC convenes an All Nations Youth Council that has a real voice in agency matters.

“For any big push we have we get input from this community, including our youth,” she said. “We don’t want to be telling them what they need to be learning and working on if they have other things going on that need to be addressed. They discusses where we’re going with programming – if we’re hitting it or missing it.”

Last summer, participants of an NUIHC-sponsored youth group made a chaperoned road trip to Chicago and Washington D.C., where they presented cultural performances featuring traditional singing and dancing.

“A lot of our kids haven’t even been past Sioux City,” she said. “It’s giving them an opportunity to understand there’s a whole world out there and it’s very possible for them to reach and go to. They enjoyed it.

“We took them around to all the museums in D.C.  The one they enjoyed the most was the Holocaust Museum. A lot of people wondered if that was going to be too traumatic for them. But when we talked to the kids afterward, they’re so used to seeing things on the reservation, they’re so knowledgable historically of the things that have happened to Native Americans, that this didn’t affect them as it might a lot of others.

“Trauma is just such a part of their daily life that it takes so much for them to be impacted by the experience.”

The Omaha office just got grant a to do domestic and sexual violence counseling.

In everything NUIHC does, great emphasis is placed on observing Native traditions. It even occasionally hosts funeral services, most recently for Zachary Bearheels, the mentally ill man tasered and punched multiple times by Omaha police last June before dying in custody.

“We use a spiritual base,” Polk said. “We don’t deal with religion or denomination – we deal with spirituality. Religion is for people afraid they’re going to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there.”

Every effort’s made to respect client requests.

“If you want to go to the sweat lodge or have a ceremony with a medicine man or go to a pow-wow, you can do that.”

“Definitely. our focus is healthcare, but the connection between cultural activities and being able to identify who you are with how those things affect your health has come more about,” Tamayo said. “We’re able to do that to address the health issues we’re working with.

“We work with Omaha Public Schools and their NICE (Native Indian Centered Education) program on addressing truancy. We help school officials understand sometimes Native students will miss school to participate in traditional practices.”

NUIHC works with OPS and other stakeholders on cultural sensitivity to Native mobility and family dynamics that find youth moving from place to place.

“That’s very important because we look at that as a protective factor so kids can feel good about who they are,’ said Polk.

Tamayo appreciates the autonomy she’s given.

“Donna (Polk) has faith in me that I understand our families’ needs and what services to give them. I have full permission. It’s like open-door mentoring. We have to be really connected and visible in the community. It’s a lot of hours.

“I’ve been in the community my whole life on and off and I know most of these families on an individual level, so being able to reach out and do what I need to do to help them is a plus.”

That help may include informal counseling-coaching to navigate the complexities of life off the Rez.

“We partner with and reach out to reservations because so many of our families migrate back and forth between urban settings and reservations. We want them to feel like they’re getting help with things wherever they go,” Tamayo said.

“They feel like they’re so far away from home and they don’t have a connection here,” Polk said. “We help get them more involved in the community so they can keep that cultural connection they may be missing in an urban setting.”

Polk feels NUIHC is sometimes out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Its $2.3 million budget depends on the vagaries of federal and foundation funds and grants. The low-key, low-profile agency isn’t exactly a household name.

“I don’t lament the fact the general public may not know us or what we do here because the people who need our services know we’re here. That’s what’s important to me. Nationally, people know we’re here. We get clients from as far away as Alaska who come for treatment.”

She’s gearing up to raise millions to acquire and renovate the South Omaha Eagles building. Plans to build the Eagle Heights recovery community are contingent on TIF financing and other funding sources.

“Our mission is to create a small community for the original inhabitants of this land. Almost every group has a community people identify with. We believe we can blend in with South Omaha. It offers the land, the vibrancy and a welcoming spirit. We will be able to increase our ability to elevate the health status of urban Indians by offering additional services, including Intensive outpatient, parenting, caregiver training-assistance, community health and outreach.”

Visit http://www.nuihc.com.

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The Urban League movement lives strong in Omaha

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

The November issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) features my story on an old-line but still vital social action organization celebrating 90 years in Omaha.

The Urban League. The name may be familiar but the role it plays not. Since the National Urban League’s 1910 birth from the progressive social work movement, it’s used advocacy over activism to promote equality. The New York City-based NUL encouraged the creation of affiliates to serve blacks leaving the South in the Great Migration. One of its oldest continuously operating affiliates is the Urban League of Nebraska. The local non-profit started in 1927 as the Omaha Urban League and so operated until changing to Urban League of Nebraska (ULN) in 1968.

This century-plus national integrationist organization is anything but a tired old outfit living off 1950s-1960s Freedom Movement laurels. Its mission today within the ongoing movement is “to enable African-Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.” Ditto for ULN, which marks 90 years in 2017. At various times the local office made housing, jobs and health priorities. Today, it does advocacy around juvenile justice, education and child welfare reform and is a service provider of education, youth development, employment and career services programs. It continues a long-standing scholarships program.

 

 

The Urban League movement lives strong in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the November 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The Urban League.

The name may be familiar but the role it plays not. Since the National Urban League’s 1910 birth from the progressive social work movement, it’s used advocacy over activism to promote equality. The New York City-based NUL encouraged the creation of affiliates to serve blacks leaving the South in the Great Migration. One of its oldest continuously operating affiliates is the Urban League of Nebraska. The local non-profit started in 1927 as the Omaha Urban League and so operated until changing to Urban League of Nebraska (ULN) in 1968.

