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Providing Hope at Project Homeless Connect Omaha

The 37-year-old man experienced a rough stretch last October.

He lost parental rights to his two children, his car was repossessed, he lost his job and, a month later, he lost his apartment.

“Everything came crashing down on me,” he said. “It was just a big snowball effect really.”

He slipped into a severe depression.

He eventually ended up living at Mental Health Respite, a temporary housing facility operated by the Salvation Army. The center focuses on helping those who have experienced a psychiatric crisis transition back into the community. Residents can live there up to 28 days.

“But I’m doing better,” he said, eating eggs and sausages at a table in a bustling Kiewit Fitness Center on Creighton’s campus. The scene was a buzz of activity, with a variety of stations spread out across the fitness center’s courts, track and locker rooms – all offering information and services for those experiencing homelessness.

“I’m really hopeful about capitalizing on all the services here,” the man said, finishing up his breakfast. “I’m really excited.”

And so began his journey at Project Homeless Connect Omaha – a one-day event designed to provide individuals experiencing homelessness with health screenings and access to community resources all in one convenient location.

On March 23, more than 500 volunteers — students, faculty and staff from across the University and members of the community — assisted 539 guests for the 11th annual Project Homeless Connect Omaha. Creighton University has hosted the event since the beginning, with volunteer assistance coming from all University schools and colleges.

“I tell you what, this has just been great,” said Creighton alumnus Ed Shada, BS’79, founder and CEO of Project Homeless Connect Omaha, as he surveyed the scene. “For our guests, this is a great opportunity to access needed services in one location.”

For the volunteers – particularly the navigators who lead the guests throughout their visit – the day provides an opportunity to push aside stereotypes and get to personally know someone who is experiencing homelessness.

Shada said the feedback he receives from volunteers is “breathtaking.” Some, he said, find that “they are a paycheck or two away from being homeless themselves” or that individuals experiencing homelessness “were not the people they thought they were.”

Felicia Nuno, a staff member in the School of Dentistry, has been volunteering with Project Homeless Connect Omaha for the past eight years. She enjoys filling in wherever she is needed – whether it’s setting up or putting away tables, working in the child care area, or escorting guests through their day.

“I love it here,” she said. “It’s a great way to help people.”

For fourth-year pharmacy student Lauren Jacobsmeyer of St. Louis, this was her first year volunteering at Project Homeless Connect Omaha. She was working with Creighton EMS and nursing students to provide blood pressure and heart rate checks, diabetes screenings and medication reconciliation. All of Creighton’s health sciences schools were represented at the event.

“This is very beneficial professionally to work in an interdisciplinary team,” Jacobsmeyer said, “and we had an opportunity to serve an underserved population in our area. We’ve seen a ton of people. This is really needed.”

The Rev. Steve Ryan has volunteered with Project Homeless Connect Omaha every year since joining Creighton as the chaplain for the School of Dentistry five years ago.

“There is great participation (at this event),” Fr. Ryan said during a break for lunch. “There are so many kind and eager volunteers. It makes me proud to be a part of Creighton.”

He added: “Service to the community and helping the underserved, I think, are two of the most important things we try to teach here at Creighton University.”

As a guest who had been chatting with Fr. Ryan over lunch got up to leave, she looked at him, smiled and said, “God bless you.”

“God bless you, too,” said Fr. Ryan.

And off she went.

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