October 23 was a day of laughter, empathy, and inspiration as nearly 500 people gathered at the Embassy Suites in La Vista to reflect on the progress made in the past year for vulnerable children and families in Nebraska.
The day got off to a good start with a small private reception honoring longtime ally Jessie Rasmussen, which included an introduction from her brother, former Governor of the State of Nebraska and former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, and a sweet video from her grandchildren congratulating her on receiving this year’s Grace Abbott Award. The award was well deserved: Jessie’s entire professional career has focused on improving outcomes for children, families, and adults, especially vulnerable populations such as people with disabilities and families with low income. Her many achievements include the idea of creating a nonprofit organization that could work with communities to help them get better outcomes for children — an idea that eventually led to the founding of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. Jessie’s legacy will be evident in communities, our state, and the country for many generations to come.
After the reception, the main event began, led by returning emcee Jeremy Maskel, whose commitment to the cause led him to become a founding member of the Friends of Nebraska Children guild. In addition to Jeremy’s remarks, Nebraska Children’s President and CEO Mary Jo Pankoke came up to say a few words and to introduce Rebecca D., a young person whose involvement with the Connected Youth Initiative helped her strengthen her parenting skills, become more independent, and pursue higher education.
Following the opening remarks, keynote speaker Ashley Rhodes-Courter took the stage to talk about her experiences as a child, moving from foster home to foster home until being adopted as a preteen. Ashley’s story is one that is all too familiar: Her single teen mother was unable to care for Ashley and her brother, and for nearly 10 years, Ashley was shuttled between 14 different foster homes, many of which were unhealthy or downright abusive.
Ashley’s talk was full of grace and humor, and came with a powerful message: “Imagine how my story might have been different if my mother had been given even a fraction of the support and resources that were given to my abusive foster parents.” She highlighted the need for preventive care and for people to stand up and step in before it’s too late.
After her inspiring remarks, Nebraska’s First Lady Susanne Shore took the stage to speak to the importance of prevention and to shine a light on the work of the Bring Up Nebraska initiative, which strives to help families through challenges before they can turn into crises.
We know that community-based collaborative prevention efforts are working and making a difference. In the 23 counties with Bring Up Nebraska, we have seen third grade reading scores increase, juvenile arrests decrease by more than one third, and substantiated cases of child abuse drop significantly. Communities are targeting needs, providing early interventions, and seeing positive outcomes as a result of their work. We can see the difference in the individual lives being impacted and the change that is occurring – including a decrease in children in out-of-home care.
Nebraska is poised to be a model for other states when it comes to communities leading the way in prevention work and keeping families strong and together, and it’s all thanks to the wonderful supporters who are making real change possible.
To all who attended this amazing event, we say THANK YOU for helping us celebrate another year of positive change for children and families! We hope to see you again next year — because really, you’re the ones who are making it all possible.