Ikram Koliso, who lives at CommonBond’s Torre de San Miguel housing community in St. Paul, recently received two top honors from St. Catherine University in St. Paul. As valedictorian, Ikram graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 cumulative GPA , and was selected as the student commencement speaker for the Baccalaureate ceremony.
A double major in social work and public health, Ikram has held several key student leadership positions. She is also the 2017 award winner of the Mary E. McCahill Award, which is presented to a senior who has consistently demonstrated outstanding leadership, academic excellence, loyalty and service to the university throughout her years at St. Kate’s.
“Ikram is a scholar and deeply engaged member of the St. Catherine community. Amazingly, she received 12 nominations for this award,” said President ReBecca Koenig Roloff, president of St. Catherine.
Supporting academic success and leadership skills among residents like Ikram is a goal of CommonBond’s supportive housing model. Brenda Petry, an Advantage Services Regional Manager for CommonBond, said, “CommonBond’s stable, safe housing, where community members have access to critical support and resources along the way, can provide such an important foundation from which individuals can launch and reach their own goals and successes. We are so thrilled for Ikram and her family, and for all of their successes and accomplishments.”
Ikram’s other achievements and awards include Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women Student Leadership Awards (2015 and 2017); an Antonian Scholars Senior Honors Project Award; and induction in the Phi Alpha (social work) and Kappa Gamma Pi (Catholic leadership) honor societies.
Meet Hawa Abbajebel, a CommonBond resident and recipient of the top CommonBond Leadership Scholarship. Hawa was one of five CommonBond youth who recently received a scholarship to use for post-secondary education.
Hawa has lived in a CommonBond housing community her entire life – first at Skyline Tower in St. Paul, and then at Torre de San Miguel on St. Paul’s Westside. She just finished her junior year of high school and is excited to continue looking at colleges over the summer.
We sat down with Hawa recently to ask her more about the scholarship and her volunteer service. Her thoughtful answers quickly showed us why she’s such a deserving scholarship recipient and bright light in the community.
CommonBond: Which CommonBond youth programs have you participated in?
Hawa: I did Study Buddies when I was younger, and then Learning Circles. Next year I’m hoping to work with the younger kids at Torre de San Miguel.
CommonBond: How have these programs impacted your school work and what you want to do in life?
Hawa: It was really cool because the Study Buddies mentors were always really interesting people from a variety of different fields. They helped you not only do well with your homework, but also with accessing different learning opportunities in the community. The youth programs helped you to make new friends – it’s really nice to become friends with your neighbors. My younger siblings come to the Advantage Center for homework help – that’s where they’ve met most of their neighborhood friends.
CommonBond: What kind of volunteer work do you do in the community?
Hawa: In my scholarship essay, instead of listing my specific volunteer roles and hours, I wrote about how volunteering in general has played a significant role in my life. To me, it doesn’t mean just going to a certain place without getting paid and then counting the hours you were there – in every aspect of your life, wherever you are, when you have an opportunity to help someone, that’s volunteering. I admire that my parents are very giving people, so that’s what I wrote about.
I also wrote about wanting to be able to give back to this community. St. Paul is a beautiful city – all of it, including the places with a lot of poverty. There’s even beauty in the brokenness of a neighborhood, including the parts that are forgotten. I often hear other kids say they want to get rich and move out of the neighborhood they grew up in – but if you stay, and try to do better and make it a better place, that’s the kind of America that we should aspire to. As the neighborhood residents, we know what’s going to work best – the people who grew up in affordable housing communities need to become mayors and CEOs and other kinds of leaders. We have the knowledge, experience, and ideas to make communities a place where everyone can do well.
CommonBond: What do you hope to do after you graduate from high school a year from now?
Hawa: I think about colleges a lot. I’ve looked at a number of them, and will look at more this summer. Wherever I end up, I hope to stay in Minnesota because it’s home. There are so many subjects and areas I’m interested in – it’s hard to choose. I know whatever I study and whichever field I go into in the future, it will be tied to helping communities.
CommonBond: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not studying or volunteering?
