120 and Growing
Years of Faith in Action - Luther Family Services
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focused and flexible, lutheran family services celebrates 120 years thanks to the vision and adaptability of its advocates and contributors
Fresh out of grad school in 1976, Ruth Henrichs started at Lutheran Family Services as a pregnancy and adoption counselor. She moved on to marriage and family counseling and up through the ranks until she reached her present-day position as president of the statewide family services organization. “I came on when this was pretty focused on children,” Henrichs said. “Instead of having to move all over to try all the different things we do, I just grew here as LFS grew.”
Ever since its inception in 1892 as two orphanages in Omaha and Fremont, LFS has had a mission. “We’re about building and strengthening families,” Henrichs said. “People don’t live in isolation. It might be just one person coming to see us, but they live in a family, no matter how they define it.”
While the orphanages have long since given way to a full-fledged care center with adoption, counseling, and refugee services, its mission has never been altered. “We express God’s love for all people,” Henrichs said. “Emphasis on all. Our mission doesn’t say ‘Lutheran neighbors.’ Ninety percent of the people we serve aren’t Lutherans.”
Three core tenets manifest the organization’s mission: Behavioral health, children’s services, and community services. Just a few of the specific ways these are expressed are through immigration services, employment help, life skills support, and assistance filing for restraining orders, citizenship, green cards, and visas. Add to that the complexity of funding a nonprofit organization of such size, and the human care service industry can seem a very daunting field indeed.
“On my worst day, all I have to do is go home, stop, and think of someone today who got help,” Henrichs said. “Someone had someone to talk to. A child’s getting fed. A girl has someone to be there at the hospital when she delivers. What I do is a part of making sure that all happens.”
Henrichs all but bursts with pride when she discusses the staff of LFS. For example, she noted with enthusiasm that on any given day, anywhere between 10 and 30 languages are spoken at the LFS offices. “People who work here need a paycheck like anyone else, but these people are called,” she said. “It’s part of their passion. They have the courage to walk into many situations.”
One situation Henrichs witnessed for herself was the nonprofit’s first international adoption six years ago in China. With its roots in child services (remember those two orphanages that started it all more than a century ago?), LFS has long been a leader in adoption programming. “We’re always open to new ideas,” she said. In the ’80s, the organization was one of the first to put its toe in the waters of open adoption. “A birth mom would tell us what she’d want in a family. She could select on paper a prospective family. It’s really changed.”
Courage isn’t required only on the field. Those in the office need it too. “We’ve never been afraid to take on unpopular causes,” Henrichs said. “And it takes courage to have a program that has the word sex in it.” The organization began an incest program twenty years ago that ministers to both victim and perpetrator, and ten years ago, it introduced a program addressing the needs of children acting out sexually. “We do not see ourselves as the judge of a person. Someone else has done that.”
After 36 years at LFS, Henrichs doesn’t do field work anymore but don’t start thinking that she doesn’t get to see remarkable stories first hand. Last April, she had the privilege of greeting a refugee family alongside Mayor Jim Suttle at the Omaha airport. “Usually by the time families reach the Midwest by plane, they’ve been traveling for a long time,” Henrichs said. “Everyone’s tired. It’s good to have someone to greet you.” The Mayor was apparently so impressed with the experience that he asked Henrichs to make sure he met the family again in exactly a year to see how they were getting on. “We are beginning slowly to embrace that global society here,” she said. “And we’re learning that a global society means others can come here, not just us going there. We’re richer for it.”
On August 26, that richness was celebrated in North Platte (a central location for the smaller towns serviced by the statewide organization) with the first of two parties for LFS’ 120th anniversary. Invitees from Omaha and Lincoln may find it easier to attend the La Vista festivities on the 16th of September, where Henrichs hopes that some guests may be able to see their adoption counselors from as many as 40 years ago.