Champions of the most vulnerable
In its 125th year, Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana is under new leadership at a time when their services have never been more needed.
When Volunteers of America began serving New Orleans in 1896, the city was years into a yellow fever outbreak so horrific it had earned it the nickname “Necropolis,” or city of the dead.
Now, in the midst of another pandemic, Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana (VOASELA) — one of the largest human services providers in the region — has chosen a new leader, Voris Vigee. After working her waxy up in the organization for 27 years, Vigee officially became the first woman and first Black president and CEO of Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana this past January.
Founded in the Cooper Union Auditorium in New York City on March 8, 1896 by social reformers Ballington and Maud Booth in an effort to serve the country’s most vulnerable populations, Volunteers of America currently operates in 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, providing an array of services to seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, at-risk youth and more. Headquartered at 4152 Canal Street in New Orleans, the Southeast Louisiana affiliate offers more than 20 programs across a 16-parish area that serve over 47,000 people annually.
The nonprofit wears plenty of hats — in addition to being a licensed adoption agency, it’s also a behavioral health service provider for those with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities, provides an array of youth and family services and programs for seniors, and is a huge provider of affordable housing in Southeast Louisiana.
In January, Renaissance Neighborhood Development Corporation, a subsidiary of VOASELA, received a $16 million bond from the Louisiana Housing Corporation to develop 110 affordable rental units in East Baton Rouge Parish. Developments in New Orleans include Terraces on Tulane in Mid-City, Elysian Courtyards and Centennial Place, which features 52 units of residential rental apartments, as well as a commercial kitchen that is home to Fresh Food Factor, another VOASELA program that provides fresh and healthy meals to New Orleans school children.
Since last May, VOASELA has also contracted with the Louisiana Department of Health to facilitate COVID-19 resources throughout the state. Once an individual speaks with a state contact tracer and indicates that they need assistance with food, lodging, medical care, quarantining, etc., VOASELA is notified. The organization then reaches out to the person in need and helps them get access to resources in their area. To date, VOASELA has aided over 28,000 Louisianans in this way.
Surprisingly, even with such a wide array of good works and a long history in the community, Vigee says the organization still suffers from a lack of awareness, but if she has her way, that won’t be true for long. In the meantime, though, there’s a lot of work to be done.
What services are in greatest demand in Southeast Louisiana?
Housing. Besides Renaissance Neighborhood Development Corporation, we also work with our other two affiliates in Louisiana – Volunteers of America Greater Baton Rouge and Volunteers of America North Louisiana — [in instances like] the hurricanes that impacted Lake Charles or the 2016 flood in Baton Rouge. New housing is a huge need.
Also, children and family. It’s important that we have services available for at-risk youth. During the pandemic, some kids are not attending school the way they should because virtual has worn them out or they don’t have access, and they are doing things that they should not be.
We serve a large veteran population here in our community and for those who are experiencing homelessness, Volunteers of America has done a very good job of meeting the need. Another need relates to opioids – parts of the parishes in which we serve are really hit by that, so we are trying to serve the community affected. And folks living with mental health issues, which don’t just affect underserved populations, they affect all populations, and the pandemic only exacerbates that situation. We currently don’t have a lot of work being done in the arena of substance abuse, but we are looking to do work in that space in the near future.
What have been the biggest challenges facing your constituents over the past year?
Access. Access to much-needed services. That has been a challenge, and we have been able to mitigate it in myriad ways. Some of the underserved population did not have viable transportation to begin with. When you live in rural communities, trying to get to your doctors’ appointments or whatever community resource you were trying to access, the pandemic just compounded the challenge. We’ve tried to mitigate that by providing services virtually… calling and checking on folks to see how they are doing mentally. The pandemic has increased the level of isolation — not being able to access medical or other services, or even just socialization.
You’ve got to think about things differently. How do you provide a service or give an individual access? That’s where innovation comes into place – typically out of crises. You have to have those conversations on a national level with partnering and affiliate organizations — we’re not here to solve this problem in a bubble. The pandemic has taught us that out of challenge comes opportunity to do things better, to think differently.
We’ve done pretty well with that as an organization because the people have been committed. Our frontline staff never missed a beat; they never complained. I will always be grateful to our front-line workers. But for them and God, we would not be here today.
What does the strategic roadmap look like for the organization?
One of the things we have charged ourselves with in the first six months of 2021 is a new strategic plan. It needs to reflect the diversity of the population that we serve, of the people we work alongside of and support in the community. It also needs to reflect innovative ideas that will end up spurring this community to greater heights, where we are able to serve people with long-term impact, not just place a Band-Aid.
We are partnering with Open Minds [consultants to organizations in the health and human services field] to assist us with our strategic plan. Surveys are going out to all staff, not just the leaders and middle managers, to give them the opportunity to share their voices. Some of the best ideas come from the frontline workers, the boots on the ground, so we have to be able to cultivate those ideas.