Hawa: My favorite activity is writing – especially short stories based on my own life experiences or my family’s experiences. I’d love to write a book about my family’s stories. I also like art, mostly painting and drawing. And I love skateboarding – I mostly just stay around my neighborhood because I like it here!
With alarming frequency, individuals, households, and entire communities are being displaced as a result of a growing wave of real estate investments – purchases that turn formerly affordable apartments across the Twin Cities region into upscale properties.
Led by the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP), a coalition of affordable housing nonprofits and affected renters worked with Twin Cities Public Television to create a 60-minute documentary entitled “Sold Out: Affordable Housing at Risk” on the topic of the loss of affordable housing.
CommonBond’s CEO Deidre Schmidt is featured in the film, as well as many other nonprofit leaders, renters, and other community representatives. Together, their voices lift up the stories of affected residents, showcase the community impacts of displacement, and highlight the urgent need to preserve private-market affordable housing.
“The hope for the future lies in a change in mindset. We have to start looking at affordable housing as critical infrastructure… We cannot assume that housing, particularly affordable housing, will be a natural byproduct of a healthy economy and a healthy society. We have to understand that housing is actually a key ingredient for a healthy economy and a healthy society, so we need to invest in it,” said Deidre Schmidt in the documentary.
Over the course of the last school year, youth at a CommonBond housing community in Minnetonka learned a lot about the importance of higher learning. Every week, youth have answered “College Knowledge” questions, and conducted research on a famous person, local college, or the importance of nutrition in order to hone their research skills. The kids loved this new programming and celebrated their hard work with a visit from the University of Minnesota’s very own Goldy Gopher!
In preparation for Goldy’s visit, the youth designed their own “college-bound” t-shirts. When Goldy arrived, they played team trivia and had their shirts autographed by the mascot. The kids then drew their own “college self.”
Alecia Adney-Hernandez, Advantage Services Coordinator, said “At CommonBond, we believe it’s never too early to empower kids toward higher learning goals!” Her colleague, Tony Khambounmy, a Youth Specialist, added, “It was fun to hear about these kids’ hopes and dreams after today’s event!”
Meet Mangala Sharma, a services coordinator at CommonBond’s Skyline Tower housing community in St. Paul. She recently received a Conservation and Leadership Award from The Trust for Public Land. The award honors and celebrates the work she has done in engaging with Skyline Tower residents and others in the planning of a park near their homes.
CommonBond Communities is excited for more green space near Skyline – located off of I-94 and Hamline Avenue in St. Paul – and proud to see how residents and staff help shape their communities. Mangala recently shared some insight into what led her to work with CommonBond residents, and what keeps her passionate about affordable housing with supportive services.
CommonBond: Tell us more about the park space for which you won the award
Mangala: CommonBond residents deserve a lot of the credit! Students from nearby Gordon Parks High School had the idea for the park, and Skyline residents quickly joined in. I’ve had the privilege of working with the residents and the community to help turn the idea into a reality. In addition to the services we offer within Skyline Tower, the park will help further break down a sense of isolation that sometimes comes from living in a large place. It will be a space for residents and local communities to come together – a place for friendship, meeting new people, getting fresh air, and telling stories. It’s also a great place for civic engagement and community building.
CommonBond: What experiences from your life help shape your approach to working with CommonBond residents?
Mangala: I am a former refugee myself. My husband and I lived in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal for almost eight years with our two daughters — they were just 2-1/2 years and two months old when we went to the camp. I think it’s helpful that I’ve been through a journey similar to many of the Skyline residents – one that includes immigration, refugee status, and living through poverty or homelessness. I have deep compassion for residents with similar experiences.
When I needed a roof over my head and different kinds of support, a United Nations agency supported my family. By helping provide housing and services through CommonBond, I can pass along the support I received. We all need help at some point in our lives. This is a shared human need. Through my own experiences I picked up skills that make me effective at my job today. I feel incredible satisfaction in my job.
CommonBond: What are you most passionate about in your job?
Mangala: I love being a coach. I’m not a case manager and I’m not there to manage anyone’s life. I simply work with residents to come up with solutions to their struggles. This includes anything from challenges with their neighbors or advising on household budgeting to introducing them to resources and providing support for community activism and advocacy. I want to walk side-by-side with residents.
