With the opening of Y Gardens at the end of 2020, Life360 Community Services took a significant step forward in the nonprofit’s mission to empower the people it serves.
The 41-unit apartment complex near Ozarks Technical Community College was 100% leased within weeks by low-income families and individuals, as well as youth aging out of the foster care system, said Resident Life Director Rachel Newkirk.
“You take for granted just having a roof over your head,” Newkirk said. “For the youth that aged out of the foster care system, this is the first place they had to call home. … One lady was living in her car, and she waited out the application process to get in for her and her kids.”
The $6.7 million complex was a yearslong project in collaboration with affordable housing developer Tammi Creason through Creason Developments LLC. It was funded through the Missouri Housing Development Commission, various city of Springfield loans and a private loan through Arvest Bank, which has a branch next door.
Life360 Community Services Executive Vice President Jeremy Hahn said housing is one tenet of the community services nonprofit. It already operated single-family housing units across Springfield that offer shelter on a temporary basis, but at Y Gardens, residents take on their own leases.
“Our partner agencies have been a great help with that collaboration of identifying young adults that would succeed and thrive in a place like this. They are ready for the step,” Hahn said. “It’s a great midpoint where you still have someone really helping you succeed, but this is your lease. If we know a resident is starting to struggle with rent or breaking the rules, we can start to coach them and set them up for success.”
That support comes in many forms, as the nonprofit is involved in feeding programs, workforce development, and day care and preschool services. Hahn said the nonprofit also organizes courses on financial literacy, parenting and auto repair through its nonprofit and business partners. The goal? Build up its residents’ hard and soft skills, and help break cycles of poverty.
“We grow up and we learn these skills along the way, but not everyone has that,” he said.
With the partnership in place and the need for such developments, Creason said she is working with Life360 on another affordable housing project in Branson with plans to break ground this month. Roughly 30-40 townhomes with an estimated cost of $5.3 million are planned, with single-parent families as the target residents. The project also will have supportive services from Life360 and other agencies built into the complex.
“There’s a strong story in Branson on the need for workforce housing,” said Creason, who has developed affordable housing for 25 years. “What can we do to help mom and dad while they are working? How can we engage them in breaking cycles of poverty?
“I’ve worked with so many nonprofits over the years because services is always something [partner] Debbie [Hart] and I have tried to incorporate no matter what. Life360 has hit it out of the park.”
Leap of faith
Life360 Community Services was organized in 2011 as a way for Life360 Church to feed foster kids during its summer camps. It was feeding just a few dozen kids a day when Hahn came on board in 2015. He had a vision for much more.
Hahn was working at the Assemblies of God national office in north Springfield, helping place missionaries across the country.
“One day I said, ‘What about Springfield?’” he recalled. “I just saw this huge hole here.”
At the same time, his family began fostering kids and that work tugged at his heart.
“I left my job with no promise of anything and volunteered for two years,” he said.
His self-described “faith walk” paid off. He’s since taken a salary, grown the nonprofit to 160 employees and manages a $10 million operating budget. The nonprofit today feeds 18,000 kids a day through its feeding services in partnership with 70 school districts across the state. Later this year, he said Life360 plans to expand its programs into Arkansas, Kansas and Tennessee.
“We’re looking for an HR director,” Hahn said with a smile.
The nonprofit focuses on reversing the crippling effects of poverty through its emphasis and tagline: Feed, house, educate and empower. Although it started its outreach efforts in Springfield, it now operates 20 community development partnerships in communities across southwest Missouri from Monett to Cape Girardeau.
“Life360 has long dreamed of going rural,” he said. “We like to focus on asset-based community development.”
He said the community hubs debut with two Life360 employees establishing services in a community, and that usually starts with feeding kids. But the additional services are as unique as the communities themselves.
For instance, in Plato, about 85 miles northeast of Springfield, that need turned out to be an after-school program for kids with disabilities. Hahn said the city’s site director learned from school district officials they had a 50% jump in students with special needs. Life360 recently purchased a building to start the program.
In Branson, Hahn said the organization has a feeding service through the Reeds Spring School District, but he knew housing would be a critical next step.
Creason said the Fall Creek Townhomes project will be completed through Branson Affordable Housing Developers LLC, a partnership between Creason and Hart, along with developers Kendall and Mike Combs, and Mark and Dan Ruda. There likely will be units available starting this summer. Creason said the funding came from the Missouri Housing Development Commission and a Community Development Block grant.
She said her passion for working with Life360, specifically its mission of supporting foster kids, is personal.
“I have two girls adopted out of foster care, so that was truly a labor of love for me,” she said of her first project with Life360, Y Gardens.
Creason and Hahn say they have plans for more projects in Springfield and surrounding communities as funding becomes available.
Meeting basic needs of food and housing is a critical foundation, but Hahn said empowering people to break cycles of poverty also takes personal development. That’s where the Jobs for Life program comes in. So far, the nonprofit has graduated 110 individuals through the 8-week course, and they have all remained employed.
Hahn said Life360 has relationships with 50 area employers to help build resumes and interviewing skills for graduates, and some employers guarantee interviews for graduates. Partners include Midwest Dairy, CoxHealth and Terminix Inc.
“Each student is assigned a champion – it’s a one-on-one relationship,” he said. “It’s that social capital that people need.
“I just heard from one volunteer last week who heard from a student and said they are going for a promotion at work and it is 24 months later. We’re building that relationship. We didn’t teach them a new talent or skill set except to be confident in an interview.”
The nonprofit also is creating its own opportunities for employment and internships. In March 2020, it launched Fairbanks Coffee within The Fairbanks. Hahn said he plans to start another coffee shop inside Life360’s church in Chesterfield Village. They also run Mocha Jo’s Coffee Cafe in Monett.
Hahn said the nonprofit is shifting focus to its own business model. Currently, 95% of its budget is government funding. He’d like to balance that and increase private donations.
Much of the $350,000 in gifts in 2020 came from members of Life360 Church, he said, where the nonprofit got its start. He said Life360 Community services is considered the “action arm” of the congregation, but the nonprofit does not provide religious services.
“We don’t care what religion a kid is to feed a kid. I don’t care what religion they subscribe to, to give them a safe place to live,” he said. “This is where we can agree. Let’s love on people.”
Read the profiles of this year's honorees.