by Jim Boyle
Jess Harfiel saves lives.
At least that’s what she has been told by some of her clients. But this Elk River woman, who spent the past 5.5 years as a housing case manager for Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners in Plymouth, sees it differently.
When someone tries to place such credit at her feet she tells them plainly her role was only that of a hand up. “They did all of the hard work,” she says.
Hartfiel’s experience with providing calm in the storm of homelessness and other crises is a major reason she was selected the first executive director of Great River Family Promise. Another is her passion for kids.
“My motivator is the kids who are homeless,” the mother of four children told the Star News, when 45 volunteers from The Home Depot and Behr Paint descended on the day center she will manage in her new position. “They didn’t have a choice or even a say in their situation.”
Upon graduating from high school in the Crystal-New Hope area and later from Minneapolis Community and Technical College with an Associate of Arts degree and certificate in human services, Hartfiel tried her hand in helping troubled teens in a school setting.
“It wasn’t my thing,” she recalls.
All of a sudden she wasn’t sure what do to with her life. She got a clearer picture after volunteering as a crisis counselor, manning crisis lines.
She says she loved that work. It got her adrenaline flowing at times. Her previous interest in nursing and her thoughts of becoming a paramedic now made sense. Crisis response was more her thing.
It was then she became a family advocate for the Pillsbury Crisis Nursery in Minneapolis. There, she provided support and assisted parents in crisis and worked toward helping them develop strong, healthy families.
She performed intake, assessments and placement of children into crisis care in a nursery facility. Additionally, she provided referrals, information and linkage to county or community resources. She also answered crisis lines with this organization.
One call she fielded was a suicidal male who told her she would be the last person he talked to. When he hung up the phone after talking to her, she was left to wonder what the depressed man decided to do with his life.
It was haunting feeling. But to be there for people in their time of need is quite the opposite for Hartfiel.
After more than a year with Pillsbury, Hartfiel took a position with Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11 as a family advocate. She served families living on the Hennepin County side of the district, providing referrals, links to community resources, county programs and district partners.
She was a family advocate who worked with school personnel, police and property managers. She maintained a schedule of home visits to assess needs, build community and offer support.
She even attended important school meetings designed to advance students’ educational plans drilled into Individualized Education Plans known as IEPs.
Hartfiel did that for five years when she got a chance to become a housing case manager for Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners, where she helped families address an array of challenges from homelessness, poverty and unemployment to mental health, chemical dependency, domestic abuse and criminal histories.
She did many of the same things that she did in her previous jobs, but she also began to do more coaching, goal planning and achievement, often while navigating crises.
“You have to be calm,” Hartfiel says of working with clients in crisis. “Even if you’re not feeling it internally. You need to be calm and reassuring. They can gather calm from your calm.”
She will now apply her skills in Elk River at a day center that is linked with more than a dozen churches that will take turns housing up to four homeless families.
These families will spend the night at these churches and be bused by volunteers to the day center at 1215 Fourth St. N.W. in Elk River. The home provides a homelike atmosphere for the guests from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many of the guests are employed and will go to work. Other guests will work with Hartfiel to find employment and housing and work on the barriers to such outcomes.
Hartfiel, who has lived in Elk River for seven years, will work with four families at a time to provide intensive assistance. She is surrounding herself with a team of volunteers to offer hope.
“That’s what these families will need,” she said. “When you feel defeated you give up. They need hope.”
The Day Center has shower facilities and a washer and dryer to clean clothes. Children not old enough for school have a designated area in the center.
Great River Family Promise is an effort that has been five years in the making. Things really started to take shape more than a year ago, when the organizers connected with the national association behind the homeless outreach program.
Hartfiel is now building upon the connections that have been made and making new ones. She’s looking forward to engaging the community and has begun to speak to groups such as the Elk River Rotary.
“I want this to be the community’s house,” she said. “And not just the churches house or Jess’ house.”
Hartfiel, like the organizers of Great River Family Promise have mentioned, senses God’s hand in all of her work.
“I knew I wanted this job from the day I saw this ad in the newspaper,” she said.
Despite all of her experience working with families in need of crisis housing and providing them guidance, she doubted she would be picked to be the organization’s first executive director.
She has provided the direct service, including crisis intervention. She has worked with volunteers. She’s experienced with community resources and referring people to them. She’s thrilled about the opportunity to engage the community around the cause of homelessness. But this is Hartfiel’s first administrative job.
That, however, didn’t prevent her from throwing her name in the hat.
“This has been God-led,” she said. “For me and the board, I sense my journey to them and to here has been a God thing.”
Family: Proud mother of four children, three of whom attend Elk River schools and one that is in college in St. Cloud.
Hobbies: Reading, spending time with family and friends as well as attending church groups where I am blessed to provide ministry to women.
Volunteer needs: Volunteer training will be at 7 p.m. on Jan. 29 at the day center. Volunteers still are needed for weekend shifts and as well as early morning (7:30 to 9:30 a.m.) and people to transport guests.