Our board is heavily invested and involved in this process. There are some folks who think their job is to govern, but their job is also to ensure that the vision is fulfilled. We are increasing the diversity of our board — of experience, thought, people, geographical communities in which we serve. Our organization needs to be more representative of the communities in which we serve so we can make better decisions for the future.
We are here for the people. But for the people, we would not have a job. Our mission calls us to do this great and necessary work. And [our staff members] get it. Their words matter, their voices matter. Reiterating that culture is important. The culture we are cultivating is important because people are watching, people are depending on us. We have to make sure we deliver what we promise.
What led you to this work?
I’m originally from Chicago. My parents sent me here to Xavier University because my dream back then was to become a pediatrician and open a clinic in an underserved neighborhood. As I was finishing up my sophomore year of college, I got a job working in a group home setting where folks with intellectual disabilities resided. The goal there was for residents to eventually live independently in the community with minimal support.
I ended up working with one of the residents at this group home. The doctors had a very pessimistic viewpoint as to the abilities of the individual. I worked with this guy — he was younger than me — day in, day out, and started to see a difference. He was smiling, he would laugh. He couldn’t communicate his needs and wants verbally, but he knew sign language. He would try to sign to me. It changed the course of my future because, whether it was solely me or a collective effort, I felt like I was making a difference in that young boy’s life.
I worked for that organization for a short period of time and at another organization prior to Volunteers of America, working with the intellectual disability population. I love all vulnerable populations, but that population has a very strong handprint on my heart. Advocating for them to make sure people see their abilities, not their disability, that they are people just like us and should not be treated any differently.
I love New Orleans. I married a New Orleans boy. I have three kids. Doing this type of work but still taking care of family is very important to me. My faith is extremely strong: God first, family second, everything else comes behind.
What organizational priorities matter most to you, personally?
I would love to see diversity, equity, inclusion as part of the fabric of this organization. It wasn’t part of the foundation, unfortunately, but can definitely be woven into the fabric moving forward. It will stand as a pillar within our strategic plan and be embedded within our culture. I stress to my staff integrity, transparency and accountability. Be accountable for your actions and for one another because we are one team. We want to be able to lead with integrity, to have a servant heart and a business mind. If we don’t make money, we can’t be of value to the community at large because in order to create new programs, you need money.
Technology is a big area that we would like to see enhanced within this organization. We have just invested in two electronic health record systems. They are going to serve individuals who have behavioral health issues — mental health and substance issues and [the] intellectual disability population. It will allow us to interface with the claims billing process and create metrics to track quality outcomes. We want to be able to know how we are performing.
The other thing — we want Volunteers of America not to be that best-kept secret. We want to brand the organization where people understand what we do. People need to know that we are more than just donated cars. The cars serve a great purpose of generating dollars to support funding gaps for some of our programs, but that’s not all we do.
What more do you want people to know about the organization’s mission?
The reality of it is that all of our families are affected by vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations don’t necessarily mean folks who are poverty stricken. Someone may be a senior who needs to have a ramp built or grab bars installed in their home — we do that [Repairs on Wheels, which helps the elderly age in place]. We have seniors who retire and want to be able to give back and volunteer their time. We connect them to volunteering with schools, with other businesses. We provide counseling — not just crisis counseling but also marriage, anger management and mental health counseling. We have all sorts of resources available.
We have over 20 programs — a lot of people don’t realize that — from birth to elderly. We build housing. I want people to say, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that. They’re doing great work.’ They may not want to work with veterans but love working with children, seniors, people affected by HIV and AIDS or babies in our adoption program. We have something for everyone if they want to give back to the community, but they have to know who we are.
Our ministry is a ministry of service. Our work is our ministry. We are an interdenominational church. We welcome all people — of faith and no faith — we don’t discriminate. Our doors are open to all people, to receive or provide services.
How does being the first woman and the first African American in this leadership role shape your perspective?
Kamala Harris said it more eloquently than I could ever say it: ‘I may be the first, but I will not be the last.’ It is my responsibility to ensure that doors are open, that there is equity, parity, opportunities for growth for all people. To develop folks, that if they choose to continue to do this great work in our community with Volunteers of America, that they are prepared. I want to make sure people have the opportunity to learn, grow, to educate themselves, be a part of something bigger than us because it’s never about us. It’s about the people. In this role, I feel like have an obligation — and it’s a wonderful obligation and weight to carry — to give folks the opportunity they need, if they choose to work for it.
How can individuals and businesses support your work?
Share our story. Call us. Call me. We say donate your time, talent, treasure — it doesn’t always need to be money. We want you to be a part of this. That includes bringing business partners to the table. What we do affects businesses out there, not just the underserved population. But they need to know who we are and what we do, so we are inviting them to opportunities like our community forums.
Volunteers of America cannot do this work alone. We need the business community, we need those who care about one another, to do great work. Like they say, closed mouths don’t get fed — we are asking for their support.