October 30, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lutheran Family Services President and CEO Ruth Henrichs remembers meeting a young man a year ago who had a tattoo on his lower arm that read “Born to Lose.” When she asked him about it, he told her that life had always been against him—that he had been “born to lose.” That was, of course, until he came to LFS, he said.

“There are lots of people who come to LFS on a daily basis who have this sort of invisible tattoo on their hearts that says ‘Born to Lose,’” Henrichs says. “I want them to leave here after receiving help with a different invisible tattoo.”

Strengthening the individual, the family, and the community is how LFS intends to change those heart tattoos. And that’s exactly the mission the organization has followed since its humble beginnings in 1892.

“When you work somewhere like LFS, no matter how difficult the day is, you always go home knowing that someone’s life was changed because you came to work.” —Ruth Henrichs

Over its many years within the Omaha community, LFS has grown into a faith-based nonprofit providing multiple services in over 30 locations across Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas to over 35,000 individuals annually regardless of age, race, religion, or income. In other words, just because it’s called Lutheran Family Services doesn’t mean you have to be Lutheran to receive aid.

Mental health counseling, sexual abuse treatment, substance abuse treatment, foster care, adoption, pregnancy counseling, family support services, immigrant and refugee services—they do it all and more for people 
in need.

“When you work somewhere like LFS, no matter how difficult the day is, you always go home knowing that someone’s life was changed because you came to work,” says Henrichs, who worked as a pregnancy and adoption counselor, a marriage and family therapist, and Interim CEO with LFS before she became its leader in 1985.

She believes LFS’ work is part of the fabric of the community. For many years, nonprofits used to work alone, focusing only on their own work. Now, however, many organizations, including LFS, embrace the idea of uniting their limited resources with other organizations’ limited resources to provide a bigger impact.

“There’s a rich diversity of nonprofits in the Omaha community, and we all offer difference services. Together, we have a collective impact. It’s important that we all work cooperatively so that our community can be strong. Communities are only as strong as their weakest link. Everyone has problems in life. Sometimes, those problems are so great that people need the help of the community. When the community helps those people, it strengthens the community as a whole.”

Nancy K. Johnson, volunteer and president of LFS’ Forever Families Guild, agrees. “Children are the future, as cliché as it sounds,” she says. “If, for example, we can get in there and help a single parent learn to be a better parent, that trickles down into our community to make it stronger.”

“We work with families and children to increase academic performance and help with obstacles, like attendance, to make sure the students are doing well with their education.” —Nellie Beyan

Johnson, who also works in real estate as the senior vice president of CBRE-MEGA, was introduced to LFS about 15 years ago through Adoption Links Worldwide, which later aligned with LFS. She began attending fundraising events for the organization and met Cheryl Murray, who was the executive director of Adoption Links at that time. “I really admire Cheryl a lot. She’s passionate and dedicated to the cause of helping young women and children. She’s one of those kinds of gals that you can’t say no to,” she laughs.

Clearly, Johnson couldn’t say no to Murray, now a development officer and guild liaison for LFS, because she was drawn into more volunteer work with LFS. “I started volunteering more for them, and I became the president for LFS’ Forever Families [Guild].”

As the guild president, Johnson works to increase fundraising and gain more exposure through other organizations. “There’s an organization called CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) that I’ve been involved with before through my real estate work. So I mentioned the Forever Families Guild to them, and they’ve picked the guild up as their philanthropy of choice for the next year.

“People are always afraid to volunteer because they think it takes too much time or money, but it really is simple…LFS can do a lot on limited funds and time because the group is so passionate.”

One such passionate supporter is Nellie Beyan, who works as a Family Support Liaison with LFS in the Omaha community and the Omaha Public Schools district.

“We work with families and children to increase academic performance and help with obstacles, like attendance, to make sure the students are doing well with their education,” Beyan says. “OPS has a large population of Burmese refugees [the Karen] that we work with, too.”

Working with refugees and immigrants comes easily for Beyan because she, herself, is an Omaha transplant. She moved in April 2000 from her home country of Liberia to work as an international volunteer with LFS. Later, she enrolled at University of Nebraska-Omaha to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work with the help of sponsors Mr. and Mrs. Howard Hawks and Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Alseth.

“I underwent a similar experience and hardships that most non-Americans undergo when they first come to America…I can put myself in their shoes because I know exactly what it’s like to come into a country with a new culture and new way of life, leaving family behind. It’s a difficult thing, the assimilation process. It’s very gradual, but it’s made easier by the available resources.”

“People are always afraid to volunteer because they think it takes too much time or money, but it really is simple.” —Nancy K. Johnson

Beyan likes working with LFS because she feels that the organization is everywhere in the community. “Imagine what Omaha would be like without LFS,” she muses. “I can’t even picture that. Without all that they have to offer, especially for all of the immigrants and refugees, people would be totally lost.”

Understanding just how many people in the community rely on LFS, Henrichs and the Board of Directors are taking major steps to improve LFS’ outreach and work in Omaha.

“Whether we’re talking children’s needs or refugee and immigrant needs, we’ve recently decided our focus in the program development should be primarily on prevention and early intervention,” she explains. “Many services are ‘fire truck’ in that they respond when a crisis happens. We need to become ‘smoke detectors’ and catch issues before they become bigger problems.”

Another improvement? They’ve been at their 24th & Dodge location for more than a decade, and they’ve slowly been acquiring the city block between Dodge and Douglas streets in order to renovate and build more space. “Many that we serve are in the heart of the city,” Henrichs says. “We’re going to stay right here.”

And here is exactly where the community wants them to stay.

Lutheran Family Services will host their annual Wicker & Wine® Basket Auction fundraiser on Nov. 7 at Mid-America Center (One Arena Way) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, from 5-7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40. For more information, visit lfsneb.org or call 402-342-7038.