This century-plus national integrationist organization is anything but a tired old outfit living off 1950s-1960s Freedom Movement laurels. Its mission today within the ongoing movement is “to enable African-Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.” Ditto for ULN, which marks 90 years in 2017. At various times the local office made housing, jobs and health priorities. Today, it does advocacy around juvenile justice, education and child welfare reform and is a service provider of education, youth development, employment and career services programs. It continues a long-standing scholarships program.

Agency branding says ULN aspires to close “the social economic gap for African-Americans and emerging ethnic communities and disadvantaged families in the achievement of social equality and economic independence and growth.”

The emphasis on education and employment as self-determination pathways became more paramount after the Omaha World-Herald’s 2007 series documenting the city’s disproportionately impoverished African-American population. ULN became a key partner of a facilitator-catalyst for change that emerged – the Empowerment Network. In a decade of focused work, North Omaha blacks are making sharp socio-economic gains.

“It was a call to action,” current ULN president-CEO Thomas Warren said of this concerted response to tackle poverty. “This was the first time in my lifetime I’ve seen this type of grassroots mobilization. It coincided with a number of nonprofit executive directors from this community working collaboratively with one another. It also was, in my opinion, a result of strategically situated elected officials working cooperatively together with a common interest and goal – and with the support of the donor-philanthropic community.

“The United Way of the Midlands wanted their allocations aligned with community needs and priorities – and poverty emerged as a priority. Then, too, we had support from our corporate community. For the first time, there was alignment across sectors and disciplines.”

Unprecedented capital investments are helping repopulate and transform a long neglected and depressed area. Both symbolic and tangible expressions of hope are happening side by side.

“It’s the most significant investment this community’s ever experienced,” said Warren, a North O native who intersected with ULN as a youth. He said the League’s always had a strong presence there. He came to lead ULN in 2008 after 24 years with the Omaha Police Department, where he was the first black chief of police.

“I was very familiar with the organization and the importance of its work.”

He received an Urban League scholarship upon graduating Tech High School. A local UL legend, the late Charles B. Washington, was a mentor to Warren, whose wife Aileen once served as vice president of programs.

Warren concedes some may question the relevance of a traditional civil rights organization that prefers the board room and classroom to Black Lives Matter street tactics.

“When asked the relevance, I say it’s improving our community and changing lives,” he said, “We prefer to engage in action and to address issues by working within institutions to affect change. As contrasted to activism, we don’t engage much in public protests. We’re more results-oriented versus seeking attention. As a result, there may not be as much public recognition or acknowledgment of the work we do, but I can tell you we have seen the fruits of our efforts.”

“We’re an advocacy organization and we’re a services and solutions provider. We’re not trying to drum up controversy based on an issue,” said board chairman Jason Hansen, an American National Bank executive. “We talk about poverty a lot because poverty’s the powder keg for a lot of unrest.”

Impacting people where they live, Warren said, is vital if “we want to make sure the organization is vibrant, relevant, vital to ensuring this community prospers.”

“We deal with this complex social-economic condition called poverty,” he said. “I take a very realistic approach to problem-solving. My focus is on addressing the root causes, not the symptoms. That means engaging in conversations that are sometimes unpleasant.”

Warren said quantifiable differences are being made.

“Fortunately, we have seen the dial move in a significant manner relative to the metrics we measure and the issues we attempt to address. Whether disparities in employment, poverty, educational attainment, graduation rates, we’ve seen significant progress in the last 10 years. Certainly, we still have a ways to go.”

The gains may outstrip anything seen here before.

Soon after the local affiliate’s start, the Great Depression hit. The then-Omaha Urban League carried out the national charter before transitioning into a community center (housed at the Webster Exchange Building) hosting social-recreational activities as well as doing job placements. In the 1940s, the Omaha League returned to its social justice roots by addressing ever more pressing housing and job disparities. When the late Whitney Young Jr. came to head the League in 1950, he took the revitalized organization to new levels of activism before leaving in 1953. He went on to become national UL executive director, he spoke at the March on Washington and advised presidents. A mural of him is displayed in the ULN lobby.

Warren’s an admirer of Young, “the militant mediator,” whose historic civil rights work makes him the local League’s great legacy leader. In Omaha, Young worked with white allies in corporate and government circles as well as with black churches and the militant social action group the De Porres Club led by Fr. John Markoe to address discrimination. During Young’s tenure, modest inroads were made in fair hiring and housing practices.

Long after Young left, the Near North Side suffered damaging blows it’s only now recovering from. The League, along with the NAACP, 4CL, Wesley House, YMCA, Omaha OIC and other players responded to deteriorating conditions through protests and programs.

League stalwarts-community activists Dorothy Eure and Lurlene Johnson were among a group of parents whose federal lawsuit forced the Omaha Public Schools to desegregate. ULN sponsored its own community affairs television program, “Omaha Can We Do,” hosted by Warren’s mentor, Charles Washington.

Mary Thomas has worked 43 years at ULN, where she’s known as “Mrs. T.” She said Washington and another departed friend, Dorothy Eure, “really helped me along the way and guided me on some of the things I got involved in in civil rights. Thanks to them, I marched against discrimination, against police brutality, for affirmative action, for integrated schools.”

Rozalyn Bredow, ULN director of Employment and Career Services, said being an Urban Leaguer means being “involved in social programs, activism, voter rights, equal rights, women’s rights – it’s wanting to be part of the solution, the movement, whatever the movement is at the time.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, ULN changed to being a social services conduit under George Dillard.

