Communities of Hope: Celebrating Nebraska’s Progress Towards Well-being and a Vision for the Future

After a 2-year delay, Bring Up Nebraska partners were finally able to gather in Lincoln to celebrate how Nebraska has become a national leader on building a community-based well-being system! On April 13-14, leaders from many of the community collaboratives across the state met with state and national partners in Lincoln.

Welcoming the partners to Lincoln, was Mary Jo Pankoke, President and CEO of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. She gave special recognition to the community collaboratives for all of their hard work in supporting families during the flooding of 2019 and then the pandemic and lifting up their needs to state and national partners.

Governor Ricketts then addressed the group. He thanked the community leaders for their hard work and talked about how important community-based prevention work is to help families avoid the trauma of child removal and involvement in state systems.

Bill Stanton from Casey Family Programs then spoke to the room about how Nebraska ranks from a national perspective. Not very long ago, Nebraska had one of the highest rates of child removal in the nation. Now, that number has been reduced dramatically, much of that due to the prevention efforts of the Bring Up Nebraska efforts. Nebraska is now leading the way on community-based well-being and having a statewide plan is crucial to moving this work forward. He also stressed the importance of lived experience, community leaders, and state partners coming together to accomplish this vision.

After the opening speakers, the afternoon session started with a panel of state leaders and the progress being made towards a true Community Well-Being System in Nebraska. Panelists included Matthew Blomstedt, Commissioner of Nebraska Department of Education; Sheri Dawson, Director of the Division of Behavioral Health at DHHS; Sara Morgan, Lifespan Health Services Unit Administrator at the Division of Public Health (DHHS); Stephanie Beasley, Director of the Division of Children and Family Services (DHHS), and Mary Jo Pankoke, President and CEO of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. The panelists shared with the group the progress that has been made at the state level to align priorities amongst agencies through a Strategic Transformation plan in step with the priorities lifted up by the community collaboratives.

was an interactive presentation by partners who have had lived experience in the child welfare system and now help guide a transformation of that system. They were assisted in their presentation by Nebraska Children staff.

To start off the session, each attendee was asked to look at the printed menus on each table. A moment of slight panic ensued when people saw the list filled with foods that many can’t eat based on allergies, health conditions, or preferences. When asked if they were considering a Jimmy John’s visit rather than eating the prescribed menu, many hands shot in the air. They were quickly reassured that this menu was NOT what was being served later that evening. The connection was quickly illustrated that serving a large group with a “one size fits all” menu and not taking into consideration people’s preferences makes someone feel not included and disregarded. This example was likened to the traditional model of child welfare, where children and their families are not asked what they need and instead are told what is best for them. Like the unpopular menu, we are working hard to transform this old way of doing business.

Participants then listened to a panel of lived experience experts and staff members who regularly partner with them. Panelists including Rae Bigelow, Lincoln Arneal of Nebraska Children, Schalisha Walker of Nebraska Appleseed, and E’Lane Jones, and moderated by Bobbi Taylor, lived experience consultant, addressed many lessons for authentically engaging with young adults or families with personal experience and how to make the process beneficial for both sides.

Gay McTate and Sydney Shead then led a session on Youth and Families Thrive Nebraska. They discussed the Guiding Premises of Youth and Families Thrive and the practical implications of those premises to the prevention work happening in communities.

That evening saw a presentation of the Jim Casey Building Communities of Hope Awards to each collaborative. Presenters included Bill Stanton of Casey Family Programs, CEO Dannette Smith of DHHS, Mary Jo Pankoke of Nebraska Children, and First Lady Susanne Shore. The First Lady also shared a success story from each of the collaboratives as they accepted their award. From brand new collaboratives who are working hard to establish infrastructure and bring members to the table, to established collaboratives who regularly have hundreds of members at their meetings, it was inspiring to see so many people dedicated to improving the lives of children and families in our state and to hear the progress they are making towards that goal.

First Lady Shore was also presented with a gift to celebrate her commitment to Bring Up Nebraska’s efforts since 2016. While her official tenure as First Lady may be nearing a close, her passion for this work will not end.

On Thursday, April 14, the group reconvened to discuss how evaluation of this work must evolve as we move towards more strengths-based measurements of thriving. Traditional indicators have measured poor outcomes. While prevention has been focused on keeping bad things from happening to children and their families, our work is growing to making sure good things are happening for families and that requires a change of our traditional evaluation measures. For example, Nebraska currently measures infant mortality rates, but moving to a more strengths-based, thriving lens may move the evaluation more “upstream” to measuring the number of expecting mothers who receive prenatal and postnatal care.  Nebraska Children’s research and evaluation team led the group in an exercise in thinking about what conditions need to exist for families to thrive and what we are all doing to bring about those conditions.

Then a panel of community coordinators and central navigators discussed the elements needed for a community-based prevention including central navigation and coaching, workforce training, youth and family leadership, and programs and services that build protective factors in families. Panelists included Chandra Essex from the Community Impact Network, Lara S. from Fremont Family Coalition, Caroline Sabin from Families 1st Partnership, Collena Laschanzky of the Southeast Nebraska Collaborative. Emily Kluver, Prevention Administrator for the Division of Children and Families Services at DHHS moderated the panel.

Wrapping up the event, Edi Winkle led the group in establishing priorities, planning for next steps, and statements of commitment from national and state agency leaders. Edi is with the Family Resource Information, Education, and Network Development Service (FRIENDS) an organization that provides technical assistance and training to community-based child abuse prevention (CBCAP) programs. In order to meet those commitments and build on the inspiration generated at this convening, the community collaboratives and state and national partners will continue to hold discussions as well as planning another convening in October.

In all, the gathering was a productive and inspiring way to celebrate the progress that Bring Up Nebraska has already made, while gathering momentum for the work that still needs to happen.

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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