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Lutheran Family Services: Stepping up to meet the needs of people in crisis
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Lutheran Family Services: Stepping up to meet the needs of people in crisis

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What began with two orphanages (one in Fremont and one in Omaha) in the early 1890s has grown into a nonprofit that serves individuals, families and communities statewide.

Today, 125 years later, Lutheran Family Services has offices in 11 cities as far west as North Platte and as far east as Council Bluffs. Its Lincoln presence extends more than 40 years.

After adding a foster care program in 1927, what is now called Lutheran Family Services evolved into a multi-faceted social services organization, offering everything from refugee resettlement aid and veteran assistance to marriage and family counseling and substance abuse programs.

“Over the years, Lutheran Family Services stepped out with moral courage to take on tough issues,” said President and CEO Ruth Henrichs, who has headed up the organization since 1984.

LFS’s services fall under three program focuses: children’s services, behavioral health and community support services, with behavioral health being the largest. When Lancaster County opted to privatize mental health services in 2014, LFS took on a huge chunk of that responsibility. It assumed the county’s medication management program, substance abuse and mental health therapies and programs, along with community support services.

Community support services directly support refugees, immigrants and victims of international human trafficking. Caseworkers focus on advocacy, cultural orientation, education, immigration legal services, employment and job readiness training.

$25 million budget

Employing around 350 staff statewide, LFS has a $25 million budget and impacts more than 45,000 people annually. Half of its financial backing comes from federal and state contracts, faith-based organizations, private individual contributions, United Way (nine counties) and the other half from program fees.

Children’s services focus on intervention, well-being and behavioral health. Three Centers for Healthy Families promote healthy family behaviors through parent education and support, family and community awareness, and early detection and intervention for improved physical and mental health. LFS continues to be involved with foster care and adoptions as well. Counseling and treatment programs for children and youth, like the sexual abuse treatment program RSafe (Lincoln, Omaha and Council Bluffs), are also available.

Lutheran Family Services stepped up to the plate when it was invited to community stakeholder meetings involving several health care entities and the City of Lincoln to discuss how to better integrate medical and mental health care.

“What they needed was an ambassador to take the vision to reality,” explained Todd Reckling, vice president of programs for LFS.

Working with the Community Health Endowment, Lincoln Mayor’s Office, Region V Services, both Lincoln hospitals, Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, the People’s Health Center and others, LFS developed an integrated care model. It included bringing the People’s Health Center, a federally qualified health center, together with mental health services provided by LFS.

“Our mission has called us to be a part of the community and respond to community needs,” said Henrichs.

Health 360 clinic

In 2015, Health 360 Integrated Care Clinic opened in the former Lancaster County Community Mental Health Center near 17th and South streets. It moved to its new location at 2301 O St. in May 2016, along with all of LFS’s Lincoln services. Also housed under the same roof are a People’s Health Center location and Genoa QoL Pharmacy.

“It’s the way of the future,” said Henrichs.

The building is purposely located in the middle of six areas identified by the Community Health Endowment as underserved, making access to mental and medical health services more convenient for those Lincolnites. “What we brought to that area is not just accessibility but affordability,” Reckling shared.

At Health 360, a team of behavioral and physical health specialists consult about each patient, determining their medical and mental health needs right then and there. Clients can also get referrals for more specialized care to meet their total needs, Reckling explained.

“Lots of organizations are coming in to partner and deliver services,” Henrichs said. Some include Community Crops’ weekly veggie distribution, a Legal Aid attorney who offers services once a week and Southeast Community College’s language classes for refugees.

In 2015, with one integrated care team in place, Health 360 experienced 2,047 patient visits, Reckling said. The average client visits four to six times a year.

In 2016, when LFS added another care team, the number of monthly encounters rose from 186 a month in 2015 to 403 a month. Through August 2017, the average was 927 encounters a month.

Through its community support program, LFS assists clients 18 and older diagnosed with a severe and persistent mental health condition. It can help them with things like securing employment, transportation, housing, behavioral therapy and making community connections.

LFS specifically tries to find employers and landlords who will work with the client, said Julie Fisher-Erickson, director of behavioral health for Southeast Nebraska.

“We give hope,” she said. “They see that there’s hope out there, and they can change.”

The goal is for LFS to work itself out of a job, she explained, and for those individuals to become self-sufficient. “One of our benefits is we have all kinds of treatments under one roof,” she added.

Issues facing LFS’s clients

In her role, Fisher-Erickson reads plenty of assessments, so she is familiar with the issues facing LFS’s clients. They range from substance abuse, domestic violence, child protective custody issues, depression, persistent mental illness, unemployment, lack of adequate medical care, legal problems and family conflict.

Although LFS was started by Lutherans, its services are available to everyone. In fact, Henrichs said that data shows that less than 10 percent of those served identify as Lutheran.

“We serve everyone, regardless of ability to pay,” she said.

Christian faith grounds the organization. As stated among LFS’s values, faith empowers its employees to “courageous compassion, service with justice and bold decisions.”

As LFS continues to evolve, it will do so under a new president and CEO. Henrichs will retire at the end of this year after telling the LFS story for more than 40-plus years and motivating others to get involved. She hopes that more people will come to understand how care of a neighbor affects care of self.

That’s what LFS models. “They help people one person at a time, doing things you and I can’t,” she said.


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