“We called George Dillard Mr. D,” said Mrs. T. “A very good, strong man. He knew the Urban League movement well.”

She said the same way Washington and Eure schooled her in ciivl rights, Dillard and his predecessor, George Dean, taught her the Urban League movement.

“We were dealing with a multiplicity of issues at that particular time,” Dillard said, “and I imagine they’re still dealing with them now. At the time I took over, the organization had been through two or three different CEOs in about a five year period of time. That kind of turnover does not stabilize an organization. It hampers your program and mission.”

Dillard got things rolling. He formed a committee tasked with monitoring the Omaha Public Schools desegregation plan “to ensure it did not adversely affect our kids.” He implemented a black community roundtable for stakeholders “to discuss issues affecting our community.” He began a black college tour.

After his departure, ULN went through another quick succession of directors. It struggled meeting community expectations. Upon Thomas Warren’s arrival, regaining credibility and stability became his top priority. He began by reorganizing the board.

“When I started here in 2008 we had eight employees and an operating budget of $800,000, which was about $150,000 in the red,” Warren said. “Relationships had been strained with our corporate partners and with our donor-philanthropic community, including United Way. My first order of business was to restore our reputation by reestablishing relationships.”

His OPD track record helped smooth things over.

“As we were looking to get support for our programs and services, individuals were willing to listen to me. They wanted to know we would be administering quality services. They wanted to know our goals and measurable outcomes. We just rolled up our sleeves and went to work because during the recession there was a tremendous increase in demand for services. Nonprofits were struggling. But we met the challenge.

“In the first five years we doubled our staff. Tripled our budget. Currently, we manage a $3 million operating budget. We have 34 full-time employees. Another 24 part-time employees.”

Under Warren. ULN’s twice received perfect assessment scores from on-site national audits.

“It’s a standard of excellence for our adherence to best practices and compliance with the Urban League’s articles of affiliation,” he said.

Financially, the organization’s on sound footing.

“We’ve done a really admirable job of diversifying our revenue stream. More than 85 percent of our revenue comes from sources other than federal and state grants,” said board chair Jason Hansen. “We have a cash reserve exceeding what the organization’s entire budget was in 2008. It’s really a testament to strong fiscal management – and donors want to see that.”

“It was very important we manage our resources efficiently,” Warren said.

Along the way, ULN itself has been a jobs creator by hiring additional staff to run expanding programs.

“The growth was incremental and methodical,” Warren said, “We didn’t want to grow too big, too fast. We wanted to be able to sustain our programs. Our ability to administer quality programs got the support of our donor-philanthropic-corporate-public communities.

“We have been able to maintain our workforce and sustain our programs. The credit is due to our staff and to the leadership provided by our board of directors.”

Warren’s 10 years at the top of ULN is the longest since Dillard’s reign from 1983 to 2000. Under Warren, the organization’s back to more of its social justice past.

Even though Mrs. T’s firebrand activism is not the League’s style, sometimes causing her to clash with the reserved Warren, whom she calls “Chief,” she said they share the same values.

“We just try to correct the wrong that’s done to people. I always have liked to right a wrong.”

She also likes it when Warren breaks his reserve to tell it like it is to corporate big wigs and elected officials.

“When he’s fighting for what he believes, Chief can really be angry and forceful, and they can’t pull the wool over his eyes because he sees through it.”

Mrs. T feels ULN’s back to where it was under Dillard.

“It was very strong then and I feel it’s very strong now. In between Mr. D and Chief, we had a number of acting or interim directors and even though those people meant well, until you get somebody solid, you’ve got a weakness in there.”

Pat Brown agrees. She’s been an Urban Leaguer since 1962. Her involvement deepened after joining the ULN Guild in 1968. The Guild’s organized everything from a bottillon to fundraisers to nursing home visits.

“Things were hopping. We had everything going on and everything running smoothly taking part in community things, working with youth, putting on events.”

She sees it all happening again.

Kathy J. Trotter also has a long history with the League. She reactivated the guild, which is ULN’s civic engagement-fundraising arm. She said countless volunteers, including herself, have “grown” through community service, awareness and leadership development through Guild activities. She chaperoned its black college tour for many years.

Trotter likes “to share our vision that a strong African- American community is a better Nebraska” with ULN’s diverse collaborators and partners.

Much of ULN’s multicultural work happens behind-the-scenes with CEOs, elected officials and other stakeholders. ULN volunteers like Trotter, Mrs. T and Pat Brown as well as Warren and staff often meet notables in pursuit of the movement’s aims.

“I don’t think people realize the amount of work we do and the sheer number of programs and services we provide in education, workforce development, violence prevention,” Jason Hansen said. “We have programs and services tailored to fit the community.”

Most are free.

“When you talk about training the job force of tomorrow, it begins with youth and education,” Hansen said. “We’ve seen a significant rise of African-Americans with a four-year college degree. That’s going to provide a better pipeline of talent to serve Omaha.”

Warren devised a strategic niche for ULN.

“We narrowed our focus on those areas where we not only felt we have expertise but where we could have the greatest impact,” he said. “If we have clients who need supportive services, we simply refer them.”

Some referrals go to neighbors Salem Baptist Church, Charles Drew Health Center, Family Housing Advisory Services, Omaha Small Business Network and Omaha Economic Development Corporation.

