Heart Ministry Center’s mission of mercy turns ‘you’ into ‘we’
August 2, 2021
“Hope is a Weapon.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Heart Ministry Center next to Sacred Heart Church in Omaha printed t-shirts with that phrase on the back.
Hope is a weapon against poverty. A weapon against addiction. Against isolation.
Indeed, the Heart Ministry Center’s employees and volunteers personify hope in every smile, handshake and listening ear as they offer job placement skills, health care, food and laundry services to those in need.
Many of the center’s employees are former clients, affectionately called “community members.” As people who have personally experienced fractured families, imprisonment or homelessness, they are a powerful force of hope for others seeking to overcome similar crises.
Alicia Rodriguez is one of those forces.
Rodriguez became entrenched in illegal drugs and gang activity as a teenager, spending more than a decade in prison over two terms. She said she surrendered her life to God while in prison, but after her release, didn’t have a driver’s license, a job or a home.
So, she joined the Heart Ministry Center’s Fresh Start program in November 2019. With the help of a “personal facilitator” (or “life coach”), her life began to change.
“It was humbling to have somebody all up your business,” Rodriguez said, “(but) I started developing character and broke habits that would lead me down the wrong road.”
Rodriguez said she especially relished getting her own home. “When you’re used to living out of a locker, I felt so blessed to have my duplex.”
Rodriguez said Fresh Start participants spend 33 hours a week at the Heart Ministry Center working through a comprehensive program of physical fitness, counseling, budgeting, job skills training and more. Participants receive help with bills and expenses for three months, in addition to a bus pass and gift cards for groceries and necessities.
The center then helps graduates find employment with local businesses and provides six months of follow-up, helping them retain stable housing and reliable transportation.
When Rodriguez graduated from Fresh Start – one of 87 people who have done so over the past five years – Heart Ministry Center hired her to collect food bank donations from area businesses. She now serves as a mission ambassador, giving tours and coordinating volunteers.
“From the person I was three years ago, you wouldn’t recognize me (now),” she said. “God used Heart Ministries as a tool.”
“I’m so thankful for what Jesus has done,” Rodriguez said.
‘DIGNITY FOR ALL’
Rodriguez is just one of many individuals who have found hope and healing through the Heart Ministry Center.
Even the center’s CEO, Mark Dahir, was once a community member in need.
During a career as a commercial banker, Dahir said, he battled a drug addiction and went to prison for multiple DUIs. During rehab he volunteered at the center and later worked there full time. He eventually created the Fresh Start job placement program.
“By being part of something you believe in, over time you start believing in yourself,” he said.
Dahir said the Heart Ministry Center’s outreach revolves around their motto: “Dignity for All.”
“We roll out the red carpet (for those in need),” he said, referencing the center’s deeply personal approach.
“Whether it’s a pandemic or a power outage, each human being’s needs in that situation are different,” he said. “We work hard to get to know people so we can know why they have the real need in the first place.”
COMMITMENT TO SERVE
The Heart Ministry Center began in 1982 as the Sacred Heart (Parish) Human Needs Door Ministry to address the needs of neighbors and families of children attending Sacred Heart School. In 1997, the ministry moved to a building at 31st and Spaulding streets, adopting the name Heart Ministry Center.
In 2002, parish, community and business leaders began raising funds for the construction of a new building near the church. Following its completion in 2005, the ministry formed a board of directors and became an independent 501 (c)3 organization in 2007.
The center’s commitment to those they serve continues to be evident in its modern, state-of-the-art facility, renovated and expanded in 2019.
The food bank is set up “grocery-store style.” Prior to the pandemic, community members could maneuver a cart through the aisles to choose foods to meet their family’s needs and ethnic preferences. Now a drive-thru method is used.
The Monen Healthcare Center houses exam rooms and dental chairs where health practitioners from nearby Creighton University provide a wide range of screenings, physical and occupational therapy, mental health counseling and acute care at no cost to patients.
BRIGHT AND CLEAN
Another corner of the facility houses the Fresh Start Laundromat, operated by participants of the Fresh Start program, which gives them an opportunity to practice the skills necessary for outside employment.
Kay Behrendsen, a community member who has utilized the Heart Ministry Food Bank for 14 years but only recently visited the laundromat, said the facility is noticeably bright and clean with friendly staff.
“I’m grateful for this place,” she said, adding that the laundry facilities in her nearby apartment building were inadequate.
“I don’t want to have to wash a blanket in the bathtub (again),” she said. “You have to wring it out 27 times to get out the soap.”
Dahir said lack of access to clean clothing is a common reason that children miss school in impoverished communities. To meet this need, the Fresh Start Laundromat offers washers and dryers of varying capacities at reduced rates.
When the City of Omaha experienced a power outage due to storms in July, Dahir said, the demand at Fresh Start Laundromat increased even further.
Dahir emphasized that the Heart Ministry Center not only meets basic needs, but provides “dynamic opportunities for people to participate and to move forward into self-sufficiency.” As such, he also dreams of creating multiple enterprises along 24th St. to contribute to the revitalization of north Omaha.
Although the Heart Ministry Center is no longer officially affiliated with Sacred Heart Parish, Jesus’ mission of mercy is still evident throughout the facility.
Dahir, a member of Christ the King Parish in Omaha, spoke of serving Jesus through the poor, referencing Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you do for the least of brothers, you do for me.”
“We strive to understand … the desperation, barriers, turmoil in people’s lives … to share that experience as equals,” he said. “Through that compassion, there’s no ‘you.’ It’s a ‘we.’”
Especially amidst the upheaval of the last 18 months, Dahir said, the center remains a stable source of hope for members of the community.
“Yes, there was a pandemic and race riots and election turmoil, but they weren’t alone,” he said. “We were there, standing side by side.”