At-risk youth and their families may soon have access to a range of community services in one centralized location in Douglas County.
County Juvenile Justice Services officials, the Douglas and Sarpy Counties Learning Community and three Omaha school districts are working together to open the Bridge Family Resource Center, which will serve as a hub to connect families to existing community services.
The center, now an official nonprofit, has been in the works since 2020. Once opened, it will focus on prevention and early intervention to help keep young people out of the juvenile justice system.
Current plans call for the center to co-exist with the Learning Community’s planned third location in West Omaha and serve the Westside, Millard and Ralston school districts. All three recently made financial contributions to help get The Bridge off the ground.
Learning Community CEO Bradley Ekwerekwu said the facility is still in the planning stages, but is proposed to be at 98 and M streets and could open as soon as 2023. Ekwerekwu said that the learning community is in negotiation with local architects to obtain cost proposals for the facility.
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“It is part of our strategic plan to start a third center to get the Millard, Ralston and Westside areas,” Ekwerekwu said. “It will be a one-stop shop. We are trying to find space and a welcoming environment for families who might be at their lowest.
Douglas County already has a Juvenile Assessment Center that diverts youth from the criminal justice system after a citation or charge, but there is a lack of help in the metro area for at-risk children who don’t. have yet to commit a crime, according to a Douglas County Juvenile Justice Report.
Vulnerable youth include those with school attendance issues, those with mental or behavioral problems and those who run away, said Kim Hawekotte, county deputy administrator for juvenile justice. Hawekotte was hired in 2020 and a project like The Bridge is part of her work coordinating miner reform efforts.
“Whether you call it truancy or truancy, there’s a very, very strong correlation between (that and) subsequent involvement in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “If you can really reinforce that prevention and early intervention, you can keep them engaged in school and graduating from high school.”
Hawekotte said instead of providing services, The Bridge will operate on a “hub and spoke” model, serving as a single entry point to match students and families with existing services. In addition to the central office in West Omaha, the nonprofit intends to open locations in North and South Omaha.
Through an evaluation process by staff, people will be able to choose from three care pathways: a general service pathway, a center services pathway and a family support pathway.
In the general path, people will be able to access services such as referral to organizations such as housing assistance or legal aid, non-monetary assistance and emergency financial assistance.
The center’s service pathway offers things like parenting programs, job training, tutoring, mental health counseling and youth activities. In the family coaching journey, families will work with a coach using assessments to track progress towards their own goals while using the coordinated care of the other journeys.
Hawekotte said staff from The Bridge’s central office in west Omaha will travel to different parts of the metro area on various days of the week to serve more communities.
“So it (The Bridge) could be affiliated with churches, a school, another nonprofit, or the learning community in that area,” she said.
Making resources and services more accessible is one of the main reasons education officials and county officials wanted to create a family resource center in Omaha.
The county used private funds for OMNI Institute, a Denver consulting firm, to conduct an assessment of services in Douglas County. The report was completed in 2021 and provided data on the county’s family resource gaps and needs. He also provided information on how metropolitan communities could benefit from a center.
According to the report, Douglas County has two main barriers that disrupt care and limit access to needed services for youth and families: racial and ethnic disparities in formal response systems and limitations in capacity and of cooperation.
“Like other cities and communities across America, Omaha struggles with issues of systemic racism that prevent Black and Brown families and neighborhoods from thriving,” the report’s authors wrote. “As one interviewee put it, families of color are often underserved by strengths-based programs and overserved by punitive systems.”
Hawekotte said by talking with local families, county officials learned that a center must be community-based to be successful.
“Families need to feel like they own and we strongly believe in that,” she said. “So after talking with the families, they told us very, very clearly that when it comes to government, it’s ‘you take my kids, you put them in detention’. And that’s not prevention work.
The OMNI Institute found that Douglas County has a barrier to capacity and collaboration. Some organizations are maxed out while others are not used consistently across all school districts.
The institute said one interviewee explained that there is a lot of planned collaboration once a young person is involved in the justice system for diversion, but a lack of early intervention to help families before they don’t get to that point.
“The result is a patchwork of siled organizations doing their best to meet the needs of families, but there is no coordinating center for the spokes of this wheel,” the report said. “There are organizations that provide navigation and referral resources, but there is no central coordination point where all families can go to prevent the involvement of the formal system.”
The institute said in its report that family resource centers, found across the United States, can help bring community organizations together.
The bridge estimates it will need $700,000 a year to operate and $800,000 to set up the organization, according to a memorandum of understanding the Westside School Board approved on June 13.
Douglas County has a donation commitment of $1 million per year for five years, and the organization will still seek grants from the Nebraska Department of Education and other government agencies.
The agreement stipulates that once The Bridge has a proven concept, it will seek private donors and foundations for operating expenses. So far, the Westside School Board has approved a one-time payment of $125,000 to support the center. The money will come from the district general fund.
The Ralston School Board also approved a deal with The Bridge on May 23 and committed $125,000. Mark Adler, superintendent of Ralston, said the funds will come from the district’s allocation of federal COVID-19 money.
“We think this is a great use of this money and it will hopefully help help our children and our families move away from where we were with COVID,” Adler said. “It’s going to be right in our district, a few blocks from one of our elementary schools, and that’s pretty exciting for us.”
Adler said he was particularly eager for The Bridge to focus on providing arts-centric opportunities and activities for students. The organization has already indicated that it will offer after-school programming focused on the performing arts.
Adler said while he doesn’t know the full breadth of programming The Bridge will offer students, he thinks the center will be “one of a kind” for Omaha because of the way it will make services more accessible to students.
“Any way we can get additional resources to help with what we’re already doing is super powerful,” he said. “With over 60% of our students eligible for a free or reduced price lunch, there is a need for families, and that’s why I think this is a great opportunity.”
The Millard school board approved his deal on June 6. The district is pledging $500,000 of federal COVID relief money, said Jim Sutfin, the former district superintendent. While he retired on June 30, he has been asked to serve on The Bridge’s board this year and he will continue that work, he said.
One of the organization’s first steps, Sutfin said, will be finding the executive director of The Bridge, who will develop the organization’s vision and manage the programs.
“There are some incredibly wonderful nonprofits in our community, and it will help them provide services to all three districts, not just one, and that’s the beauty of it,” Sutfin said. “This type of collaboration will have a generational impact on children.”