Eye on KELOLAND: 100 Years of volunteers

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – John Hart doesn’t need to flip through old photos to recount his early days as a part of the Volunteers of America Dakotas.

“I came here when we were just a small, fledgling nonprofit by the name of Threshold Youth Services back then,” Managing Director John Hart said.

He joined in 1984. At the time, Threshold was looking to expand their youth services program focusing on helping runaways.

“I was hired to kick that off for the organization,” Hart said.

It was housed in a historic building that served as a group home on Philips Avenue. They also rented space on Minnesota Avenue next to the Dixie Bake Shop.

“So people that have been around for a while would know The Dixie Bake Shop, and we employed about thirty people back then, and, I think, we had a roughly $300,000 budget,” Hart said.

A few years later, they merged with another nonprofit called ‘Turn About.’

“Threshold was providing a lot of the… I guess, social services aspect of it while they provided employment and the educational services, and we thought that the two of them getting together could become a lot more impactful on the community and the people that were served,” Hart said.

That pairing became Turning Point of South Dakota. At the same time, the VOA had a smaller presence in Sioux Falls working mainly in child care services. After a couple of years and conversations the nonprofits would evolve into what we know today as the Volunteers of America Dakotas.

“We are just shy of 400 employees, we have 19 different locations, and… a budget just shy of $20,000,000,” Hart said.

Hart currently serves as one of the Managing Directors. He recalls what he considers a highlight of his career: working with Herb Bowden.

“He came along side us back in the late ’90’s to address the issues of youth that were just hanging out on the loop – the famous loop, at that time in Downtown Sioux Falls,” Hart said.

Bowden purchased what was known as Irving Elementary and turned it into the Bowden Youth Center.

“It was just a place for young people, no matter who you are, where you came from, what your background might be, you could come there and be welcome,” Hart said.

This November, the organization hit its 100 year anniversary. As part of the virtual celebration, members from the VOA shared memories of helping others and of those who paved the way for newer members like Sarah Hanson. She has been the Director of Strategic Initiatives for seven years.

“I get to play a part in a little bit of everything; getting to guide the vision strategy of our organization,” Hanson said.

She was inspired to join the VOA because she feels they share the same core values.

“We don’t go where it’s popular to go. We don’t go where it’s fun to go. We go where we’re needed,” Hanson said.

Hanson says watching the celebration filled her with pride of being part of a group with such a powerful legacy.

“We’re touching almost 10,000 lives every single year, and so there’s a lot going on at this agency. Even having been here for 7 years, I feel like I’m still learning something new every day,” Hanson said.

Hanson is also charge of leading the organization’s Out-of-School-Time Services.

“Our kids are growing their academic and reading and math scores faster than their peers, and that’s something that I’m really, really proud of,” Hanson said.

And that mission has only become more important during the middle of a pandemic.

“We’ve been really gung-ho on expanding our telehealth services recently because, at the same time people are needing more behavioral health services, it’s harder for them to get there and come in person,” Hanson said.

Behavioral health service was able to make a seamless flip to virtual to make communication convenient to those who need it. They’ve also expanded on the Out-of-School Time Services to benefit parents who still have to go to work. Transitions that serve as a strong metaphor for what the organization has always done: Adapt to what comes next.

“We are going outward and onward. I’m really excited that we are looking at ways that we could possibly expand our Out-of-School Time Services and enhance that programming because we know there’s more children in the community that need these services,” Hanson said.

Even though a lot has been accomplished in the last 100 years, Hanson and Hart both agree there’s still more to be done.

“Our vision has been the same since we were founded in 1920: we’re just called to go wherever we’re needed and do whatever comes to hand,” Hanson said.

“There’s still things out there that are challenges to me, personally, that I’d like to be able to be able to try to tackle… and also just the belief in all the people that work here. We have an incredible staff – no matter what program you work in – that are so dedicated, and to see that and to just maybe be a little part of that, to be able to continue to help make some things like that a reality, keeps me going,” Hart said.

If you’d like to help the VOA in their mission, you can donate to the nonprofit through their website.

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