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Omaha Magazine

Together Omaha Succeeds: Ensuring No One Faces Hunger Alone

Sep 01, 2020 08:24AM ● By Sara Locke
Stephanie Strode of Together Omaha

Together Omaha is a haven for those struggling to find equal footing within our community. From at-risk families to those experiencing homelessness, the organization often serves as the human touch that keeps people holding on. 

“One of the first pantries I ever used as a single mom was Together," Strode said. "They showed me so much respect, and that’s how I want to make clients feel.”

Stephanie Strode, former client and current operations manager for Together Omaha, knows what it takes to pull yourself up when life gets hard; a community that cares. That’s exactly what she found at Together and why she opted to become part of the solution.

“Our primary focus year-round is ending and preventing homelessness. We are a 100 percent choice pantry. Our clients can walk in and walk through, choosing exactly what they want for their families,” she said. “We see a lot of food allergies, vegetarians, families avoiding pork or processed foods, and we are so happy to accommodate.”

Strode thinks it is just as important to see that families are met with dignity as it is to end their immediate hunger.

“There is this fear among those who find themselves in need that they will take what they’re given. That’s not how we operate,” she said. “When someone starts to make progress and they show up in their car with [in-transit] tags still on, there’s almost this shame about continuing to accept help. We want them to know that they deserve this assistance and we’re happy providing it. If our help made it so that you were able to get that last bit together to buy a car, that means it’s working. Now you’re able to take those next steps, and before long we’ll be saying goodbye and missing you.”

Helping create a level playing field and seeing the relief Together brings to the community keeps the nonprofit’s employees and volunteers motivated and excited to provide for their neighbors every day. Since COVID-19 officially hit Omaha, however, Together has had to change their approach.

“We’ve had to cut back on how many people we can have on hand to help, so right away we lost all of our volunteers. And we can’t allow people to come in and make their own selections, so we started pre-packing boxes and delivering them to cars,” Strode said.

And while the pandemic continues to deal blow after blow, the team at Together has become adept at rolling with the punches.

“The need for services like ours has been great in Omaha, but these last few months have been completely new,” Strode said. “There was a lot of the community right on the bubble, just making it. Then there were families who wouldn’t have ever imagined they would need to ask for assistance. And then overnight, so many people lost their income, their free school lunches, their access to a lot of programs that were keeping them on their feet.”

According to Tina Murray, Together Omaha’s crisis engagement program manager, the organization helped more families between March and June than in all of 2019.

As the line of cars curls around the neighborhood and police arrive to manage and direct traffic, Strode reminds herself that these aren’t cars, but families. She isn’t helping the 150 people waiting in the heat, mask on and more than a little afraid the food will run out. She’s helping the family in the car in front of her. As she catches the eye of the sleepy, hot, cranky child in the back seat of this car, she smiles behind her mask. She knows the child can’t see her smile, but the eyes are a giveaway. She disappears to fetch the pantry items and is sure to throw in any extra treat she can find to thank the little one for their bravery. 

And as the car pulls away, she meets the next with renewed purpose.

It’s easy to view Strode, and every member of the Together team, as heroic. They’re quick to demure and redirect credit to the supporting organizations that keep them moving.

“We are completely backed by the Food Bank for the Heartland. We wouldn’t know what to do without them,” Strode said. “The National Guard has been boxing our food...which has taken off so much of the load for us. Without our volunteers and without being able to let families pack their own bags, we were spending hours trying to pull these together. Now, we have these amazing 25-pound boxes of meat, produce, just everything. Each one makes a difference, and that’s all we can focus on right now. We have the short game covered, so these families have a chance to put together a plan for the future.”

Volunteer turned Inclusive Community Health Vista Touki Phommakhanh echoed this sentiment. “Everyone works together,” she said. “They come out and interact directly with each person coming through the line. I’m so grateful for being present for this work, learning names, hearing their stories and seeing those smiles. We have this common goal of removing whatever burden we can, and for each family we see, we know we are taking away one of their most pressing needs.”

As we each find our way to the other side of this crisis, Strode, Phommakhanh, and the team want Omahans to know they don’t have to do it alone. We all succeed better, together. 

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This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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