“We feel we can increase our efficiency and capacity by collaboration with those organizations.”

 

 

EDUCATION

Since refocusing its efforts, ULN regularly lands grants and contracts to administer education programs for entities like Collective for Youth.

ULN works closely with the Omaha Public Schools on addressing truancy. It utilizes African-American young professionals as Youth Attendance Navigators to mentor target students in select elementary and high schools to keep them in school and graduating on time.

Community Coaches work with at-risk youth who may have been in the juvenile justice system, providing guidance in navigating high school on through college.

ULN also administers some after school programs.

“Many of these kids want to know someone cares about their fate and well-being,” Warren said. “It’s mentoring relationships. We can also provide supportive services to their families.”

The Whitney Young Jr. Academy and Project Ready provide students college preparatory support ranging from campus tours to applications assistance to test prep to essay writing workshops to financial aid literacy.

“Many of them are first-generation college students and that process can be somewhat demanding and intimidating. We’re going to prepare the next generation of leaders here and we want to make sure they’re ready for school, for work, for life.”

Like other ULN staff, Academy-Project Ready coordinator Nicole Mitchell can identify with clients.

“Growing up in the Logan Fontanelle projects, I was just like the students I work with. There’s a lot I didn’t get to do or couldn’t do because of economics or other barriers, so my heart and passion is to make sure that when things look impossible for kids they know that anything is possible if you put the work and resources behind it. We make sure they have a plan for life after high school. College is one focus, but we know college is not for everyone, so we give them other options besides just post-secondary studies.”

“We want to make sure we break down any barrier that prevents them from following their dreams and being productive citizens. Currently, we have 127 students, ages 13 to 18, enrolled in our academy.”

Whitney Young Jr. Academy graduates are doing well.

“We currently have students attending 34 institutions of higher education,” said ULN College Specialist Jeffrey Williams. “Many have done internships. Ninety-eight percent of Urban League of Nebraska Scholarship recipients are still enrolled in college going back to 2014. One hundred percent of recipients are high school graduates, with 79% of them having GPAs above 3.0.”

Warren touts the student support in place.

“We work with them throughout high school with our supplemental ed programs, our college preparatory programs, making sure they graduate high school and enroll in a post-secondary education institution. And that’s where we’ve seen significant improvements.

“When I started at the Urban League, the graduation rate for African-American students was 65 percent in OPS. Now it’s about 80 percent. That’s statistically significant and it’s holding. We’ve seen significant increases in enrollment in post-secondary – both in community colleges and four-year colleges and universities. UNO and UNL have reported record enrollments of African-American students. More importantly, we’ve seen significant increases in African-Americans earning bachelor degrees – from roughly 16 percent in 2011 to 25 percent in 2016.”

With achievement up, the goal is keeping talent here.

 

TALENT RETENTION

A survey ULN did in partnership with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce confirmed earlier findings that African-American young professionals consider Omaha an unfavorable place to live and work. ULN has a robust young professionals group.

“It was a call to action to me personally and professionally and for our community to see what we can do cultivate and retain our young professionals,” Warren said. “The main issues that came up were hiring and promotions, professional growth and development, mentoring and pay being commensurate with credentials. There was also a strong interest in entrepreneurship expressed.

“Millenials want to work in a diverse, inclusive environment. If we don’t create that type of environment, they’re going to leave. We want to use the results as a tool to drive some of these conversations and ultimately have an impact on seeing things change. If we are to prosper as a community, we have to retain our talent as a matter of necessity.We export more talent than we import. We need to keep our best and brightest. It’s in our own best interest as a community.”

The results didn’t surprise Richard Webb, ULN Young Professionals chair and CEO of 100 Black Men Omaha.

“I grew up in this community, so I definitely understand the atmosphere that was created. We’ve known the problems for a long time, but it seemed like we never had never enough momentum to make any changes. With the commitment and response we’ve got from the community, I feel there’s a lot of momentum now for pushing these issues to the front and finding solutions.”

“Corporate Omaha needs to partner with us and others on how we make it a more inclusive environment,” Jason Hansen said.

With the North O narrative changing from hopeless to hopeful, Hansen said, “Now we’re talking about how do we retain our African-American young talent and keep them vested in Omaha and I’d much rather be fighting that problem than continued increase in poverty and violence and declining graduation rates.

Webb’s attracted to ULN’s commitment to change.

“It’s representing a voice to empower people from the community with avenues up and out. It gathers resources and put families in better positions to make it out of The Hood or into a situation where they’re -self-sustaining.”

CAREER READINESS

On the jobs front, ULN conducts career boot camps and hosts job fairs. It runs a welfare to work readiness program for ResCare.

“We administer the Step-Up program for the Empowerment Network,” Warren said. “We case managed 150-plus youth this past summer at work sites throughout the city. We provide coaches that provide those youth with feedback and supervise their performance at the worksites.”

Combined with the education pieces, he said, “The continuum of services we offer can now start as early as elementary school. We can work with youth and young adults as they go on through college and enter into their careers. Kids who started with us 10 years ago in middle school are enrolled in college now and in some cases have finished school and entered the workforce.”

The Urban League maintains a year-round presence in the Community Engagement Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Olivia Cobb is part of another population segment the League focuses on: adults in adverse circumstances looking to enhance their education and employability.

Intensive case management gets clients job-school ready.

