Mid-Nebraska official marks 25 years of service
McCOOK, Neb. — It’s her sense of humor, a touch of compassion and an “in-charge big sister” persona that have served Barb Ostrum well for 25 years as the community services coordinator of the McCook office of Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska.
Barb started with “Mid-Nebraska” a quarter-of-a-century ago, with little knowledge of the position. She said she was doing in-home care and working at Aunt Alice’s bed-and-breakfast when the job of CSM opened up in the Mid-Nebraska office in McCook. Barb said Mid had had an office in McCook for five years, but she wasn’t aware of its services.
“My first month in the office, we did a food commodities distribution to low-income elderly people, which was the biggest service we helped with then,” Barb said. She learned that she would also work with housing weatherization programs and some assistance with utility bills. In her office, she saw and assisted a couple people during a week’s time.
In 1992, the Mid-Nebraska office was located upstairs in the Professional Building at the corner of East First and C. “There was no street visibility,” Barb said. Then she relocated to the ground floor, in the front, along West C, and public visibility improved. Another move, this time to the 100 block of West C, just two blocks west into one of McCook’s busiest downtown neighborhoods.
Over time and with struggles within the nation’s economy, people’s needs escalated and Barb, with her ready smile and outgoing personality, became the face of Mid-Nebraska in its seven-county region of Southwest Nebraska.
In the beginning, Barb said, she saw a lot of transients, men and women, who climbed off of passing trains and needed food. “One transient gave me his name as Howard Hughes. I wondered if he wasn’t the real Howard Hughes incognito,” she laughed.
The transients would stick around for a couple of days until Sheriff Gene Mahon “encouraged” them to move on. Many years later, Duane Tappe of McCook ran into a man elsewhere in the state who remembered passing through McCook and appreciating Barb’s assistance. The man told Tappe, “Barb was very nice, but the sheriff wasn’t.”
Barb has encountered different types of poverty during her tenure at Mid-Nebraska. One is “situational poverty,” in which one recent event or an unfortunate series of such events — sickness, injury, divorce, job loss, a death in the family — have thrust a person or a family into poverty. “It happens all the time,” Barb said. “One major life change and they say, ‘I never thought I’d be here.’” With time and assistance, this situation can most often be turned around, she said.
The second type is “generational poverty.” “Some families I’ve seen for 25 years,” Barb said. “And I don’t know if we can fix it.” Barb has encountered generations of families for whom paying for their food with anything other than food stamps is a completely foreign concept. “This dependency on the government is disconcerting,” Barb said.
It used to be an individual or family had the support of other family members, Barb said. That’s not always the case now: there is no family living nearby, or the rest of the family is in the same boat, she said.
She has hope for those dealing with situational poverty, more so than those living in chronic poverty. “I see success more in people who know success,” Barb said, “more so than in those who are deeply-rooted — and deeply rutted — in poverty … those for whom pride and personal responsibility are not part of their upbringing.”
Barb said there are resources for those who want to change.
High school drop-out rates locally have decreased, with the inception of alternative school programs for students, including young mothers, at risk of dropping out. In McCook, in particular, the Child Advocacy Team (CAT) developed the idea of the LIFT (Learning Independently for Tomorrow) program for the high school in 1997.
At the other end of the spectrum, Head Start addresses the early education of preschoolers and helps their families create home environments conducive to success in school.
Barb — as a member of CAT and with Mid-Nebraska’s support of Head Start— has been involved in both programs that stress the advantages of starting right even before kindergarten and in finishing high school.
“I’m still amazed by the number of people who don’t finish eighth or ninth grade,” Barb said. “The low-paying jobs available to them will keep them in poverty.”
It is part of Barb’s job to be aware of resources that complement the services available through her office. She and coordinators of other programs work to avoid a duplication of each other’s services, and they also monitor for over-use of programs by clients.
“Churches offer assistance,” Barb said. “They’re only a phone call away, and are a wonderful local resource.” Catholic Social Services is a valuable resource in the Imperial area.
“Share the Heat” is a local program that offers assistance with heating bills in the winter.
The Salvation Army’s help through local bell-ringing events is invaluable for medications, gas for medical trips and utility assistance, as well as a school supplies assistance program, Barb said.
