Completely KIDS’ newly renovated building is up and running as of this summer, but the construction was actually just the first expansion to take place. The facility improvements are leading the way to for the organization to broaden its educational and enrichment programs and activities, provide opportunities for an increased number of children and families, and expand the hours and days it operates. It all supports Completely KIDS’ in its mission to educate and empower kids and families to create a safe, healthy, successful and connected community.
The $11.3 million project is the culmination of a $10 million capital campaign (the remainder came from a building fund for capital improvements) stemming from a renovation and expansion plan that began more than five years ago and required near-continuous shifting of personnel and programming as the work transpired, really just a matter of course for the staff of Completely KIDS. Adaptability is a hallmark of the organization that started as a local chapter of Camp Fire Girls in the 1920s, transitioned into providing services to build self-sufficiency in boys and girls living in low-income neighborhoods in North and South Omaha, and became the independent and unaffiliated Completely KIDS in 2011 to reflect the local mission and focus. The organization’s ability to change and evolve has been essential to its survival for nearly a century, and certainly during her tenure as well, too, Executive Director Penny Parker said.
"When I was hired as executive director 28 years ago, we were called Camp Fire Boys and Girls. We were a club-based program serving boys and girls in a setting where there were volunteer leaders that did activities with the children. Many of the volunteers were mothers who stayed at home, and as more mothers went to work and there became more competition for programs like ours, our numbers were declining and we really felt like we had to do something different," Parker explained. "We were seeing a steady decline in the number of boys and girls who were interested in the program as well as in the number of volunteers who were available to lead the groups."
Local mission, local focus
A subtle transition away from the club model had already begun nearly 20 years earlier when the organization began providing more services to build self-sufficiency in children living in low-income neighborhoods in North and South Omaha. The 1980s then brought in safety education programs to area schools to educate children on sexual abuse and peer pressure. To supplement the traditional club program and camping experiences already provided, programming expanded to include health and safety components, career days and skill-building. The national organization had also started doing more work with diverse populations through neighborhood outreach, and the local club program soon dissolved.
"The organization started taking a look at where we were going compared to the national office, and that led to our breakaway from (the national organization) to focus on better meeting the needs of the kids in our community, those kids who were most underserved. So we continued to expand our school-based programs and started taking on more schools," Parker said. "We actually were the first agency doing after-school programs at an OPS school."
Services to children in homeless shelters began in 1991. The organization also became the first to start an after-school program, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Hall, for immigrant children. The face of the organization changed from one whose club members devoted their time to service opportunities and an appreciation for the outdoors to one meeting the basic needs of urban families whose children needed a safe place after school.
Administratively, the organization’s staffing, meeting and even parking needs also had changed as well. The agency rented space in a succession of buildings over the years.
"We moved probably four or five times because we couldn’t find space to house our growing needs," Parker said. In the early 2000s, the organization established headquarters in the building at 26th and St. Mary’s, which not only housed staff but also some of the programming.
"We came here for several reasons. We were seeing a long waiting list at the schools in the neighborhood (because) the schools said we could only serve a certain number of kids based on the space they had available. So one of the impetuses for buying this building initially was to make sure we could serve those children on the waiting list, primarily from Liberty Elementary and Jackson Elementary," Parker said. The organization also wanted to provide activities for non-school days and offsite services for children living in homeless shelters "where they could have some of the same experiences as other children."
In 2005, the Snack Pack Program, now known as the Weekend Food Program, was launched to ensure that children have food on the weekends. Expanded family services also became part of onsite programming, augmenting the after-school program through schools and homeless shelters.
New name, new space
In the 21st century, it had become apparent that additional transformation was necessary for the organization to most effectively serve Omaha’s urban neighborhoods, Parker said. In 2011, the organization become an independent, unaffiliated organization and changed its name to Completely KIDS.
"I think changing our name was one of the best things we ever did. We went through a long process before this, and it was a difficult decision and one we did not take lightly. But in the long run, it was better for our children and our families and our agency," Parker said. "We had spent a lot of time explaining who we weren’t. The new name better reflects our services to families, children and the community."
Similarly, the recent expansion and renovation demonstrate commitment, Parker said.
"It makes a statement. It really shows that we as an agency are making an investment in this neighborhood. That emphasizes the importance and the value we see in the parents and the kids that we serve," she said.
Jim Landen, chairman and CEO of Security National Bank, praised the renovation project.