After high school, Cobb began studying nursing at Metropolitan Community College but gave birth to two children and dropped out. Through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program ULN administers, the single mom got the support she needed to reenter school. She’s on track to graduate with a nursing degree from Iowa Western Community College.

“I just feel like I’ve started a whole new chapter of my life,” Cobb said. “I was discouraged for awhile when I started having children. I thought I was going to have to figure something else out. I’m happy I started back. I feel like I’ve put myself on a whole new level.

“The Urban League is like another support. I can always go to them about anything.”

George Dillard said it’s always been this way.

“A lot of the stuff the Urban League does is not readily visible. But if you talk with the clients who use the Urban League, you’ll find the services it provides are a welcome addition to their lives. That’s what the Urban League is about – making people’s lives easier.”

ULN’s Rozalyn Bredow said Cobb is one of many success stories. Bredow’s own niece is an example.

“She wanted to be a nurse but she became a teen parent. She went to Flanagan High, graduated, did daycare for awhile. She finally came into the Workforce Innovation program. She went to nursing school and today she’s a nurse at Bergan Mercy.”

Many Workforce Innovation graduates enter the trades. Nathaniel Schrawyers went on to earn his commercial driver’s license at JTL Truck Driver Training and now works for Valmont Industries.

Like Warren, Bredow is a former law enforcement officer and she said, “We know employment helps curb crime. If people are employed and busy, they don’t have a whole lot of time to get into nonsense. And we know people want to work. That’s why we’ve expanded our employment and career services.”

 

VIOLENCE PREVENTION

The League’s violence prevention initiatives include: Credit recovery to obtain a high school diploma; remedial and tutorial education; life skills management; college prep; career exploration; and job training.

“Gun assaults in the summer months in North Omaha are down 80 percent compared to 10 years ago,” Warren said. “That means our community is safer. Also,the rate of confinement at the Douglas County Youth Center is down 50 percent compared to five years ago. That means our youth and young adults are being engaged in pro-social activities and staying out of the system – leading productive lives and becoming contributing citizens.”

Warren co-chairs the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. “Our work is designed to keep our youth out of the system or to divert those that have been exposed to the system to offer effective intervention strategies.”

Richard Webb said having positive options is vital.

“It’s a mindset thing. Whenever people are seeing these resources available in their community to make it to greatness, then they do start changing their minds and realizing they do have other options.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel I had too many options in my footprint. My mom was below poverty level. My dad wasn’t in the house.”

But mentoring by none than other than Thomas Warren helped him turn his life around. He finished high school. earned an associates degree from Kaplan University and a bachelor’s degree from UNO. After working in sales and marketing, he now heads a nonprofit.

Wayne Brown, ULN vice president of programs, knows the power of pathways.

“My family was part of the ‘alternative economy.’ It was the family business. My junior year at Omaha Benson I was bumping around, making noise, when an Urban League representative named Chris Wiley grabbed me by the ear and gpt me to take the college and military assessment tests. He made sure I went on a black college tour. I met my wife on that tour. I got a chance to be around young people going in the college direction and I had a good time.”

Brown joined the Army after graduating high school and after a nine year service career he graduated from East Tennessee State University and Creighton Law School. After working for Avenue Scholars and the Omaha Community Foundation, he feels like he’s back home.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do all that if I hadn’t done what Mr. Wiley pushed me to do. So the Urban League gave me a start, a path to education and employment and a sense of purpose I didn’t have before.”

Informally and formally, ULN’s been impacting lives for nine decades.

“To be active in Omaha for 90 years, to have held on that long, is fantastic,” Pat Brown said. “Some affiliates have faltered and failed and gone out of business. But to think we’re still working and going strong says something. I hope I’m around for the 100th anniversary.”

Mrs. T rues the wrongs inflicted on the black community. But she’s pleased the League’s leading a revival.

“I’ve seen some good changes. It makes me feel good we are still here and still standing and that I’m around to see that. It’s a good change that’s coming.”

Visit http://www.urbanleagueneb.org.

 

The Giving wheel keeps turning – Sowing seeds of philanthropy


Omaha’s known for being a giving place. The philanthropic community, whether foundations, corporations, nonprofit charitable clearinghouses, the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Omaha or individuals. repeatedly steps up to identify and address needs. My Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story in the May 2017 issue sheds some light on how the giving community comes to make some of its individual and collecive decisions about where and how many dollars go.

The Giving wheel keeps turning

Sowing seeds of philanthropy 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

Omaha charitable giving turns on a funding wheel of corporate, foundation and individual donors of all levels. There are also funding conduits or facilitators.

This city with its high concentration of millionaires, one certifiable billionaire and large corporate and family foundations is widely heralded for its generosity. Omaha’s no different than any other city though in relying on giving to fill gaps. Philanthropy fills the gulf between what nonprofits may generate and what they get from public (government) funding sources.

The Reader recently interviewed three local leaders intimately involved in the fabric of Omaha giving for insight into how philanthropy gets activated here.

Annually, organizations seek support for ongoing needs ranging from services, programs, events and activities to operating expenses. Special needs may also arise, such as capital construction projects or larger-scale civic endeavors, that require special asks.

The giving sector works collaboratively to identify and address persistent and emerging community-wide needs. Corporate, foundation, civic and other leaders convene to analyze and delegate where resources should go. This vetting and ranking explains why some efforts get funded and others don’t or why some programs are supported at higher levels than others. Curating simply prioritizes some things over others.

Different players on the giving wheel may have their own funding missions or targets but still join others in supporting special initiatives, campaigns or projects that require more collective impact.

