Reflecting on 2020 and Looking Ahead to New Opportunities

By Doug Cowan

President & CEO

Even though we are finishing the first week of 2021, I want to take a moment to welcome our board, staff, volunteers, donors, supporters, and community partners to a new year. Just because the calendar flipped over from 2020 to 2021, doesn’t mean that everything has changed at CSL. However, it provides a good opportunity to reflect back and to look ahead.

Reflecting on 2020

It’s difficult to say anything more than what’s already been said about 2020. I do firmly believe that strong social services were critical across our nation to help families weather 2020. Here are some of the things we did together last year:

- delivered more than 4,000,000 meals to families from eastern Kansas and western Missouri,

- provided direct aid of more than $3,000,000 to keep families stably housed,

- engaged and coached more than 500 applicants in our New Skills training initiative (with more than 80 that were pipelined into a tuition-free training program),

- aided more than 75 of our neighbors, whose mental or physical special needs require navigate customized employment navigation,

- helped 45+ formerly homeless families remain safely and stably housed,

- partnered to give out 500,000 pairs of Bombas socks,

- collaborated with the Chiefs to distribute 3,000 Super Bowl backpacks and 3,000 pairs of shoes,

- provided Christmas support for more than 2,000 families,

- oversaw community support services for 850 families at Hawthorne Place Apartments (which included graduating five families into homeownership) and Colony Plaza Apartments in Excelsior Springs,

- rolled out the new website and helped families navigate away from toxic lending and into traditional banking services,

- kept our two micro-branches of Holy Rosary Credit Union open and able to assist families,

- provided intense case management services for more than 250 families in our school-based Family Stability Initiative,

- offered Financial Coaching to hundreds of families,

- opened the COVID-19 Help Center at to connect families to CSL and other community resources/information,

- kept BlendWell open as a safe place to gather and connect,

- reimagined the basement of BlendWell and opened it as the WorkLife Center,

- helped 150 neighbors file their taxes and provide coaching on how to best utilize their refunds, and

- continued homeless outreach throughout Jackson County to check on our most vulnerable neighbors during the pandemic.

Whew – what a list!

(Pictured: Volunteers working drive-thru food pantry, Chiefs Back to School event, and long lines for service)

(Pictured: CSL partnered with University of Central Missouri and John Knox Village to graduate six new Certified Nursing Assistants - CNAs)

Our fundraising and development team had a record year in 2020, successfully engaging new and existing donors to give of their time, talent, and treasure to CSL. Our special events, which are a catalyst to making new connections to CSL, and strengthening existing ones, had to pivot and connect with donors virtually, and had great success in doing so. The team set records for number of new donors, amount of online gifts, total gifts, and amounts raised.

Internally, we made great strides within many business functions, including human resources, accounting, technology, social media, media relations, transportation, delivery, logistics, and everyone worked to keep our buildings safe and clean.

Our Board of Directors led the creation of a Diversity and Inclusion Steering Team (DIST), comprised of board, staff, and community connections. The DIST, among many things, will engage the organization in important dialogue around the role of diversity and inclusion to create a stronger CSL, and to be part of a social services delivery culture that is informed and responsive to the broad needs of our community.

Looking Forward

From my perspective, there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel related to the COVID-19 crisis. However, the next several months will still be very much anchored in response and recovery work. We provide a response to community needs, and we help facilitate programs that are a recovery. If you think about it, that’s what we always do. Help for today (response), and hope for tomorrow (recovery).

From a response standpoint, we remain very involved in feeding families and helping them stay stably housed. Our Saturday Food Pantries will continue and will supplement our weekday feeding programs. Community volunteers will continue to drive our Saturday Food Pantries, and it has a new permanent home in the south parking lot of the Community of Christ parking lot. We are working to shorten the Saturday Food Pantry to two hours by running two distribution lines, thus making it a quicker and more efficient operation, and so our staff and volunteers aren’t taxed as much.

Response work in 2020 was significantly buoyed by additional philanthropy, and by CARES Act assistance contracts. In 2021, we will still be administering lots of direct aid, but will continue our focus on connecting neighbors to other community resources. For example, the Missouri Housing Development Commission opened a portal to accept applications from landlords through the Missouri Rental Arrears Program. We are actively promoting this opportunity, as it could provide up to six months of rental arrears.

Our long-term recovery efforts are rooted in employment. Let’s take a real look at what happened in our community. COVID-19 was a disaster on many levels for all families. From an economic standpoint, it shook the unstable foundation that many families already had. To truly recover, we can’t administer direct aid to a family and call our work done. For many of our neighbors, this is a chance to reset their foundation. A new job, through our connections with employers, or through a CSL-supported training program, provides the lift families need to break cycles of poverty. There are few ways for families to truly change their circumstances and long-term economic trajectory, other than through employment. A book I read said “Families can’t budget their way out of poverty or into prosperity.” Connecting to a new career can vault a family into the middle class. We have more than 5,000 email addresses from families that digitally engaged with us last year. In 2021 and beyond, we have to build on that connection, and create a pipeline from emergency relief to economic growth.

Wealth- and asset-building tools and strategies work hand-in-hand with recovery. The Family Self-Sufficiency Program at Hawthorne Place Apartments, run by CSL, has helped families, once they gained new or improved employment, save more than $300,000 since 2017. This opens the door for home ownership, higher education, credit repair, transportation, and the ability for a family to absorb a temporary crisis.

Thank You

I hope the accomplishments listed inspire you, and the opportunities ahead excite you. When I think of 2020, I will never forget the generosity - gifts of time, talent, and treasure - that you made to help our neighbors persevere. Our work simply would not have been possible without you. I look forward to the many ways we can continue to work together to make our communities stronger.

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