Donor Stories: Center for Changing Lives Duluth
Sonja Baertsch was the campaign chair for “From Here On”— Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota’s campaign to raise $10.5 million to build the Center for Changing Lives in Duluth.
Her passion for helping young people and families create healthy homes, minds and bodies has been instrumental in connecting her with local and global philanthropic organizations and endeavors. She has served on the Miller-Dwan Foundation board and was very involved with the development of Amberwing—Center for Youth & Family Well-Being. She is also a member of World Vision’s National Leadership Council with specific interests in community building and child protection.
“I value ‘home’ and what that means in the broadest sense—support, security, trust, opportunity and love, says Baertsch. “The Center for Changing Lives is an opportunity for our community to provide these things to young people who find themselves without a home—and that’s one of the best investments we can make.”
Baertsch became more aware of the challenges that some kids face when she became her church’s representative to Renaissance, an LSS transitional housing service in Duluth. She also led a year long Circle of Hope advocacy group for homeless youth.
“The Center for Changing Lives will give young people the chance to overcome barriers that can stand in their way of becoming independent, healthy and productive adults,” says Baertsch. “Like so many organizations, LSS is doing great work in our community and in Minnesota. The dedication and devotion of the LSS staff and volunteers is admirable. It is that commitment that translates into numbers that show 90 percent of youth who are able to be tracked are not homeless after leaving Renaissance—that’s good work!”
“I believe this will be the catalyst for eradicating youth homelessness in our community.”
Jim Hacking has been a busy man for the past 20 years, raising three children and moving to Duluth from the Twin Cities to start his own certified public accounting business. It’s been a good life for his family, filled with opportunities, including participating in the full range of sports and activities the Northland has to offer—football, hockey, skiing, soccer, dirt biking, fishing and snowmobiling.
“Now that my kids are getting older and moving out, I’ve had the chance to look around and see what I can give back,” says Hacking. “I’ve become involved with Lutheran Social Service and with Community Action Duluth. I have to say I’m embarrassed that I never knew the extent of poverty and homelessness right here in my backyard.”
Hacking feels like he has had his head in the sand and that feeling has awoken a passion to educate the community about the invisible issues of poverty and homelessness.
“We are a community that helps its neighbors,” says Hacking. “If our neighbor’s house burns down, we are there to help. A lot of people aren’t aware of the youth struggling right in our own backyard. Children don’t choose where they are born, who their parents are, or the circumstances that lead to homelessness. These young people deserve the same opportunities my kids enjoyed. We need to pull together as a community—just like we would to help our neighbor rebuild his house—and eradicate youth homelessness in Duluth.”
“The Center for Changing Lives will be a place of hope for all kids on the street.”
Ann Niedringhaus’ bachelor’s degree in nursing and master’s degree in social work reflect her strong desire to help others. She began her career in nursing, pursuing social work when she moved to Duluth. Her first position was as executive director of The Arc Northland, serving people with disabilities. Later, she served as director of Habitat, a teen parent program with the Duluth School District. In retirement, she continues to give, having served on foundation and nonprofit agency boards, at First Lutheran Church and by teaching poetry writing to inmates at the County Jail.
It was in her position with the Duluth school district that she became familiar with Renaissance, LSS’ transitional housing program for youth ages 16 to 21.
“The moms I worked with, who lived at Renaissance, did so much better than the average mom I saw,” says Niedringhaus. “I know it was because of the support and security they received at Renaissance.”
The quality of the programming offered at LSS and the importance of its work were what drew her to the Center for Changing Lives project.
“You can really make a profound impact on a community for generations by focusing intensively on young people when they are in need,” says Niedringhaus.
“In my work at the County Jail, I see how hard it is for people to turn things around as different barriers pile up. These programs are opportunities for young people to reevaluate their worth. You can’t have the resilience you need if you don’t have support. It takes a village to raise a child. That’s not a cliché.”
Bob Niedringhaus, MD
“The Center for Changing Lives will let homeless kids know that our community is standing up for them.”
When Bob Niedringhaus retired from his practice as a hematology/oncology physician at Essentia Health in 2011, he knew he wanted to do medical volunteer work. What he didn’t know was that volunteering for 10 months at LSS’ Teen Health Center would have such an impact on his life.
“I’ve lived here for 38 years and was ignorant to the fact that so many kids were homeless in this city,” says Niedringhaus. “I just didn’t see them on the street like I did adult homeless people. Many of the kids I provided care for at the Teen Health Center were going to high school during the day and spending their nights sleeping in doorways or cars, couch hopping or trading sex for shelter. Three quarters of them came from disintegrated families with parents who were abusive, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or unable to accept their child’s sexuality.”
Niedringhaus discovered the impact he could have if he listened to and met homeless youth and adults on their own turf. It made him realize that this was the most meaningful thing he could do with his retirement.
Today, Niedringhaus mentors and plans activities for youth living at Renaissance, LSS’ youth transitional housing program. He also works with homeless adults at Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) and the Damiano Center.
“Giving kids a chance to find worth and security through places like the Center for Changing Lives not only changes their lives, it changes the lives of their future families,” says Niedringhaus. “Providing the services they need now, saves us from providing a lifetime of services when they become adults.”