For local veterans, Barb has access to a fund created by a McCook veteran for immediate assistance with travel to VA hospitals, medical needs, utilities, groceries or rent. Barb and VFW Post No. 1652 of McCook administer the fund.
McCook Public Schools provides breakfast and backpack meal programs, in addition to low-cost/no-cost lunch meals, for eligible children.
The Prairie Land Food program is a food buying group that provides quality foods at prices up to 50 percent off retail prices.
The Family Resource Center provides a home visitation program, special needs equipment and resource libraries, children’s clothing exchange program, school supplies giveaway, assistance with Christmas gifts, support for foster families and collaboration with the Prairie Land Food program.
The Nebraska Homeless Assistance Program addresses homelessness across the state. Barb explains that homelessness is not always as obvious as people living on the streets. “We can’t say we don’t have any homelessness locally. We have people who ‘couch surf’,” trundling from one friend’s or family member’s couch to another, she says.
Barb said that transients — the traveling homeless — don’t usually stop at mainstream services, but spend their time at the train depot, or at a large store in McCook, or request help from churches.
People can become temporarily homeless because of a house fire or other catastrophe, she said. “And what’s the difference between being ‘homeless’ and living in a house without heat or water?” she asks.
The greatest problem Barb sees is people going hungry. “It hurts my heart to see people, especially children, go hungry. There are many things you can go without. Food is not one of them,” she said.
Community food Pantries are non-profit, charitable, volunteer-staffed organizations that provide food to those who have difficulty purchasing enough food to avoid hunger. Many communities throughout Southwest Nebraska have their own Pantry, and residents of communities that don’t have a Pantry visit the Pantry in McCook, which has been in operation since 1980.
A relatively new approach to addressing food insecurities in Southwest Nebraska is the “Mobile Pantry” program of the Food Bank for the Heartland, Omaha, Mobile Pantry visits in Southwest Nebraska have been coordinated locally by the Hitchcock County Pantry since late 2015. The goal of the Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry program is to provide food where there is a high need, but limited resources.
The Mobile Pantries brought food supplies from Omaha to Trenton, McCook, Palisade, Benkelman, Stratton, Culbertson and Curtis once or twice a year, on a quarterly schedule in 2016 (and also Bartley in 2017) on Saturdays. The Mobile Pantry is a great asset, Barb said, reaching people who can’t get to community Pantries during the Pantries’ regular hours through the week, as well as those who supplement the groceries they get from the Pantry once a month with foods from the Mobile Pantries that are nearby once or twice a quarter.
The Pantries, both stationary and Mobile, share the same goal — feeding hungry people, Barb said.
Barb believes that McCook Community College is a wonderful resource. “There are so many opportunities to further your education at the college,” she says.
There are also services for eligible individuals and families through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which has an office in McCook.
Barb has seen services and programs come and go during her 25 years. “Some were great ideas then, and are still great ideas now,” she said. Some are blends of what was good then with something new now. Some programs work for some people; some don’t. “You can’t put everyone in one box,” Barb said. It’s not all black-and-white … cut-and-dried … right or wrong. “Despite what the political writers believe, not all people fit in the same box,” Barb believes.
“We’ve got the resources to help those who are willing to change,” Barb said. Her greatest frustration, she admitted, “is when clients fail to see that I’m only here to help redirect their decisions … when they continue to make poor decisions.”
Barb admits her job has its frustrations, “and sometimes I feel I’m running in circles. There are times when I say, ‘Why am I doing this?’.” She jokes about having a place in her office where she bangs her head against the wall.
Barb’s taken very little time off in 25 years — two weeks off when her grandson was born, and a vacation to Mexico. “People seem to find me where ever I am, anyway,” she laughs. So how does she cope with a high-stress job?
“I’ve learned I can’t take it home with me,” she says. “And I’ve realized I can’t make people change.”
Barb does like what she does. “When you believe in what you do, and see that you can make a positive impact in someone’s life, you have to take the good with the bad. I prefer to concentrate on the good,” she said.
Barb says that support from the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska main office and having a supportive boss help immensely.
Barb also recognized the support of the community, including the donation of space for the McCook Toy Box and the McCook Coat Closet each year; two businesses that have provided storage units for more than 10 years and the use of moving trucks; great media coverage; and the countless volunteers who help with projects.
“I could never do this alone. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this ‘job’ for the past 25 years,” Barb says.