All these efforts measure what kind of city Omaha is. Giving shapes the physical and intangible landscape – from infrastructure, skyline, parks and other amenities to health, vitality, livability and compassion.

Everyone agrees no one organization or philanthropist can make much of a difference alone. It’s in the giving power of many that real change can occur.

The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce works with the giving community to fulfill its goals. Prosper Omaha (2014-2018) is the latest funding program for the Chamber’s economic development partnership. President-CEO David Brown said, “We have a bifurcated agenda to provide services to our 3,200 business members and to figure out ways to grow and improve the community. Development and growth assumes if we can make it a better and growing community our member firms will benefit and be able to hire more people – and there’s a great spinoff benefit from that.

“We believe we should be a catalyst organization always thinking about ways we can improve the community at large, which again makes it a better place to live, work and play. We do that by not just working independently of others but in most cases collaborating with other organizations.”

 

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David Brown

 

Examples of the Chamber’s catalytic work include working with community partners to create Careerockit, a week-long event in April that exposed 10,000-plus area students to thousands of career opportunities, and to get Omaha designated a TechHire Community, which adds the city to a national network receiving support for helping overlooked and underrepresented populations start technology careers. The Chamber also partnered to develop The Kitchen Council, a food startup incubator that gives members access to a fully-licensed commercial kitchen and other resources to lower barriers of entry and to spur entrepreneurship.

When the Chamber throws its weight behind something, ripples usually happen.

“We get a lot done in large measure because we collaborate with people who have the authority to get things done,” Brown said. “Our public advocacy work is really important for us to be able to cause change to happen. Frankly, the Chamber cannot pass a zoning ordinance but we can encourage other people to do so.

We can’t fix roads, but we can encourage the city or state administration to do so. Our role can only be effective if we can convene people who have similar goals in mind and can figure out a path forward to solving a problem or addressing a challenge.

“We are always thinking about what’s the next change that should happen. Then the next logical question is, who’s responsible for seeing that that change occurs

and how can we build a collaborative process to bring all the people interested in this issue to the table and actually cause that change to occur.”

The Chamber’s involved in things, he said, “that might surprise folks,” such as supporting education reform, investing in talent development and the retainment of young professionals to address the brain drain issue,” along with community-economic-entrepreneurship development. “We also worry about infrastructure. So transportation, especially the discussion about mass transit, is something we’re involved in.”

On a big picture scale, the Chamber engages in strategic planning.

“Right now we’re going through a Strategic Foresight process. We’ve hired economist Rebecca Ryan from Next Generation Consulting as a Futurist-in Residence. She’s helping us think about what the future of Omaha, particularly from an economic perspective, could be 20 years from now. We’ve asked as partners the Urban League of Nebraska and the United Way of the Midlands to be with us in this. We’re all thinking about what not only the economy needs to look like but what disruptions would happen if that economy were to come to fruition or what disruptions might keep us from accomplishing the kind of future we’re looking for.”

United Way executive director Shawna Forsberg said, “Much to the Chamber’s credit they’re not just looking at it from a business perspective. They’ve invited representation from the human services and inclusivity sides. It’s very thoughtfully run. Numerous stakeholders and influences are being brought to the table during this process so that it is a community weighing in on what needs to happen.”

Part of Ryan’s futurist work is spent with various local nonprofit boards and planning committees teaching them strategic planning tools.

“We’re doing some capacity building for the other partners we have in the community who need to be able to think about the future as well,” Brown said.

Helping nonprofits be sustainable is a focus of the Omaha Community Foundation, whose Nonprofit Capacity Building program’s 24-month curriculum is designed to strengthen organizational and leadership capacity needs. Ten area nonprofits are chosen each year to participate. Forty nine organizations have gone through the program. Currently, 20 organizations are in the program (10 in their first year and 10 in their second year).

 

 

Shawna Forsberg

 

Education is a core focus of the foundation, the United Way and the Chamber.

“I think education is the base for the kind of development we’re going to have to see in the future,” Brown said. “We’ve got to make sure our kids, whether the most affluent or the least affluent, whether in North Omaha, West Omaha, Council Bluffs or Sarpy County, are getting the best education they can get. We have a community with about 3 percent unemployment and yet we know there are pockets of higher unemployment. What causes that higher unemployment isn’t lack of jobs in many cases, it’s lack of preparedness, strong education or a high school diploma.

“There are some extenuating circumstances, such as lack of transportation, that keep people from being an active part of the workforce and we’ve got to mitigate those in some way or another. If we don’t, companies won’t find the people they need here and will look somewhere else. We’ve got to get as many people ready to work as possible in the areas where we know people can be hired and earn a great wage. So, education and transportation are things we’re paying a lot of attention to. Mass transit system improvement is pervasive in all of our conversations.”

Alleviating the high poverty that persists relates back to education and workforce development, Brown said.

United Way’s Shawna Forsberg said, “For people living in poverty it’s not just one thing that’s going to fix it. Typically, there’s multiple things that need to be addressed.” She said responding to complex issues means” being consistent but also flexible and nimble enough ” to adapt as needed. “We’re blessed that we have really strong networks and we work with so many different programs and agencies that it lends itself to really a community-wide understanding of where opportunities can arise.”

She said agencies like hers recognize the “need for more qualified individuals to hit the workforce.” “We want to work in concert with those who can provide those unique opportunities.”