"Completely KIDS knew they needed to be located in the neighborhood. They efficiently acquired an existing building and made improvements to it to meet the needs of the young people they were serving," he said, adding that he and his wife, Diny, have supported the organization in many ways for approximately 20 years. "We have been consistent donors and followers and admirers of Completely KIDS… It’s all about helping kids in need. They’ve created after-school activities and summertime activities for young people and they have identified gaps in these young peoples’ lives. I think they’ve done a beautiful job of understanding what the needs are and meeting them."
Community donors raised $10 million for the project.
"The charitable community saw the needs and committed to making it happen. It’s a great example of what can happen when an organization is well-managed and is truly meeting the needs of the constituents it serves. Dollars flow to organizations that have the capacity to present that case to the donors," he said. "Completely KIDS does a very good job giving you information that is compelling for their case and why they need resources to meet the needs of these young people."
Nancy Edick, the Lois G. Roskens dean of the College of Education at the University of Nebraska Omaha, is a Completely KIDS board member and co-chaired the community capital campaign with her husband, Bob.
"Completely KIDS simply needed more space to do more good work," she said. "A few specific examples include the weekend food program supporting more hungry families, partnerships like Omaha Bridges Out of Poverty utilizing space to deliver services, a teaching kitchen to help children and families prepare healthy meals, and on and on… Completely KIDS is a thriving organization that is impacting children and families by providing education and support that helps lead families on paths to independence. Their success has resulted in more families reaching out to them, and more community partners collaborating."
More participants, more choices
Ann Lawless has worked for Completely KIDS for 16 years, hired upon graduation after completing a practicum with the organization, and now serves as the director of community-based programs. She said she is pleased to see more dedicated space for additional offerings like the new Homework Diner program and estimates the organization will be able to triple the number of participants in various programs including on Saturdays and during school breaks.
"We can serve more children; the space is so much more suitable for after-school programming and we can do such amazing things for kids and also our adults; in our evolution, we decided we can’t serve kids in a silo and we have to serve families, too," she said. "I have so much pride in what our parents are doing. Some of them are learning to read, learning English and getting their GEDs. It’s not easy and it’s not fast."
Lawless also said the increased number of enrichment programs now possible in the renovated facility creates "empowering" choices for parents who might not otherwise be able to afford to enroll their children in activities that reflect their interests. She also said she looks forward to serving more teenagers.
"We now have a dedicated space for older kids; they recognize and know that and they want to be here," she explained, adding that a teen employment program creates junior support staff positions that help youth gain basic skills and experience enhanced by mentoring relationships and biweekly workshops on various hard and soft job skills. "We work with them on their future goals and how can we work with them to get to those."
College student Joe Lukowski is a Completely KIDS alum who was part of the 2015 pilot that became the Teen Employment Program.
"While many would think the Teen Employment Program is a good experience that looks good on a resume, it was so much more to me. I was able to help the same kids I once was, while also gaining various professional and life skills through training and various other activities with the Completely KIDS professional staff," he said. "Being able to help and honestly have fun with the kids was so very enriching and rewarding to me. Knowing I may have had a positive impact on their lives, even maybe for just a few minutes, is so very humbling."
Lukowski plans to go into the field of medicine.
"Probably pediatrics," he said. "My ultimate goal is to help as many people as I can."
Fostering hope, fostering change
Facilitating the vision of a better future for young people and their families is all part of the bigger picture and larger mission of Completely KIDS, Lawless said.
"It’s about hope and giving families what they need to change their situation. The hope and dream is that the cycle of poverty ends with the generation we’re serving," she said. "We’re actually making the change that will put them in a better position going forward, and there’s an impact in the community, a ripple effect."
Mike Hornacek, president and CEO of Together, agreed that addressing intergenerational poverty goes beyond the level of the individual or even the family. "That facility has a lot of networking capabilities and there’s a large-scale impact that grows outside those walls."
Hornacek, who describes his organization as one that "focuses on current, basic needs and emergency services for families and individuals that are homeless or near-homeless," said that during Completely KIDS renovation, Together (located only a few blocks away) provided operational space for its Weekend Food Program for nearly a year, but the organizations work together regularly for the benefit of their shared neighbors.
"We serve a lot of the same families and individuals," he said. "We mirror each other really well…It’s critical to look at what each organization provides and determine what your specific gaps are and how you can utilize each other’s resources to be able to apply or offer a better comprehensive array of services for the people we are serving. We’re pretty fortunate in Omaha to not have the scale of issues a lot of cities do, but we still have poverty and homelessness. We are very cognizant of the fact that this is a problem that has been going on for decades and is increasingly getting worse... The way to address the issues we’re facing is to make sure our kids have the care, the support, the resources and the healthy community so that all our kids have same opportunities to grow up to be successful, contributing members of the community."
