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in our CRISIS: ​Local Nonprofits Keep Serving in Troubled Times

Despite the cancellation or postponement of major fundraising events that support essential services and a reduction in donations reflecting the current economic slump, local nonprofit organizations are finding ways to stretch resources and carry on. With volunteer hours drastically reduced and new health and safety processes in place, staff members are obliged to integrate new tasks or increase their workload, but they still serve. 

Our nonprofits need the support of the community more than ever, and anyone can help. 

Representatives from every organization in the roundup that follows stated that financial support is especially welcome. Each organization’s website provides information on other ways community members can contribute, from material donations outlined in wish lists to volunteer-from-home opportunities. And when public events resume, nonprofits will be welcoming supporters and participants to their fundraisers and celebrations with open arms.

Serving the Homeless and Near-homeless

“No matter what, our focus remains on our mission.” - Michael Wehling, Executive Director,  Stephen Center
“We anticipate that this pandemic may go on for a very long time.”  - Linda Twomey,  Executive Director, Siena Francis House


Open Door Mission

Breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty

Open Door Mission assists people experiencing homelessness and provides homeless preventive resources for people living in poverty. Since COVID-19 reached Nebraska, a shelter-in-place policy has been implemented to focus on safe shelter and quality care. However, Outreach Centers are closed and programming for youth has been modified due to school closures and suspension of school-based summer programming. 

“Many programs are on pause including on-site volunteerism. Staff is carrying the workload of over 15,000 volunteers, which is not sustainable long-term,” President/CEO Candace Gregory said. Their Additional work includes COVID-19 symptom screening for staff, guests and visitors and increased cleaning and sanitation tasks. And despite conscientiously following disease transmission guidelines and best practices, the organization “is doing battle with the virus,” Gregory said, which means managing isolation and quarantine areas on campus, too. 

Open Door Mission has already distributed relief goods through two spring drive-up events. The pandemic exacerbates the hardships of families living in poverty and the effects will be long-lasting, Gregory said. “I predict that there will be an all-time surge for emergency shelter for families.” 


Siena Francis House

Serving hope to the homeless

“COVID-19 has affected every aspect of how we provide our services of shelter, food, clothing, case management, addiction recovery and permanent supportive housing,” Executive Director Linda Twomey said.

As a low-barrier shelter, Siena Francis House provides services even to those viewed as “the most difficult to serve,” Twomey said. This includes mentally ill persons who may lack medical care and/or medications, as well as individuals who struggle with addiction. 

The staff diligently follows best practices and recommendations to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and they also strive to educate everyone who sets foot inside the organization’s facilities. Additional steps include health screenings for new guests, limited access to common areas and meal service in residential areas instead of a communal dining room. 

Twomey said the adjusted practices demand more complex processes and incur additional costs.

“We anticipate that this pandemic may go on for a very long time,” she said. 


Stephen Center

Help – Hope – Heroes

“Our staff are doing an amazing job of assisting vulnerable people already in crisis navigate a pandemic,” Executive Director Michael Wehling said. Stephen Center programs include housing, emergency shelter and substance abuse services under the support of case managers who assist clients in addressing barriers to self-sufficiency. 

Social distancing and other restrictions mean fewer volunteers are available to assist an increased number of individuals needing services and related supplies. 

“Our volunteer service hours have dropped by 83 percent each month; that’s 5,000 service hours,” Wehling said. “We’ve hired temporary staff in the shelter and kitchen to help fill the gaps, and some of our part-time staff are flexing to full-time hours to cover the gap.”

Increased screening measures and education efforts are in place, and the organization is also using videoconference technology to continue to provide case management, counseling and life- skills education. “Because of this, 59 individuals moved from Stephen Center to permanent housing in the first six weeks of the pandemic,” Wehling said, adding that the organization is preparing for an extended pandemic. 

“No matter what, our focus remains on our mission – partnering with the community, families and individuals to overcome homelessness, addiction and poverty. The needs of our clients will need to be met, and we will keep adjusting our policies and procedures as needed to make that happen safely.”


Youth Emergency Services

Supporting youth in crisis

Youth Emergency Services (YES) provides a continuum of services for youth ages 12-21 who are experiencing homelessness or near-homelessness. After meeting their immediate needs (shelter, food, safety, etc.), the organization helps young people learn skills and access resources that support self-sufficiency.   

“During the pandemic, procedures have been implemented to continue direct care of vulnerable youth while also protecting the health and safety of all,” Executive Director Mary Fraser Meints said. “At the same time, YES is experiencing loss of revenue due to postponed events and the inability of some regular donors to contribute based on a change in their own situation.” 

