Karen Wulfkuhle has been at United Community Services for 32 of the human service planning agency’s almost 50 years, but the issues are basically the same now as they have always been, she said.
Wulfkuhle, who is retiring as director this month, has had a chance to reflect as she cleans out her files in preparation for her replacement by Julie Brewer of Overland Park. Brewer, who has lived in the county since 2011, has volunteered in various advocacy roles in the Blue Valley School District, CASA of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties and was an officer of United Way in the Davenport, Iowa area.
“The need for human services has always outpaced the capacity,” Wulfkuhle said. “Poverty and people living with incomes that aren’t sufficient to support their families has always been an issue. The challenges of substance abuse, homelessness, lack of access to health care — those were issues we were looking at even 30 years ago. As the population grows, the need for those services grows, so it feels more urgent. But really the issues in many ways have stayed the same.”
United Community Services was incorporated in 1967, as the county populated by young families began to plan the types of human services the growing population would need. The agency tracks Johnson County’s demographic trends and research showing the most effective ways to deal with social problems like poverty.
The county has changed a lot since then, Wulfkuhle said. The population has grown older as more people put down roots, and it has become more diverse as employers began to locate here, for instance.
The agency’s approach has also changed over the years. Perhaps the biggest change has been in the development of “evidence-based practices” to address the social needs of the county, Wulfkuhle said.
Evidence-based practices boils down to research on social programs and their effectiveness. The research — much of it national — can guide local agencies in their efforts to work with the underprivileged.
“Now a body of research can point us in the direction of what kinds of programs and interventions really work,” she said. “It allows UCS as planners to try to find ways to best target resources to those programs that have been shown to be effective.”
One example is the ongoing effort to keep people with mental illness out of jail and get them more effective treatment options. United Community Services has also looked at ways to work with problems that have their roots in early childhood trauma, she said. And the agency has identified in-home visitation for low-income young mothers as another effective way to help children get off to a healthy start.
United Community Services usually works with other public and non-profit groups to implement programs, as it did recently with the Talk, Read, Play effort. That program enlists child care workers, the county library and other agencies to get parents and young children to talk more. The goal is to build language development and school readiness.
This year is a good year for a leadership change, she said, since the agency has a strong staff and good programs in place.
Brewer said she wants to continue the strong work UCS already has done to collaborate with other agencies to reduce poverty.
Brewer will start May 15 at UCS. She has worked with CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, on behalf of children who have been victims of abuse and neglect. She moved from the Omaha area, where she was first chief operating officer of Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy counties. That group was formed to reduce performance inequities between urban and suburban school districts. In the Quad Cities area, she was vice president of resource development and vice president of communications for United Way.