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Years of work at Willis Dady pay off in helping more people

Gazette - 8/13/2019

Aug. 13--CEDAR RAPIDS -- Jonnie Kokoszka is a U.S. Air Force veteran who, as a social worker in Alaska, has helped homeless people in the past. After a series of difficulties following her move to Cedar Rapids, she found herself in the same place as many of her former clients.

It took her a long time to work up the courage to call Willis Dady Homeless Services and ask for help, she said. But she's glad she did.

Kokoszka is now a resident in rooms dedicated to homeless veterans, part of the newly unveiled improvements at Willis Dady's shelter, 1247 Fourth Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.

"When I got here, I was in tears," she said. "They provided me somewhere safe, somewhere I felt mentally sound," she said. "The camaraderie in the veteran's wing is unheard of. ... It's an experience I wasn't expecting. I feel honored and blessed to be able to be a part of it."

Kokoszka joined staff, board members and volunteers at a ribbon cutting Monday in celebrating the shelter's nearly $3.1 million renovation and expansion.

It took almost three years of planning, fundraising and building to get to this point. The organization started the "quiet" phase of fundraising in September 2016 before kicking off an official capital campaign in March 2017. It held a groundbreaking ceremony in November 2017 and started major construction in August 2018. The construction was completed in July.

The expansion not only transformed the more than 30-year-old shelter but expanded it from 7,720 square feet to 17,140 square feet.

That's allowed the space to go from 16 beds for single men to 25 beds, with the potential to add five more. There also is added space for families and room for homeless veterans to be together. The shelter also has added four supported affordable housing apartment units with their own entrances on the exterior of the building.

"The biggest accomplishment is we are better able to serve people and serve more of them," said Willis Dady Executive Director Phoebe Trepp.

Those include people with disabilities -- the building now has wheelchair accessible rooms and an elevator, whereas before it had to turn people away.

Other improvements are more room for kitchens, laundry and bathrooms, a storm shelter in the basement -- the former protocol, said board President John Oates, was to tell people they had to leave during a storm warning -- and things like computers donated by and maintained by the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Residents using them to do something like work on a resume can save their documents and reopen them on computers at the public library during the day. The lobby also now has a bathroom with shower, as well as laundry machines that people not staying in the shelter can sign up to use, allowing Willis Dady to serve more people.

Community support, from the individuals who donated to City Council members who facilitated rezoning, was key to making this expansion possible, said Oates.

Willis Dady staff themselves raised $25,000, which development director Lisa Williams said was an illustration of how much they believed in the vision.

"Willis Dady has had to step out in faith over these many years," she said.

They're not stopping here. Trepp laid out the organizations 2019-2022 strategic plan, which includes focusing on helping more people successfully exit the shelter to permanent housing; client stability through things like case management and linking clients with resources; prevention of homelessness through action like facilitating negotiations between tenants and landlords and providing resources before someone is at the point of eviction; organizational stability, which includes finding and maintaining additional funding sources as well as growing the volunteer network; and advocacy on issues surrounding homelessness.

Williams compared the organization's mind-set going forward with that of their clients: When you're not sure if you have a stable place to call home with a good roof over your held, she said, it's hard to focus on anything else. Now, they can do that.


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