RICHARDTON, N.D. — For a brief period of time, Missi Baranko thought it might be nice to simply raise alpacas.

It was just one of many reactions experienced by the social worker after she learned on Jan. 15, along with 280 of her colleagues, that Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota had to close its doors due to a crippling debt caused by its housing division.

Baranko and her team also learned their home-visiting program, Healthy Families, would be one of several LSS services that remained open until its clients could be transitioned to another agency.

“It was a gift and a burden in a way,” says Baranko, who headed the LSS program. “We’re still here, but for how long and what does that mean?”

Baranko says she spent the next 24 hours worrying about her future and her teammates. She even entertained the prospect of raising alpacas for wool on her family's Richardton, N.D., ranch. But the day after the announcement, as Baranko was running errands, a message came through loud and clear: "You need to start a nonprofit."

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In that moment, as she thought about the clients affected, Baranko knew she must keep Healthy Families alive. She had seen how important the program was to parents and kids throughout North Dakota. Since 2000, the free, voluntary program has served families in 11 counties by providing encouragement, resources and education to expectant or brand-new parents who may be inexperienced, without a support network or under stress for any number of reasons. The home visitors connect with families during the first three years of their child’s life, helping parents with everything from parent-child attachment and car-seat safety to child-development stages, stress-relief and school readiness.

The national Healthy Families of America reveals numerous advantages to this parent-child engagement, with statistics showing fewer pregnancy complications, reduced child abuse and neglect, an increase in family functioning and self-sufficiency, and broad health and fiscal benefits that reduce community service costs significantly in the long run.

Racing the clock

Missi Baranko formed a new nonprofit to administer the Healthy Families program. Special to The Forum.
Missi Baranko formed a new nonprofit to administer the Healthy Families program. Special to The Forum.

Baranko knew she had to act fast to get a new nonprofit on its feet. By that Sunday evening, she had started ticking “to do’s” off her “How to start a nonprofit” list and settled on a name: USpireND. The name plays off "aspire," while avoiding confusion with other companies and groups who currently use that trade name, Baranko says.

Baranko also connected with Scott Wild, a marketing, communications and branding professional who is married to Shonda Wild, another former LSS employee and one of Baranko's good friends. He offered his marketing, communications and website services to her, at no charge.

“He’s been just amazing,” Baranko says. “He’s just one of many who keep reaching out and asking, ‘How can I help?’”

Within days, Baranko had filed an application for their trade name. The following Sunday, she held their first board meeting to file for 501(c)(3) status. Among the new board members are Janell Regimbal, a former LSS vice president and Baranko’s former supervisor; Karen Olson, former research director at LSSND and program director at North Dakota KIDS COUNT, and Scott Wild.

Meanwhile, the Healthy Families staff continued serving families under the LSS banner throughout February. “What’s been amazing is the staff,” Baranko says. " We didn’t didn’t know until the last week (of February) that we were done on Feb. 28. The team obviously believed and trusted the process. I think it had to do with their incredible dedication to working with families."

Healthy Families officially transitioned to USpireND on March 1. Baranko likens it to removing all the contents from one house and moving them into a new one. "It's like the family and pets and everything basically came with," she says. "We wanted to keep everything as whole as we could.”

USpireND's Healthy Families retains the same accreditation from the national Healthy Families of America organization and the same staff of 10, including Baranko.

“Our goal was to seamlessly transition, without them feeling the tiniest bump,” says Baranko. “We agreed that we are going to feel the changes and do a lot of the work, but wanted to make sure our families didn’t feel it.”

Funding needed to finish out year

The next hurdle was funding. "Because of the legal logistics of bankruptcy and liquidation, we couldn't take any of that (Healthy Families) money with us," Baranko explains.

Now the team is raising “bridge funds” to get them to June 30 — the end of the fiscal year. After that, she says, donors, grants and other funding sources can begin covering the new fiscal year.

Baranko and team have held a chili feed in Dickinson, approached donors, applied for grants and launched a GoFundMe page to fill the gap. So far, they’ve successfully raised $134,000, but need to raise $50,000 more to keep USpireND operating at full capacity.

When asked what she will do if fundraising falls short, Baranko's smile never wavers. She says the program had to retain all current staff or they would not be able to serve the current client load of 163 families.

"That's not an option," she says. "I will not sleep until it happens."

Baranko wants the program to not only maintain capacity, but to grow. Healthy Families now provides services in McKenzie, Billings, Dunn, Stark, Hettinger, Burleigh, Morton, Grand Forks, Nelson, Walsh and Pembina counties. She would like to see the day when it's available statewide.

"We'd like to essentially make it so any parent can access this service, regardless of where they are or who they are," she says.

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