Meanwhile, the state’s budget deficit has cut into public education, services and programs. Possible federal cuts to arts and human services funding loom large.

“It’s a very interesting time politically trying to understand what’s going to be coming regarding funding sources for many programs vital in the community,” Forsberg said. “It’s something we’re watching very carefully. It’s why advocacy and public policy is something we have to be involved with also.”

Omaha Community Foundation executive director Sara Boyd said, “There are resource constraints today because of budget challenges at the state and federal levels that affect the sector at large and changes the dynamics of what funding might look like. What is the affect of that on some of our more vulnerable populations? There are some people who are already vulnerable we don’t want to find in even worse situations. What does that mean for how we think about the work we do and how we invest as a community? Because of the uncertainty of some of the changes that may occur, it’s difficult sometimes to place a bet on where to invest. I don’t think there are answers yet.”

Forsberg said United Way’s historic mission is to “help those neighbors that need assistance” through a “safety net of services.” She added, “United Way will never depart from providing funding for critical programs to help people in dire straits, whether it be food security, safe housing, access to health care, escaping domestic violence. That is core to what we do.”

An example of United Way tracking and responding to such needs, Forsberg said, is its Financial Stability Work Task Force. “It identified a group of people being lost through the cracks called Opportune Youth – 16 to 24 year-olds either not working or not in school. There was a myriad of organizations working with these individuals but it wasn’t a coordinated effort. Now we have 30 different agencies at the table doing essential intake. We’re partnering with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and leveraging the work of Project Everlast to extend that work into new areas because people can end up in this category in multiple ways.”

The resulting pilot Alliance program launches June 1.

Forsberg said, “A systems approach is crucial because you’ve got to meet the kids where they’re at but then figure out what you can do get them in a different trajectory. That may be helping ensure they get additional school but also connecting them to a financially stable job and making sure they have the support they need to be successful in that. That can’t be one program – it has to be a multitude of programs.”

United Way works across the community on education.

“The Chamber helped us convene a group conversation with superintendents from across the community,” Forsberg said, “We took a really take a hard look at how you measure whether a kid is progressing and what not-for-profit support could assist school systems with.

“Where they really need help is in literacy and ensuring kids stay in school, and so those are the areas in which we’re investing. Instead of looking at just graduation rates we’re looking at ninth grade attainment. That’s a critical pivot point for kids if they’re going to get through school in a successful manner. When they hit high school the supports are less and so to wait until their senior year it’s almost too late. It’s critical we give it earlier to identify a kid that needs some extra support.”

Forsberg said intervention can mean mentoring support but also building awareness within school systems and families to keep kids in classrooms.

“We’re going to measure progress, not only investments United Way is making but as a community how we’re doing in these areas and bring that to light.”

 

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Sara Boyd

 

The Community Foundation’s Sara Boyd said the local Adolescent Health Project led by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, with support from her foundation and other players is another example of “a broader focus” with more partners at the table.” “It’s not one foundation, nonprofit, individual driving that work and there’s some intentionality in the strategies being invested there. There’s work in juvenile justice, on the public service side, on the philanthropic side, on the nonprofit side and people coming to a common table to try and drive that.”

Input from many sources is crucial, Boyd said, but even then solutions can be elusive.

“The challenge is these are really tricky issues, so even when there’s focused attention, energy and investment there’s still stumbling blocks along the way and it doesn’t move quickly.”

North Omaha redevelopment is unfolding at an historic rate and the giving community is investing heavily there. The Chamber’s North Omaha Development Strategy spurred the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan now being realized. Philanthropic dollars are pouring in to support efforts by the Empowerment Network, 75 North, Metro Community College and others.

Boyd said what’s happening there is evidence of how “when conversations come together sometimes there’s synergy that can create momentum.” “I do really like the energy and the amount of real interest and attention focused on North Omaha. It would be awesome to see a tipping point. I guess i don’t exactly know where that lies. To me it would be huge success to say not only are we seeing this accumulation of impressive dollars, but also a tidal wave coming behind that of all these other amazing things addressing what the people of North Omaha want that community to be for them.”

She cautioned, “I’m not naive to think there aren’t some structural issues as a community we will need to wrestle with in order to maximize some of these investments made there that affect more deeply the lives of people who live in North Omaha.”

Boys said whatever the project, nothing happens in isolation. She feels funders are ever more attuned to “the relationship between it all.”

“Something we continue to work at collectively as a community is looking at projects not just as coincidentally being in the same area but how do they they relate to and complement one another.”

Boyd said her foundation’s “mission is to inspire giving to create a thriving community for all.” “If you grow giving you have the opportunity to strengthen nonprofits and to have more people participating potentially or at greater levels and you then have an opportunity to bring people together because of that increased engagement and participation.”

 

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United Way takes a systemic view as well.

“We have been in the community for 94 years and the needs over that time have evolved,” Forsberg said. “We represent a large donor base. Part of our responsibility is to read that and have a community-wide perspective and understand where we can invest that’s really going to be meaningful. We see ourselves as convener, collaborator, information-aggregator. We really are trying to bring thought leaders in the community together to address these issues. It takes a system.

“It means being honest and transparent about what’s going well and what isn’t as a community and trying to figure out the best ways to address that. It’s recognizing it’s never going to be one organization or one funder that’s going to be able to tackle this on their own. It’s very much a collaborative effort across the community.”

That approach has recently become more formalized.