Street Outreach Center hours have had to be reduced, so the staff has transitioned to more individual outreach and virtual check-ins with clients. Volunteer shelter meal preparation and serving has been suspended, but YES can still accept sponsored catering. Programs that provide housing or assist young people in obtaining housing continue, but “YES is gearing up for an increase in demand for housing and utility assistance,” Meints said, as bills come due for people who have lost employment. 

“This virus has required YES to change its strategy, but the vision to help youth who are experiencing homelessness and near-homelessness become self-sufficient remains the same,” Meints said.


Serving Our Hungry Neighbors

“Thousands of Nebraskans and Iowans are finding themselves in the unexpected position of seeking emergency food assistance.” - Brian Barks, President and CEO, Food Bank for the Heartland   


Food Bank for the Heartland

Engaging the community, changing lives

Food Bank for the Heartland provides emergency and supplemental food to individuals and families in need, serving 77 counties in Nebraska and 16 counties in western Iowa. The organization distributes food through a network of nearly 600 pantries and other providers, and the need has increased in recent months. 

“Thousands of Nebraskans and Iowans are finding themselves in the unexpected position of seeking emergency food assistance,” President and CEO Brian Barks said. “Since March, Food Bank for the Heartland has been working swiftly with our partners to adapt our programs and ensure critical meals are being safely distributed to our food-insecure neighbors.” 

Volunteer capacity is limited due to social distancing guidelines. To meet the increased demand for food, partners are helping facilitate up to 40 drive-up mobile pantries each month. 

“We are grateful for the community's continued support during this crisis, as we anticipate the need for supplemental meals will remain high in the months to come,” Barks said. “The Food Bank is monitoring the constantly evolving situation and adapting facets of our operations.”


Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue

Feeding the hungry by rescuing food from going to waste

“Saving Grace connects perishable food from local food purveyors to local nonprofits that feed our hungry, while raising awareness and educating the community on food waste and hunger,” CEO and President Beth Ostdiek Smith said. “Saving Grace addresses two challenges that face our community: hunger and food waste. Our perishable food pipeline provides the logistics and distribution network to do this in a coordinated, professional manner.”

Saving Grace responded to more than 65 extra calls from businesses with surplus food to donate as their kitchens closed. 41,500 pounds of food was delivered to nonprofit partner agencies needing the additional food to meet increased client needs.

Operations are changing daily due to fluctuations with the food supply chain and more requests for food, Smith said.

“The increased need for food will continue in the foreseeable future, and we know there is more food that can be rescued,” Smith said. “With so many people food insecure, it’s more important now than ever that we locate surplus food that is not currently being rescued.”

Serving Children and Families

“If a need arises that is not what we typically do, we make it what we typically do.” - Kimberly Kolakowski, Executive Director, FAMILY, Inc.
“We are concerned for that which we cannot see and what may be coming.” Kimberly Thomas, Executive Director, CASA for Douglas County
“We have been there for our citizens during depressions, world wars, and yes—pandemics. We were there for each of our families then, we are there for them now, and we will be there for future generations.” Robert Patterson, CEO, Kids Can Community Center


CASA for Douglas County

CASA volunteers provide an individualized voice and advocate for interventions and services to  improve outcomes of well-being, safety and permanency for children. Volunteers ensure children are placed in appropriate, safe and nurturing environments to expedite the finding of “forever families” so they are not lingering in foster care unnecessarily. 

“As with most organizations, we have been in a work-from-home status for over two months, but instead of seeing this as a barrier to conducting business, we have adapted our training curriculum, visited children via Facebook and Zoom and created spaces to meet potential volunteers via virtual socializing,” Executive Director Kimberly Thomas said. “Of course, we are not in the community and our children are not currently having face-to-face meetings with their CASA Volunteers. We are concerned for that which we cannot see and what may be coming…As with other times of social isolation, CASA is particularly worried about the likely rise in number and severity of child abuse/neglect cases, the longer this continues. We are gearing up to recruit more volunteers to address this need.” 


Child Saving Institute

Giving children a voice

Child Saving Institute (CSI) is dedicated to the prevention, intervention and healing of child abuse, neglect and abandonment, and its services are especially critical during stressful economic uncertainty like families are facing during the current pandemic, President and CEO Peg Harriott said. 

