From the Heart
Hope is mounting a comeback in North Omaha. The Heart Ministry Center (HMC) aims to assist people seeking food, clothing, shelter and financial assistance, using hope to combat poverty, addiction and isolation.
Indeed, the HMC’s employees and volunteers personify hope in every smile, handshake and listening ear as they offer job placement skills, healthcare, a choice food pantry and laundry services to those in need. The HMC currently provides food to more than 1,000 families per week and distributes 600,000 pounds of food per month – and impacts from the pandemic have only heightened the need for assistance.
“The HMC is a community center more than anything, and the facility came about because of the need in North Omaha and the city in general. But this is a place for anyone in need. We offer a variety of services, but more than that, we serve an experience that people are part of. This work involves love, communication, action, and energy,” said Mark Dahir, CEO at the Heart Ministry Center.
While the HMC displays core values of community, compassion, accountability and excellence, Dahir explains that there is truly only one rule at the center: treat everyone well.
The HMC originated nearly 40 years ago as the Sacred Heart Human Needs Door Ministry under the leadership of Father Jim Scholz and Sister Mary Ann Murphy. The Door Ministry provided food, clothing, and other basic needs for neighbors and families of children enrolled at Sacred Heart School in North Omaha. In 1997, the ministry moved to a building at 31st and Spaulding Street and became known as the ‘Heart Ministry Center.’
Recognizing a need for further development, numerous community and business leaders raised funds for the construction of a new building to house the HMC in 2002. Construction wrapped up in May 2005, and the current center, now located at 24th and Binney Street, opened. With construction and operation of the new building, the HMC formed a board of directors and became a fully independent 501 (c)3 organization in 2007.
During the first two years at the new location, the HMC experienced tremendous growth alongside a rapid increase in need. In response, the center became Omaha’s first “choice” food pantry, where clients are allowed to select their own foods. At this time, the HMC also partnered with Creighton University to provide free, basic medical care which included a dental clinic. Shortly after, other services were added: a mentoring program for at-risk youth, free legal services, social work and job placement services. By 2015, the HMC was providing these different services to an average of 7,000 people per month.
The Center’s commitment to those they serve continues to be evident in its modern, state-of-the-art facility, renovated and expanded in 2020. The most recent improvements expanded healthcare offerings by increasing the number of medical rooms and dental chairs – and now vision care and mental health services are being added. The center also runs a social enterprise laundromat and seeks to open similar enterprises soon.
Services to Fill Growing COMMUNITY Needs
The HMC serves residents of Omaha in numerous ways, and the most direct form of aid comes from the choice food pantry, the largest and busiest in the state of Nebraska. The two-story, supermarket-style pantry offers clients a choice to choose from a variety of high-quality bread, meat, produce and canned or boxed foods. The improvements to the food pantry arrived at a miraculously good time, as the pandemic increased the need for food assistance.
“We never closed during the pandemic. We were open six days a week and at the peak we served 700,000 pounds of food a month to 1,500 families in need. But this was nothing new for North Omaha – this community is used to dealing with adversity and is as resilient as the day is long,” Dahir said.
In recent years, the HMC has expanded services to offer more than just food and necessities. Social workers and case managers – now referred to as Way Forward Navigators – can meet with clients individually to discuss assistance or referrals to other resources for SNAP, housing, finances, transportation, parenting, and other areas of need. The HMC offers other services and programs on a weekly or monthly basis. Attorneys provide free legal advice on civil matters related to family law, employment and landlord-tenant disputes. Most recently, a mental health counselor has been hired.
Another crucial service offered by the HMC is the Fresh Start job program, aimed at helping community members move forward into self-sufficiency by forming a comprehensive game plan that covers all bases from financial planning to combating addiction. “The most intensive form of social outreach is the Fresh Start job program,” said Dahir. “It offers an opportunity to participate in something greater than yourself, and participants only get out what they put in. Another strength of the program lies in the fact that we will work with anyone who’s willing to put the time and effort into bettering themselves. Our Way Forward Navigators work daily with community members to offer the greatest chance of success in becoming self-sufficient.”
The Fresh Start Laundromat, operated by graduates of the Fresh Start program, gives graduates an opportunity to practice the skills necessary for outside employment, and also serves a community in need of access to clean clothes. Statistics show that 20% of children lack access to clean laundry and this is a primary reason why children miss school.
Jamie Walker, President and CEO of Jet Linx, and wife, Haley, served as honorary chairs at the HMC’s 16th annual event on Sept. 2, 2021. However, the Walkers have been involved with the organization for more than 15 years and have introduced and educated many others on the importance of what the center provides to the community.
The Holy Smokes fundraising event follows a casual, neighborhood barbecue format – there is no auction or raffle, and it is fueled by food and fellowship. The event in 2021 raised nearly $250,000 for the Heart Ministry Center. “When we were introduced to this organization, we grew more and more fond of it, so it was an easy decision to get involved. Then my childhood friend Mark Dahir joined about eight years ago, and it has been such an amazing journey to be a part of. However, none of this work would be possible without the generosity of many others, as a part of Holy Smokes and beyond, all of which contribute to the incredible things happening at the HMC,” said Walker.
With the recent improvements to the Center, including the success of the laundromat, Dahir dreams of creating multiple enterprises along 24th Street to contribute to the revitalization of north Omaha. “We want to create a cluster of consumer activity again. This happens through dynamic opportunities for people to move forward into self-sufficiency,” Dahir explained.
Learn more about the Heart Ministry Center at heartministrycenter.org.
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