January 2020 marked the beginning of a new chapter for Freedom House Ministries, Inc. The nonprofit organization officially moved into a newly developed, 16-room, energy-efficient complex on the east side of Green Bay, WI. From humble beginnings in a donated four-bedroom house downtown, the organization bought what was previously a 12-room nursing home and converted it into a shelter. Eventually that was demolished to make room for its current facility.
The mission of Freedom House is to “provide for the short-term needs of homeless families and children, and in love, empower these families with long-term solutions to end their cycle of homelessness.” According to President Jessica Diederich, this philosophy was brought to light in 1992. A group of concerned citizens saw a gap in services to help families with children, and decided to work with these families to help get them back on their feet. In its 27-year history, Freedom House has served more than 1,300 local families and 2,500 children.
“The community has completely supported us and found really creative ways to wrap their arms around us so we can stay focused on our mission. We would not be here without the generosity of our community. We are just so incredibly grateful.”
Jessica Diederich, President of Freedom House Ministries, Inc.
Today Freedom House offers emergency shelter, food and case management support to residents who come from a variety of backgrounds and situations. They stay anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. Volunteer groups teach comprehensive weekly programming, for which resident attendance is required. Class topics range from financial planning and job search skills like resume-building to nutrition and parenting.
“We find residents are extremely grateful,” she says. “They’re vulnerable when they come here. They need somebody to help them find their way—take them under their wing. It’s really rewarding to see how far they come in the time that they stay with us. They’re feeling a lot of confidence. It’s really wonderful to see that progress.”
Upon completing the program, each family leaves equipped with a personal budget, along with skills and knowledge to start fresh. Freedom House also maintains a transitional living program of apartment units called The Bridge. Post-graduate Freedom House families are able to apply for residency there, and also participate in an aftercare program for general support and access to the many donations that the organization receives. According to Diederich, Freedom House operates solely on donations from the community. Items like basic hygiene products are essential to help take some stress off of families’ monthly budgets and hopefully prevent a second shelter stay.
Diederich is thrilled to report that the layout of the new facility enables them to stay more focused on the organization’s programming and mission. “What’s really neat is that now we have a playroom, and right next to that is our intake interview room,” she says. A huge window separating the two rooms facilitates candid conversations with parents and staff—allowing parents to have privacy while still keeping an eye on their children next door. “They definitely open up a lot more,” observes Diederich. “That has been a big help, and a nice thing to have in our new building.”
Other benefits of the new construction include a training room (with eight desktop computers and tables to hold in-person classes in an organized setting), a free store (that has interview clothing, undergarments, shoes and items for children), and a large cafeteria that can seat half of the shelter population at once. Three meals are served there each day, and the space provides an opportunity for residents to visit with one another.
“We are constantly welcoming new families in, so people are coming and leaving at different times,” said Diederich. “I think the new families find comfort in feeling accepted by other families. It’s great for them to try to connect and support each other since most of the parents are very like-minded.” Some former residents of the shelter have become Freedom House staff as well.
In the recent months since move-in, and now during the current COVID-19 crisis, Freedom House remains open and continues to function at a fully increased capacity—24 hours a day, seven days a week. The administrative building is separate from the residents’ building, but members of staff are always close by and on-site.
Despite these trying times, Diederich feels very fortunate to be a part of the Freedom House organization. “The community has completely supported us and found really creative ways to wrap their arms around us so we can stay focused on our mission,” she says. “We would not be here without the generosity of our community. We are just so incredibly grateful.”
Q&A with Jessica Diederich
Originally from Sioux Falls, SD, Jessica Diederich’s professional journey led her to Green Bay, WI, where she has served as president of Freedom House Ministries, Inc., since November 2019. In this role she is responsible for leading the staff at Freedom House, serving homeless families in the Greater Green Bay area. She also oversees the staff at the organization’s transitional housing program, The Bridge.
Jessica has dedicated more than a decade to making an impact in the local nonprofit community. Prior to her current position, she was instrumental in establishing initiatives for the Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau and Habitat for Humanity. She also presently serves on the Executive Committee for the Women’s Fund of Greater Green Bay Board of Directors and the Board of Definitely De Pere.
What are some things you know now that you wish you knew when you first started as a nonprofit leader?
I did not anticipate becoming so attached to the families staying with us. In some cases, they are here upwards of three months, so we really get to know them and become invested in their journey. It is truly inspiring!
What has been your biggest source of pride as executive director?
Watching a family enter our program on day one, seeing them thrive throughout their time at our shelter and successfully accomplishing all their goals and getting back on their feet. I take great pride in knowing that we are making a difference in people’s lives.
What are the dominant challenges that you see nonprofit organizations facing and what do you think would be viable solutions?
I think we can all agree we are trying to navigate the unknown that COVID-19 has presented. This not only encompasses our staff and the families we serve, but also fundraising, volunteers and the way we traditionally have received donations. The answer is not simple, but if we keep adapting to the changes and finding creative ways to still get what we need to serve our clients, I would call that a success!
What aspects of nonprofit accounting do you find most challenging?
When we receive grants or large gifts with restrictions attached, I look right to our stellar accountant on staff to make sure we stay in line with everything the donor has requested.
What other executive directors or philanthropic leaders do you look up to?
I look up to many of the executive directors in the Green Bay area. I believe it is important to build strong relationships with others in the same field and in similar positions. Being new to this role, I am very fortunate to have friends in similar roles who I can lean on for advice, feedback and encouragement. A strong support system is critical to one’s success!
How do you see the organization changing in the next two years, and how do you see yourself creating that change?
While I absolutely love the current programs we have in place for families staying with us, I feel there is more we can do. Youth programming is one of them. I will be directly involved as our new director of programming works to create new programs for our organization. It is something I am very excited about!
I also will be working on community collaborations during the next couple of years. If we can share resources with like-minded nonprofits in the area, it can make our dollar stretch and be more efficient for our staff. I think donors would appreciate knowing we strive for this, as well.