Former Dana College campus to transform into community to support youth aging out of foster care

Posted at 9:33 AM, Sep 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-05 11:33:46-04

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    BLAIR, Neb. (KETV) — The former Dana College campus in Blair has been vacant for eight years. Now, it’s transforming into a place for good — providing a community and safety net for kids aging out of foster care.

“(We’re) building the safety net for the youth that are coming out so that as they age, and as they develop, and as they’re working, and programs are being developed for them, we’ll help them stay in the job,” said Ed Shada, president of Angels Share, the group heading the project.

Shada said his vision for the campus was never about bringing in another college. His plans to take care of the less fortunate have always been the focus, despite Grace University’s closure announcement. The university had planned to utilize a portion of the campus.

That didn’t stop Shada from pursuing his goal. Through community partnerships and businesses, he’s now months away from giving youth a place to live, work and grow.

People gathered to pray for the property’s next chapter Tuesday evening in the Trinity Chapel on campus.

“We pray that you would bless every effort to realize the vision of reaching vulnerable people,” the pastor said. “That lives would be renewed and that there would be a future and hope for all those who come together in this place.”

The redevelopment project on the campus is called Transformation Hill. On it will be the Frank Krejci Learning and Life Center, named after Frank Krejci, who donated the land. Shada designed the center to help youth in need.

“We’re really wanting to develop the youth, to develop those that want to work,” Shada said. The center will “give them an opportunity to get on their feet and give them jobs.”

Right now, Shada is transforming the former quad housing building on campus into low-income apartments. It will be the first building youth move into.

As renovations are underway at the apartments, Project Everlast and other community partners are starting to determine which youth would make a good fit to live in them.

“The only thing that a kid in foster care can manage is a day-to-day existence and so they come out already strides behind,” said Ronda Newman, associate vice president of Project Everlast Omaha.

Project Everlast works with metro youth aging out of foster care and connects them with area resources in the community that can help them find housing and jobs, along with other types of support.

Newman said just last Friday she and other providers met to talk about what the youth who could benefit from the Frank Krejci Learning and Life Center might look like.

“Somewhere between 18-26, just because those are the ages that we see most often here, ones that are struggling,” Newman said. “We’d like to see young people that have some sort of drive. Something that they want to get somewhere, but they don’t quite know how to do that.”

Once they move in, local businesses including Sterling Transportation Services are eager to train the youth and help them find jobs.

“There is a huge need industrywide for truck drivers and a lot of it is a good base of the driver population is retiring,” said Tracy Jahnel, controller at Sterling Transportation Services.

Jahnel said there’s not just a need behind the wheel, but also for diesel technicians.

Sterling Transportation is still working out the details, but Jahnel said the business wants to be involved in training the youth on campus and helping them find careers.

“Good, young, professional drivers that have been trained properly and that get into the field early, they’re going to be a blessing down the road,” Jahnel said.

Other community businesses including Woodhouse are also involved in the project. Young people will be exposed to job opportunities in transportation, trade and automotive fields.

“The community is rallying around these young adults and getting them on the right path,” Jahnel said. “That says so much. It gives them a chance. The vision is there and, you know, the amount of good that can come out of this — sky’s the limit.”

The city of Blair and private developers are also involved in the Transformation Hill Development. They purchased land and are in the process of building workforce housing. The community will be able to live in the housing and, Shada said, the hope is that some of the youth living in the apartments can eventually transition into the workforce housing.

“They have an opportunity to really get back on their feet, get established, get a savings account built up, work with people to develop their lives,” Shada said.

The city contributed $1.8 million in tax increment financing funding to help cover the cost to tear down old buildings and build new housing.

Shada said they’re in the first phase of the project, which includes renovating the former dorm that will serve as apartments for the youth. At least four buildings on campus have already been torn down, including the married housing dorms. The former girls and boys dorms are also in the process of being torn down.

Shada is renovating and utilizing some of the former buildings. The gym and library will soon be open for the youth to use. The Trinity Chapel will become a church on the first floor of the building and office space will be upstairs, including a place for Dana College memorabilia.

The first phase of the project is $4 million. Shada said Angels Share is raising money now.

In future phases and as more people move in, Shada said there will eventually be housing for low-income families and the elderly, along with additional apartments for youth.

It’s a project that’s been years in the making for Shada.

“It’s wonderful to finally have movement after a year of knocking my head against the wall,” Shada said. “It’s kind of fun to see things moving forward and seeing the people embracing it and see the development starting to occur.”

Shada said the first apartments should open to 24 youths in March 2019.

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