100 years of NSO
If your heart broke every time you went to work, what would keep you going every day? For Stacey Ninness, the answer is simple: seeing people’s lives change for the better.
Ninness is the president and CEO of Neighborhood Services Organization, or NSO, which is celebrating a century of nonprofit service this year. A self-proclaimed nonprofit junkie, Ninness credits NSO’s longevity to earnest staff and volunteers, ardent board support, and the nonprofit’s ability to adapt to community needs. She said working at NSO gives her life purpose, and she feels everyone from the dentists to the financial staff are as passionate as she is about the nonprofit’s mission.
“Every day I wake up and pinch myself that I’ve got this gig, it’s so awesome,” Ninness said. “Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots of stressful days, there’s lots of hard days, and you wonder, can I get anything done? Then you go to the properties and you see the clients who have a home and a safe place to stay, and you think, ‘it’s worth it.’”
Nothing like NSO
NSO’s vision is to bring Christ’s love to the homeless and working poor in Oklahoma City and to empower them to break the cycle of poverty. The nonprofit, located at 431 SW 11TH St., encourages its clients by addressing dental care, nutritional needs and housing solutions. Though this sounds straightforward, fulfilling that mission involves three transitional housing programs, two permanent housing programs, rental assistance, a general care dental clinic, and the largest independent WIC clinic in Oklahoma.
“When you think about a nonprofit, you think of a core service they provide, but when you think about NSO, you think about all the providers,” Ninness said. “It’s about providing housing, dental care, rental assistance, WIC, our mission is so broad. I don’t know of another nonprofit that has so many core services and addresses so many important issues than NSO.”
Rev. Linda Brinkworth, associate director of the South Central Jurisdiction and board chair for NSO, said the nonprofit began with an incubation mentality that led them to add variety in their services when it was no longer reasonable to keep expanding.
“Most of the nonprofits I have experience with begin or develop one or two things that are exceptional and stick with those things,” Brinkworth said. “WIC is not the dental clinic, which is not the Carolyn Williams Center, which is not the moms…the umbrella is pretty big. There’s just not another place that does what we do with this kind of breadth.”
NSO’s breadth of services is so wide that they were considered an essential organization during shutdowns across the state due to COVID-19. The designation has allowed them to offer all 77 counties in Oklahoma WIC services.
“I think the impact our services have is generational,” Ninness said. “If we get a mom off the street, then hopefully that changes the trajectory of that family. If we can provide the services for young men to get a GED or to graduate college, that’s going to change their life. We’re impacting generational poverty; we’re trying to halt it.”
History of NSO
NSO traces its history to the Wesley Community House, a ministry founded by United Methodist Women to serve impoverished families in the Riverside community of Oklahoma City, home to many immigrant families at the time. According to NSO’s online history page, the ministry had a library, a music department, choirs, camps and clubs for girls, a mother’s club, literacy and citizenship classes, and activities for children and youth. The organization made a difference in the lives of thousands of residents in the city, and as its impact grew, so too did its vision to help other neighborhoods.
In 1946, the Wesley Community House helped found the Bethlehem Center in a predominantly African American area of the city. The Bethlehem Center’s programs were similar to those of the Wesley Community House, and their holistic approach to caring for others met a variety of needs in their respective communities. In 1969, they joined forces with Neighborhood Centers, a nonprofit with multiple locations in the city. The three organizations merged and became Neighborhood Services Organization, better known as NSO.
The creativity that characterized the Wesley Community House’s programs lived on through NSO’s approach to addressing challenges faced by low income and homeless people in Oklahoma City. In fact, some of the region’s most well-known non-profits started as programs at NSO, including the Detox Center, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, Mobile Meals and Positive Tomorrows.
Brinkworth, who joined the board in August 2016, said seeing the mission in action during a single tour of NSO’s facilities was all it took to get her involved with the nonprofit.
“It wasn’t about the printed context or the historical story; it was seeing the staff with the clients in their setting, realizing that they’d been given a gift that I take for granted,” Brinkworth said. “Every one of the programs was something that I felt like I could put my name on it and be proud of it.”
NSO’s focus on temporary and permanent housing helps it address issues such as mental health, newborn care, life skills, education and job readiness.
The three transitional housing complexes each offer transitional living for up to two years. Martha’s House offers families a place to live while residents either work or attend school, Gatewood provides pregnant women and mothers of young children shelter and offers weekly life skills classes to prepare them for independent living, and the Carolyn Williams Center provides young men transitioning out of foster care a dorm-style complex to live in while they find jobs and prepare to become self-sufficient.
“Having been a single mom and being fortunate enough to have a home and a roof over my son’s head, I’ve been especially impressed with the programs that help the moms become independent and eventually help the clients move out into their own homes,” Brinkworth said.
