Kelsey Collier-Wise, executive director of the United Way of Vermillion, shared an observation while addressing the Vermillion Rotary Club last March.
During discussions she had with other community leaders about how to best assist local people who need help, the topic of Vermillion’s services being scattered around town often came up.
Collier-Wise, while helping a homeless individual earlier this year, made a mental map of all the places the man, who had no automobile, would have to visit in the dead of winter before he could receive assistance: the UCC Church to receive a voucher, Trinity Lutheran Church to receive food at the Vermillion Food Pantry and then a trip across town to a local motel where he could spend a couple nights.
“I was just like – man, if we just had this building ready, half of these things we could have taken care of right now, we could have gotten him on (public) transit out to the motel and he would have been fine,” she said. “That was one other thing we’ve been discussing a lot – how do we bring all of these things together, how do we stop working in our silos and start collaborating and cooperating, how do we create less waste in the things that we are distributing to people, how do we better use volunteers?”
The building she mentioned is the Community Connection Center (CCC), located in downtown Vermillion across the street from the post office. When she addressed Rotarians in March, the building was being transformed into a place that she and other service providers in the community had long envisioned – a destination that offers help and hope.
On Friday, Sept. 20, a grand opening was held at the CCC to formally mark its completion. The event included tours of the interior and a symbolic ribbon cutting to celebrate the many services this single building now houses.
Friday’s event also included a surprise donation from Sammons Financial Group of Sioux Falls that will allow the CCC to offer, from time to time, basic medical services to those who need them. (See related story).
Collier-Wise noted in March that the new center and the new thinking about caring for those in need in the Vermillion community came about from a single act of generosity.
“For a long time it was just a dream that we talked about a lot, but how we would actually do this -- we didn’t know,” she said. “Then we received an estate gift from Bonnie and Verne Anderson that allowed us to buy a building and that is what has allowed us now to actually make this a reality.
“This project is a lot bigger than I ever would have imagined and I think the last year and the year before, when I was telling you guys about it, it was much simpler,” she said in her address to Rotarians last March. “I think the result that you’re going to see is also pretty incredible. It could not have come to what it is without Verne and Bonnie.”
The United Way of Vermillion has a strong relationship with both the Vermillion Food Pantry and the Welcome Table.
“They are the largest recipients of funding and they are two organizations that in recent years have been sharing more and more resources, including food,” Collier-Wise said. “So much food gets transported around this town, all over the place … and both of these organizations are serving a greater number of people and outgrowing the spaces that they were in.
“Through all of these discussions, we said, ‘let’s find a way that we can work together. We can help these people more holistically and help them not just for today but hopefully overall,’” she said.
Collier-Wise describes the CCC as a “one-stop shop for services, first and foremost.”
Today it houses the Vermillion Food Pantry, the Welcome Table and its related backpack programs, the Salvation Army and its emergency fund and the United Way.
“We’re also bringing in, on more of a part-time basis because they’re headquartered elsewhere, Habitat for Humanity, Southeast CASA, Lutheran Social Services Financial Counseling, and the Rural Office for Community Service,” she said. “They will all have office space within this building and will be able to meet with clients when they are doing their Clay County work.”
The CCC has also struck up a partnership with the Health Sciences program at the University of South Dakota.
“They (USD students) are working at developing a navigator program that will be part of a class in the fall where Health Sciences students learn about interviewing techniques and basically navigating social services because that ends up being what a lot of people in health care do,” Collier-Wise said. “When somebody comes in usually their problems aren’t just ‘my elbow hurts’ or something like that. There are so many things that come along with that and they (Health Sciences students) are often the front line for connecting those folks with the needs that they have. So this is an opportunity for us to benefit from extra people to help, and also for them to benefit by learning those really important skills.”
Warm And Welcoming
One of the most important features of the CCC, she said, is the attention its people will give to those in need who visit the building.
“First and foremost, we want this to be a place that’s warm, that’s welcoming, that’s free of stigma, that’s a place that you go to for help and to give help and sometimes both,” Collier-Wise said. “We (board members of the institutions housed in the CCC) have been meeting together, and one of the things that we did is a visioning exercise … and the thing that was really beautiful is that everyone had this same vision of a warm place where you are embraced and welcomed and not judged.
“You are met by people who want the best for you and your family because we’re all part of the same community,” she said. “I think we’re in a really great place to be able to create that because that’s the vision of everyone involved.”
When one steps through the CCC’s doors, they enter a vestibule and walk into a reception/waiting area. The front of the building contains two rooms where clients with needs can meet privately with individuals who can provide help.
