Lincoln's Good Neighbor Community Center Focuses on Food

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Published:
November 22, 2017

Center director Tom Randa talks about how, after arriving in the US as an immigrant from Kenya, local non-profits helped him to survive. Now he helps immigrants and refugees and low-income families, giving out 350 food baskets this Thanksgiving.

Question: The Good Neighbor Community Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, distributes food baskets every Thanksgiving. How many baskets will you distribute this year? What do the baskets contain? How are people who need the baskets identified? 

Last year we served 305 families with Thanksgiving food baskets. This year we hope to assist about 350 families. We have received 6,324 pounds of food. The food baskets contain non-perishable food so that it does not go bad for those who come for their food a few weeks before Thanksgiving.

One day before Thanksgiving we give out turkeys (or vouchers for our Muslim brothers and sisters so that they can buy halal turkeys or chicken). We see more than 300 families coming for perishable food and turkeys or vouchers the day before Thanksgiving. Last year, 111 households with a total of 529 family members came for perishable food/turkey a day before Thanksgiving.
Pathfinders from the College View Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Piedmont Park Seventh-day Adventist Church conduct food drives for the center intended for the Thanksgiving and Christmas (non-perishable) food baskets. In the past years, the Piedmont Park Church has assisted us in getting vouchers that help Muslim families get a bird on their table for Thanksgiving.
The program assists low-income families.

The Good Neighbor Community Center is a joint mission of the local Seventh-day Adventist churches. How many churches contribute to the center? Is the center fully funded by the local churches? 

The local Seventh-day Adventist churches started the Good Neighbor Community Center in 1973 as a joint mission. They ran the organization under the church banner until July 2004 when the Good Neighbor Community Center became recognized as exempt under section 501(c)(3). 

The center now has its own Board of Directors with representatives from the local churches and the community. The Kansas-Nebraska Conference owns the building and supports the center with a subsidy. There are also five local Adventist churches that provide a subsidy and about five local non-Adventist churches that send subsidies or grants to support our mission.
But the center is not fully funded by the local churches. Income subsidy from the churches is about 0.06% of our total revenue.

6,324 pounds of food were donated this Thanksgiving.

I believe that you recently hosted your annual Samples of the World fundraiser. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how this event began? 

Samples of the World started in 2009 in an effort to get some extra income for the center and also celebrate 35 years of service in our community. This gala dinner features foods and desserts made by immigrants, refugees, and friends of the Center who want to give back. It is now a signature event, sponsored by various organizations and families who come out to try foods from around the world. The evening also includes entertainment through music from other cultures for the guests to enjoy.

One of your Christmas projects is providing toys for grandparents in need of toys to give to their grandchildren for Christmas. When did this project begin? How many grandparents do you provide to? 

The project started around 2004, and we plan for about 60 grandparents. Due to high demand for this program, grandparents can only receive toys every other year. These are grandparents from low-income families.

During the Christmas season we also continue to distribute food baskets so that families in need have food on their tables during the holidays. There is a high demand for the food baskets.

Can you tell us about one occasion in your work with the community center that really stands out to you or that you are particularly proud of? How long have you worked at the center?

I started working at the center in November 2007 as the program director/IT technician. I became the executive director in April 2012. At this time I was very involved in screening individuals who needed referrals to a Homeless Prevention Rapid Rehousing program since the program only took people referred by a community center or partner. For about three years, these federal funds helped many in Lincoln from becoming homeless. I still meet clients who express how grateful they are that they still have a roof over their heads because of our input.
I do what I do because I came into this country with only $600 in my pocket after living in poverty in my home country, Kenya, for 18 years. I was going to attend Bellevue Community College but church members in Kirkland SDA Church and Bellevue SDA Church in Washington state came together to send me to Union College where I got my education. 

While in school, I met very generous people who introduced me to non-profit organizations in Lincoln, Nebraska, that helped me get clothes, food, and other essentials I needed to survive. I say survive because I had a lot on my shoulders: supporting a family back home, coming up with the school fees difference that the church did not raise, and making sure I did well in school so that I did not fail my classes. I worked over 80 hours per week during summer breaks, and when school was on, I still had to put in 40 hours/week plus an average of 16 hours of class time (without factoring in time to do homework!). Education is expensive — especially for a non-resident who is not eligible for federal loans. But God came through for me, and I was able to graduate in 2005.  
When I got an opportunity to work at GNCC, it was a no brainer. I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life, just like other people had done for me.

How are the needs in the community you serve in Lincoln different to the needs in other communities? What sorts of populations are you primarily serving?

I am not very familiar with programs running in other communities, but I believe that, just like Lincoln, other communities have basic and emergency needs that their communities try to address. The biggest population we serve is that of low-income families. Then we have refugees or immigrants who come primarily for refugee/immigrant services.  

The Pathfinders packed bags. 

The Good Neighbor Community Center was founded in 1973. How have the needs of the community changed in the intervening decades? How have the forms of assistance you offer evolved? 

There may have been a slight change around 2004 when the center was incorporated. But GNCC has constantly addressed basic and emergency needs throughout the years. Food and household items have remained a constant service. From archived records, I can tell there was emphasis on youth programs during the early days of the center’s formation, but youth programs faded away with time.
In 1999, we started helping new refugees coming to Lincoln through the Middle East North Africa Hope Program, which is still part of the services we provide.

How do you ensure you are really helping people and not simply enabling people to remain in adverse (or even destructive) situations? 

The Good Neighbor Community Center takes time to interact with its clients, especially those with appointments and refugees/immigrants coming through Middle East North Africa Hope Project. 

Our mission is “Helping People Help Themselves.” As we provide assistance, we emphasize giving clients tools and resources that will help them become self-sufficient. We push for our clients to take English classes, computer classes, and GED classes (which all take place at the center) so that they can get better paying jobs. This helps immigrants to advance their communication skills which are essential in securing jobs and advancing their careers.
When assisting with rent or utility payments, we only assist clients who have eviction or shut-off notices. This way we help prevent them from becoming homeless.

Do you think that the Seventh-day Adventist church in general is engaged enough with local communities? What advice would you have for someone who wants to help in his or her community, especially in this upcoming holiday season? 

I have seen some churches that are very involved with their communities, and some that are not very involved at all. I have also noticed that when our church leaders are involved in the community and push their members to be involved, it is very effective, and members from those churches get involved. Over the years, they come up with great ideas that impact the community on a large scale. But I can also understand how hard it is for some members who have full-time jobs. Balancing work, family, and getting engaged in the community is very hard to do.

I am of the opinion that if you want to help in your community, find something you are passionate about. It could be the youth, the homeless, refugees, the sick, bereaved family, or the hungry. Then find an organization that focuses on those areas, or start something with your church/friends to address those issues. 

Helping can even be a simple gesture like sharing your old clothes or the ones you or your family members have outgrown. There are many opportunities to get involved during the holiday season. For example, Pathfinders do food drives in some churches here in Lincoln and volunteer their time in some non-profits as well. You could give food to a needy family through that food drive or start one in your church or work place. You could buy an extra toy to share with a needy family. You can sign up to ring the bell for Salvation Army! It does a wonderful job in our community, and we partner with the Salvation Army in a lot of programs.

Center director Tom Randa.

 

Images courtesy of Tom Randa

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