“In 2012 a very robust strategic planning process initiated by some strong leaders in our community really drove United Way to take a harder look at how we did our investment. We initiated a community assessment in partnership with the Omaha Community Foundation and the Iowa West Foundation. ConAgra Foods stepped in for Phase II of it. It took a neighborhood-level look at where the greatest needs were.”

That assessment led to United Way’s 2025 goals.

By 2025, United Way aims to support the delivery of two million-plus services addressing basic needs of people living in or at risk of poverty through a more integrated, coordinated, precise and measurable system of basic needs supports.

Forsberg said, “We pulled together task forces. Part of their focus was looking at who was doing what in these various areas. Based upon input from stakeholders and others in the community we discerned where we could make the greatest difference in supporting things like basic needs (for food, shelter).

Metrics are key to the approach.

“With support from the Sherwood Foundation and the Weitz Family Foundation we’ve implemented an analytics and performance team to ensure we’re being efficient with that send and not just looking at it from an individual program-level but at the whole system. That’s allowed us to take best practices in analyzing whether or not the way you’re investing is driving the change you hope to make. What we’ve found is it helps programs we support improve and it gives them more of an understanding of whether the impact they hope to drive is also being accomplished.”

Forsberg said, “We learned we definitely need to provide those solves but we also need to get into prevention. If you don’t have a full tummy, it’s really hard to do well in the classroom. But we also know it’s important we help people change the trajectory for themselves. Two areas identified are educational support and preparing people to enter the workforce.”

Shaping strategic community goals in partnership with givers is part of the Chamber’s mission, said Brown. Everything the Chamber does, he said, is measured.

“We incorporate most of the public and private foundations executive directors and staff into all of our strategic planning processes. We’ve invited them to be involved in all of our Strategic Foresight work. On the futurist side, they’ve been involved in our discussions of our economic development strategy and as issues come up in the community we find ourselves working on those projects together, too  It’s not unusual for the Chamber and several of the foundations and other nonprofit groups to sit around the table with business leaders talking about how to solve a community problem.

“The philanthropic community also tends to be funders of some programs and activities we do. We’ve been successful in finding those places we have in common and producing something the foundations help fund.”

The Chamber’s David Brown said collaboration comes with the territory but Omaha does it to an unusual degree.

“A lot of collaboration happens in this community between philanthropists and businesses and the not-for-profit world to see what projects should move forward and which ones maybe not. I think Omaha has collaboration in its DNA. I rarely seen an organization stand up and say we are going to work on this project by ourselves and not seek input or not be involved in a strategic discussion about whether it has merit or not.

“When a project doesn’t work out, it’s usually because collaboration and communication hasn’t occurred at the normal level. I think we accomplish more together and that seems to be a common thread I see with most of my colleagues in this community whether on the business side or the not-for-profit side.”

 

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OCF’s Boyd said working with partners like the Chamber and United Way helps the foundation “learn what role we can play.” She explained, “We’re placing some bets on areas where we think, given our history and skills, we might be able to add some value in partnership with things going on in the community.”

She said the discussions arising from collaborative meetings help narrow the focus on what the pressing needs are and where best the foundation can help. Another way the foundation gauges what’s happening is through the grant application process for its Fund for Omaha, “We see over the period of a couple grant cycles patterns and changes in requests for funding that give us a temperature read on some things moving and changing in the community and what that might mean. It might be emerging needs or gaps of service.”

On behalf of donors the foundation has granted $1.5 billion to nonprofits since 1982. In 2016, its donors granted $149 million. Its own Fund for Omaha granted $294,176 in 2016. As of the end of last year, the foundation’s assets number just over $1 billion.

The foundation’s desire to broaden its work and better measure community needs helped lead to the birth of The Landscape project – a public, data-driven reflection of the community across six areas of community life:

Health

Neighborhoods

Safety

Transportation

Workforce

Education

Those markers largely came out of the community perception or assessment study that OCF did with United Way and Iowa West Foundation.

“There are likely other areas over time we will add to The Landscape,” Boyd said.

Landscape information gleaned from experts and residents are available online to anyone.

“We wanted more people to participate in some of that thinking and we wanted more people to be able to iterate it,” Boyd said, “so having something more publicly available and opening that up for feedback can help those of us who interact on personal levels with different partners and residents in the community.”

“We’re looking more and more at how we align with some of these issues now spotlighted in The Landscape to try to reach out in new partnerships and new ways. We have a donor base that is community-broad, many of whom are plugging into some of these issues themselves, and we may be able to serve them better in their giving if we’re focusing our resources.”

Greater impact is the ultimate goal.

“We’re hoping the project will assist in bringing some of our philanthropy to another level by infusing more of that curation with the voice of the community – personal stories that add a greater dimension to our understanding. It’s not to say by any means the work of the foundation and The Landscape is going to be the thing that leads to change. It has to be efforts we all pursue. This just happens to be our particular part we feel we can play in conversation and interaction with all of the other people invested in moving these issues forward in our community.”

She and her colleagues are trying to find ways to get millennials to donate. The foundation’s found success doing that through its Omaha Gives campaign.

Increasingly, Boyd said, “we work to be an organization more inclusive of lots of different people and interests in the community,””I think we’re continuing to build different relationships and find new ways to partner with people who care and want to invest resources.”

Boyd, Forsberg and Brown are aware Omaha’s legendary giving is generational. While wealth will change hands, they say local philanthropists have been mindful creating instruments to ensure future giving.

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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