“We know that when stress within a family increases, incidents of domestic violence and child abuse can increase. As a community, we need to be there for those children who are isolated from their friends, their beloved teachers, and their caring therapists,” she explained. “CSI quickly shifted to telecommunications to deliver services virtually when face-to-face interaction is not appropriate or feasible. Children and families continue to receive mental health, foster care and prevention services…Our staff have also been extremely innovative and creative when it comes to staying connected with the children and families we serve.” 

Staff is working around a reduction in volunteer hours, but the need for new foster parents is urgent, Harriot said. “We must continue to bring awareness and work to engage those interested even at times like these.” 


Completely KIDS

Educating and empowering kids and families

Completely KIDS empowers families living in poverty with skills and resources to create a safe, healthy, successful and connected community. CEO Penny Parker said that the pandemic has forced the organization’s facility to close indefinitely and programming to transition to virtual platforms. Worse, some members of the Completely Kids family have experienced COVID-19 directly.

“The virus has taken a toll on our part-time staff and the families we serve. Several have tested positive for COVID-19 and the father of one of the children in our program was one of the recent deaths reported in the local news,” Parker said. 


Despite the challenges, services from virtual educational activities to food distribution go on, some in partnership with other organizations. A hotline for mental health needs and other resources has also been developed. 

“We anticipate programming to be very different in August if and when the kids return to school. We are developing plans to meet the critical mental-health needs that will arise with our families when we reopen,” Parker said. “There is no way to predict the full long-term impact, but we expect there to be some changes to the way we do our work going forward.”



Strong foundation, healthy future through education

FAMILY, Inc. is an early childhood organization with a mission for empowering families in Pottawattamie and Mills Counties in Iowa to build a strong foundation and healthy future through education, advocacy, support and community connection. The organization is built on direct services and face-to-face contact, so the impact of COVID-19 has been significant, Executive Director Kimberly Kolakowski said. 

“The families served in our programs face many challenges and are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic due to low income, barriers to accessing health care, single-parent households, lack of support networks and many other risk factors that make navigating COVID-19 even more complex,” Kolakowski said. “FAMILY, Inc. has adapted to changing public needs by moving to virtual services and utilizing technology to ensure we can still connect with families and offer them the supports they so desperately need at this time. Program participants can still receive supports and check in with their provider using video connection services or by phone.”

Staff has been flexible and resourceful, she added. 

“If a need arises that is not what we typically do, we make it what we typically do.”


Heartland Family Service

Good works

Through direct services, education, and outreach, Heartland Family Service has responded to the needs of the area’s most vulnerable children and families. Its programs serve individuals of all ages from infants to seniors from over 15 locations in east- central Nebraska and southwest Iowa in three primary program areas: child and family well-being; counseling and prevention; and housing, safety and financial stability.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled us to change the way we offer many of our programs, including mental health counseling, substance use treatment, housing services and child welfare. We now offer these services via phone, telehealth and video conferencing. We have also transitioned to having as many employees as possible work from home,” Chief Development Officer Marzia Puccioni Shields said. 

With hardships from domestic violence to substance abuse to economic emergencies exacerbated during a crisis, the organization’s services are greatly needed, Shields said. “Heartland Family Service is committed to helping those who need assistance.” 


Kids Can Community Center

Educate, engage, inspire 

“The Kids Can Community Center mission is to educate, engage and inspire children. We operate two core programs to support student success: Early Childhood and Out-Of-School education,” CEO Robert Patterson said. “Many of our parents often work multiple jobs while trying to complete their own education and are sometimes put in a situation of having to choose between basic needs and stable childcare solutions. We continue to value the belief that all children deserve an impactful, enriching educational experience despite any socioeconomic barrier they may encounter.”

The center closed briefly when COVID-19 arrived in Omaha, but school-based and out-of-school programs continue on virtual platforms and childcare is open again, although at reduced capacity and prioritizing families with parents who are essential workers. 

“We can at least give them peace of mind knowing their children are in a safe place while they are on the front lines of serving our community,” Patterson said. “Early childhood education and out-of-school programs are essential for our community and families at Kids Can. We have been impacted by COVID-19, but we have adjusted our program and will continue providing this basic community need.” 

The organization’s roots extend to 1908, which provides important perspective, Patterson said. 

“This is not the first time our organization was in a world that was turned upside down…We have been there for our citizens during depressions, world wars, and yes—pandemics. We were there for each of our families then, we are there for them now, and we will be there for future generations.”


Lutheran Family Services

Safety, hope and well-being for all people

Lutheran Family Services (LFS) provides a spectrum of human care services with a vision of safety, hope and well-being for all people. The people of LFS, who are resourceful and responsive under ordinary circumstances, have found ways to meet the new challenges and increased needs of the community in recent months, President and CEO Stacy Martin said. 