The collaboration with Together is just one of more than 100 relationships Completely KIDS has fostered to date including formal partnerships recently forged with Omaha Bridges Out of Poverty, Inc. and Ronald McDonald House Charities in Omaha to provide after-school and family services for their clients.
"We can’t be all things to all people. We want to be really good at what we’re doing," Parker said. "One of the questions you get as a nonprofit is, ‘‘How are you different from other organizations?’ I think we’re doing some unique things here that will be very apparent to the community."
Promoting mission, promoting creativity
Kristin Pluhacek, a visual artist and Metropolitan Community College instructor who’s worked with Completely KIDS on several projects a year since 2008, has helped create a youth-centric ambiance for the new facility that promotes creativity and reflects the organization’s purpose and mission.
"We do a combination of projects that create something for a space—a practical application— but what I’m also trying to do is incorporate some fine arts elements into everything," she said. "Some of the art involves the history, but a lot of it is images of the kids or is from the kids; you can see their hand in the making of the artwork."
Art in various mediums appears throughout the building, from donated pieces by local and international artists to works Pluhacek and other artists created with Completely KIDS youth before and after renovation to longstanding art that has found new life in the remodeled facility.
"Larger organizations tend to feature a piece of artwork that defines their space. What Completely KIDS does is continue to add to their space, incorporating these art experiences," Pluhaceck said. "They want the art, but they really want the kids to have the experience of making it."
Spaces were designed to be flexible and functional, with movable and multipurpose fixtures and furniture. Some of the new features include Teresa’s Closet for sorting and distributing in-kind donations; the Ruth & Bill Scott Fit KIDS Room, a gym-like space for youth and parents; the Hawks Homework Diner where after-school program participants can enjoy a meal while doing homework under the guidance of a tutor/teacher (and including parents once a week); and Amy’s Teaching Kitchen and Mimi’s Kitchen, a teaching kitchen for kids and adults and a fully outfitted commercial kitchen, respectively.
Other features include the Deb & Bruce Grewcock Imagination Station, a STEM-focused maker’s space honoring the CEO and chairman of the board for Kiewit, which completed the construction on the renovation and expansion; the Parker Family Foundation Creative Learning Room; the McGowan Family Foundation Technology Room; the Bay Family Library; the Ann & Ken Stinson Teen Room; the Joyce Mammel Music Room; a training room; a health and wellness room; a curriculum room; and Collaboration/Integrity/Inspiration adult education classroom spaces named for Completely KIDS core values.
The Dorothy H. & Leland J. Olson Weekend Food Room now occupies the space that previously housed both a kitchen and weekend food room and will allow the Weekend Food Program to grow from serving 460 kids to serving 930 kids within approximately three years.
As it has since Completely KIDS’ progenitor launched a century ago, flexibility will be a key factor in the organization’s continued growth, Parker said.
"It’s going to be an evolution. With any project, you have a plan and you have to be flexible. We’re going to learn from the kids and the families as to what their needs are and we’ll be looking through our new strategic plan about how we’ll be able to maximize the space here," she said. "The needs of the community will dictate what we need to do. And maybe we’ll find out that who we’ve been in the past isn’t what we’re going to be in the future."
Quality leadership, quality programming
Hornacek lauds Parker herself as another force in moving the organization forward. "Completely KIDS would not be the fixture it is without her leadership."
"What I like about working here and why I’ve been here so long is that we are open to change and I’m passionate about families. In developing programs, Penny has always been open to having conversations about what we need to do, and being able to help design those and have a role in those keeps me going," Lawless said. "I know the quality of the programs we run at Completely KIDS, and it is a place I would want my own child."
Edick said now that renovation and expansion are complete, she looks forward to watching the organization do even more good in the Omaha community.
"Completely KIDS is changing the lives of hundreds of children and families in our community through the delivery of high-quality, high-impact programming," she said. "It’s been a privilege to help support their success, and the building has been a dream – not just for those of us who have helped advocate for Completely KIDS’ good work, but for the families who are now able to have a home away from home where they feel supported and cared for."
The process of planning and undergoing a project of this scale is daunting, but the results speak for themselves, Parker said.
"The kids and families—seeing their joy makes it all worth it."
"I know the quality of the programs we run at Completely KIDS, and it is a place I would want my own child."
~ Ann Lawless, Director, Community-based Programs, Completely KIDS
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