“When people come in, for example, needing Salvation Army emergency funds, there is a place that they can meet in private,” Collier-Wise said. “One of these rooms also provides a private space for Health Sciences students to check on the blood pressure or blood sugar levels or other health needs of visitors.”
A partial second floor of the building provides office space for the Vermillion United Way and cubicle space for Habitat for Humanity and other organizations that provide services from the CCC.
A large portion of the main floor houses the Food Pantry that in many ways resembles a grocery store. The building also includes plenty of storage space for this service.
One of the main open spaces that greets visitors to the CCC is the “Great Room” which serves as the Welcome Table dining room.
“The exciting thing about that is it can be utilized in many different ways. We can do workshops, we can do trainings, we can host board meetings of many different organizations,” Collier-Wise said. “I think eventually there could be a possibility of having that space be something we could rent out for additional income to bring into the building. We’re holding off on that until we get our feet under us with everything else.”
Behind the open space is a large certified commercial kitchen that will greatly enhance the ability to serve food at the Welcome Table. The kitchen includes built-in hot and cold food wells, a large oven, walk-in freezers and coolers and an industrial dishwasher.
“This is just going to make things so much easier and it opens up possibilities for taking more meat, more dairy and we’ve been talking with Feeding South Dakota about being a hub for other food pantries in the area,” she said, “so, again, it just opens up a lot of possibilities.
“The certified commercial kitchen is also exciting because it allows us to do a lot of things that we aren’t able to do right now, including pre-processing of donated fruits and vegetables, decanting things from larger containers into smaller ones -- those are all things that because of health codes you need a certified commercial kitchen to do,” she said.
Financing the building purchase and its renovations was made possible by the Anderson Estate and a loan from CorTrust Bank in Vermillion. The CCC has also started a capital campaign.
“We are really hoping to get some community support for this project. Obviously, this kind of undertaking is not inexpensive. It’s been a really amazing experience and I think what we’re going to have and what it’s going to offer the community is also more than I could have imagined,” Collier-Wise said.
Back in March, she described the plan to construct the CCC as a blueprint for empowering residents in need to move from crisis to stability.
“That stability piece is something we’ve really come to embrace. When we first started in this project, we used the phrase self-sufficiency a lot but we’ve actually moved away from that partially because none of us are truly self-sufficient,” Collier-Wise said. “We all take care of each other and help each other. Stability is really what we’re trying to achieve with this project.”
Research points out how debilitating that adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and the physiological effects of stress, especially on children, can be. It also reveals that best way to combat that is to provide stability.
“The thing that makes a huge difference in how people are able to handle adversity going forward is the stability that they experience, especially as children,” she said. “That creates that bedrock that’s going to help them throughout their lives.”
People dealing with both sudden and prolonged stress and uncertainty experience negative physical changes.
“It creates actual changes in their bodies, in their brains and in their DNA. While that doesn’t mean that they can’t go on to do amazing things, and many of them do, they’re going to have to work that much harder,” Collier-Wise said. “When we provide that stability just by making sure that a family has enough groceries to make it through the month without being stressed out, that is going to make a difference not just in that week, or that month, but also for that child or adult for generations to come.”
She noted that the United Way of Vermillion has been focused on the problem of poverty in the Vermillion community since 2014.
“We know that our food insecurity rates are quite high, that 35 percent of people in Vermillion live at or below the poverty rate,” Collier-Wise said. “There’s also been an acronym that’s been used a lot more frequently now as opposed to just focusing on poverty and that’s ALICE – Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed.
“That’s how we refer to people who are working poor – people that work full time, they are above the poverty rate, they still don’t make enough to meet their basic needs. When you add up the poverty rate in the ALICE universe, you get a lot closer to 50 percent,” she said. “Those ALICE folks are actually who we see frequently in a lot of those (assistance) programs. They are working, they’ve got families and they may, in many cases, own homes but they are not making enough day-to-day to meet their basic needs.”
Collier-Wise, in her March address to Rotarians, said all who are involved with the CCC know that it won’t serve as an overnight solution, especially because what has been launched is brand new to the community.
“It’s going to take some time to figure out the best way to help. We’re really approaching this with a spirit of adventure and experimentation,” she said. “There are going to be programs that are coming forward or ways of doing things that we’re going to try that are going to be absolute failures and we’re totally fine with that because we can go back the next day and say ‘how can we do this better?’”
Her faith in the Community Connection Center is matched by her faith in the Vermillion community.
“We do a lot of amazing things in Vermillion. We build a lot of amazing things,” Collier-Wise said. “I think this project is a little bit different because it’s really about the heart of service this community has and it’s an opportunity for us to invest in the future in a different way and really invest in the well-being of the people of our community.
“I know that this community has so much kindness to give and hopefully this can be the heart of that,” she said.