Transitional living doesn’t meet the needs for everyone, so two housing complexes – Palo Duro I and Palo Duro II – offer homeless, single adults with mental illness a permanent home. Residents have access to on-site laundry, green space, a common area and a full-time case manager. Many residents of Palo Duro II have also experienced substance abuse issues in the past, and they often find support and healing while living there.
“I love going to the properties because I get my energy from the client,” Ninness said. “I love doing tours and getting those impromptu client stories, and every one of them talks about having hope for the first time.”
NSO’s WIC Clinic is one of three in the state to offer breastfeeding support, and four of its 10 weekly nutrition classes are taught in Spanish. The clinic served approximately 5,000 participants each month in 2019, a number which could go up because of NSO’s service expansion to the rest of the state due to the pandemic.
“Our WIC clinic has absorbed the needs from around the other 76 counties of Oklahoma, so they’re doing consultations and stuff that needs to be done for moms and babies,” Brinkworth said. “I think if that wasn’t available, I think we would see a stronger problem with poverty, with nutrition…I think that we would see poverty expand.”
The dental clinic offers several services, including exams, cleanings, extractions, dentures, repairs and more. Prices are listed on the NSO website, and the clinic is open to the public.
“You don’t think about it, but with your smile, it impacts all those socioeconomic things to get a job,” Ninness said. “We provide oral healthcare to everyone; there are no restrictions on a person qualifying for services. Oklahoma ranks last in accessibility to dental care, so that’s huge.”
NSO does not discriminate when considering who can qualify for services. Though it remains nonsectarian, the nonprofit has found a way to stay connected to its United Methodist roots.
NSO and the UMW
NSO remains closely connected with United Methodist Women and, as a result, the United Methodist Church. NSO has a covenant agreement with the UMW’s national office, and they are the UMW’s only National Mission Institute in Oklahoma. Ninness describes the covenant as a way to ensure NSO’s mission never deviates from its original intent.
Additionally, NSO’s board requires a third of its members to be United Methodist, and four Oklahoma Conference leaders are always included on the board: the UMW presidents of the Oklahoma Conference, Crossroads District and Heartland District, and the Heartland District Superintendent.
“Our board was set up years ago to always include the women of the church,” Ninness said. “They will always be reviewing our programs, our services, always having our engagement.”
Brinkworth describes UMW volunteers as dynamos, and she says their help in volunteering, fundraising and gathering donations is invaluable. She attends church with women who volunteered at the Bethlehem Center, and she believes that UMW members take pride in knowing the historic role they had in NSO’s founding.
“I think United Methodist women stand on the roots of having been a part of NSO from the beginning,” Brinkworth said. “Each of them has an investment, and each of them has an awareness because they have an investment of their organization from long ago. It’s passed along from one generation to the next.”
Ninness is thankful for the UMW’s contribution to NSO’s projects and year-round work, such as the annual Neighborhood Santa Operation, a gathering of UMW volunteers to assemble gifts for residents of NSO’s housing programs.
“One thing that’s important from the UMW is the support they give us day in and day out. If I need anything, I can ask them,” Ninness said. “Recently, the UMW just finished a campaign called Lifetime of Smiles; they raised $20,000 for a match opportunity for our event. These are women that go out and ensure the ministry continues to be. They’re absolutely vital, even though we’re not a part of the church, they are a part of NSO, and they always will be.”
The next 100 years
Ninness is excited for the possibilities for NSO’s next 100 years. She said the board is planning for the nonprofit’s long-term future, including implementing a data program to see how they can serve more people through housing solutions.
“We’re not just coming up to our 100 year and doing the same thing we did 100 years ago; we’re constantly looking at what we can do to serve our community differently,” Ninness said. “We’ve always had to be nimble and we’ve always had to address important issues in the community.”
Brinkworth said she’s ecstatic to stand on the shoulders of those who set up the first 100 years of success. She doesn’t think the nonprofit needs to reinvent any wheels; instead, she hopes NSO continues to polish what it does well. She also hopes that Christians become more engaged in community ministry, whether or not it’s with NSO.
“It’s more than money, it’s personal investment, and that investment comes in so many forms,” Brinkworth said. “I would hope that everyone who sits in the pew, not justt sitting and soaking but standing and serving. On behalf of NSO, I’d hope it’s with us, but if not, I hope that people are serving where they are passionate. The world needs difference makers.”
More than anything, Ninness hopes that NSO is able to continue serving those in need for another 100 years, whether or not the programs look like they do today.
“My hope is that in 100 years, whoever’s here continues the vision of what the UMW saw in 1920 – to serve the most at-risk, the most vulnerable, and the neediest in our community,” Ninness said. “I hope that vision never fades. I hope that whoever’s here in 100 years is as passionate as the people are here today…100 years from now, I hope we’re still a beacon of hope for everyone who enters our doors.”
Historic photos provided by NSO.