“During the pandemic, we have pursued all available funding and partnership opportunities that will assist us in serving more Nebraskans in need of our programs and services and continue to offer safety, hope and well-being to all who need help during this time of uncertainty and long after,” she said. “In anticipation of the pandemic and to ensure that no client or any Nebraskan in need is denied services, LFS led the region in providing a model for health and human service agencies, shifting our health and human services and programs to a remote telehealth model.” 

LFS has also been providing translation and interpreter services across Nebraska to keep people informed, healthy and safe.

“Our videos have received national recognition, and demand is high for our Global Language Solutions team that has been assisting other nonprofits and institutions requesting our services,” Martin said. “We are now providing those multi-language services for (Nebraska) Governor Ricketts as the official translators of press releases and executive orders.” 


Ronald McDonald House Charities in Omaha (RMHC)

A home filled with hope

RMHC provides a “home away from home” to families traveling to Omaha for a child’s specialized pediatric care, CEO Lindsey Rai Kortan said. “RMHC cares for families as they care for their children.”

The effect of COVID-19’s arrival in Nebraska in mid-March was evident immediately at RMHC’s Omaha facility. All volunteer activities were suspended, increasing the staff’s workload. Common areas were closed off. The children who are hospitalized or receiving medical treatment at area hospitals may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19, so precautions from sanitation to personal protective equipment are stringent. 

“The evolving nature of the pandemic makes it difficult to predict long-term effects. However, discussions have begun regarding future practices,” Kortan said. “The new sanitization protocol will be kept, and perhaps expanded upon. Specific check-in times will be established to ensure operations staff can properly screen and admit families. Procedures are being considered to monitor the health of all guest families during their stay.”


Serving When Help is Needed

“The future is unclear, but we are making plans to ensure we can provide our services in the weeks, months and years to come.”
–  Jill Orton, Regional CEO, American Red Cross


American Red Cross 

Relief and support

The heart of the mission of the American Red Cross is responding to emergencies, and although a pandemic is a relatively uncommon event, the organization was poised to take action. 

“We continue to offer our services and resources in our community, but many of those look different right now,” Regional Chief Executive Officer Jill Orton said. “During times of crisis, we see people who want to help. We have had people who have reached out looking for opportunities to volunteer or to give financially as a way to provide a positive in a time when there seems to be a lot of negative. We’ve also seen several corporate partners step up to support our efforts to provide necessary services to our community. We have had to find new ways to fundraise and recruit volunteers, using virtual avenues, but we are adapting.”

The organization has also adapted to virtual platforms and increased personal precautions, but continues to provide its traditional services along with a new Virtual Family Assistance Center to support individuals and families struggling with loss and grief. 

“The future is unclear, but we are making plans to ensure we can provide our services in the weeks, months and years to come,” Orton said. “We have been adjusting our work throughout the pandemic and will continue to adapt to best meet the needs of the community, while keeping the safety of our volunteers, staff, blood donors, partners and all we serve as our top priority.”


Salvation Army

Doing the most good

The Salvation Army “exists to meet human need wherever, whenever, and however we can,” so it’s not surprising that the organization has stepped up operations to serve people impacted by the pandemic. Basic services continue with extra precautions to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of staff, volunteers and everyone the organization serves. That means making adjustments like modifying food programs to serve grab-and-go meals or to use mobile food distributions platforms in order to adhere to social-distancing and additional health protocols.

“We anticipate that the demand for our services will continue to grow,” Salvation Army officials said. “We again want to reassure the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro that we are here to serve, and that we will continue to be here to serve everyone in need during these uncertain times.”


First Responders Foundation

Supporting first responders

“The Mission of the First Responders Foundation is to serve and honor all our first responders and their families, build appreciation and respect for their work and enhance public safety,” Community Engagement Director Diann Swigart said. “First Responders are there for us 24/7 and our foundation is here for them.”

The organization serves all first responders: law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services, dispatch, emergency room personnel, and more. Programs and projects range from community education, advocacy and appreciation events to direct funding of training and mental health support. 

During the pandemic, a partnership began with a local business, Patriarch Distillers/Soldier Valley Spirits, to convert spirits production to hand sanitizer that has been distributed to nearly 14,000 first responders. 

“We anticipate the need for mental and emotional health of the first responders to increase in the coming months or years depending on the length and outcome of the pandemic and adjusting to the new normal for society,” Swigart said. “We plan to offer more online telehealth and tele-fitness classes even after the pandemic for a greater reach of first responders, and in anticipation of another shutdown.” 


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