CommonBond: What do you wish everyone knew about affordable housing?
Mangala: Sometimes there are negative connotations about people who live in affordable housing. I see affordable housing as a stepping stone – as a place to start a new life. For example, five years ago, there was a family from the Bhutanese community looking for a place to live. The wife was sick, and the husband didn’t have a lot of education or job skills. They had four children, plus one set of grandparents. They secured a 4-bedroom apartment at CommonBond’s Torre de San Miguel housing community on St. Paul’s West Side.
With a stable place to live, the wife’s health improved significantly, the husband was able to find a better job, and they were very prudent and intentional with their finances. They obtained first-time homebuyers education and other support through CommonBond, and after just two years, they had saved enough to purchase a house. One of their sons got a full scholarship to Stanford, where he’ll start school this fall! The other kids are doing really well, too. Stable housing was the critical step for them. This family is simply amazing – incredibly hard-working and resilient. They make me think about what so many other families and individuals can do in our communities when they have a safe, stable home as a foundation.
Study Buddies and Homework Center programming continues to thrive at 15 CommonBond housing communities. These programs provide opportunities for elementary age children to develop meaningful relationships with supportive adults while improving academic skills. In addition to these flagship youth programs, CommonBond increased its emphasis on programs for teenagers in 2016 – resulting in comprehensive programs offered to teens at four Twin Cities-based CommonBond properties.
Through these programs, 120 youth in grades 7 – 12 developed relationships with peers, engaged in leadership activities, received one-on-one support with academics, and engaged in post-secondary planning. The value of these programs to teens and their families is evidenced by the fact that many teens choose to attend Teen Programs at their housing community rather than participating in other extracurricular activities.
At CommonBond’s Skyline Tower in St. Paul, staff started a Young Men’s Group for residents ages 12-20 years old. The staff and residents are cultivating a space that – through purposeful play and teambuilding – allows the young men to “explore what it means to keep it real, tell the truth, support each other, and respect themselves and others,” says Teen Program Coordinator Analuna Brambila. The young men are excited about the club and eagerly talk about upcoming meetings. A parallel young women’s group will start in March.
Across all CommonBond housing communities that offer youth and teen programming, attendance numbers are growing rapidly, and parents are seeing positive effects with their children and teens. In fact, a parent recently commented that the reason she lives in the building is because the programs provide her family with so much support!
On a cold January evening, four senior residents from CommonBond’s Riverview Senior Housing in Minneapolis got up on a stage at Pillsbury House Theater to share personal life stories with a live audience. Some stories were warm and brief, some rhymed and provided humor, and others brought the audience to tears.
CommonBond Communities collaborated with EngAGE – a California nonprofit that is expanding its reach to Minnesota – to build on the premise that embracing a whole-person approach to creative and healthy aging can be extremely beneficial to the health and well-being of seniors. We believe providing arts, wellness, lifelong learning, and intergenerational programs to seniors living in affordable apartment communities will be especially beneficial for a healthy aging process, so we collaborated on this storytelling opportunity for CommonBond seniors. The performance was the culmination of the “Power of Storytelling” class held at the Riverview housing community.
Through this storytelling experience, CommonBond residents were able to do things they never thought possible, including thinking of themselves as artists and storytellers, writing down their stories, and performing in front of a live audience. They reported feeling empowered and excited by the performances.
“The Power of Storytelling” class was taught by local actor, vocalist, and professor T. Mychael Rambo, who also participated in the live performances. The show was directed by Faye M. Price, and hosted by Dr. Jon Hallberg of the Hippocrates Café. Joining this group onstage was Pat Donohue, former guitarist for A Prairie Home Companion.
On Sunday, March 12, from 7-8 p.m. Central, the Artfully Aging Radio Hour will be broadcast on EngAGE’s weekly radio show Experience Talks on KPFK Los Angeles (FM 90.7). During that time it will also stream live at www.kpfk.org, and will be archived there after the show airs. Additionally, it will also be archived at www.experiencetalks.org a few days later.
“The Power of Storytelling” project – including the class and the performances – was a collaboration between CommonBond Communities, EngAGE, Pillsbury House + Theatre, Hippocrates Café, and Aroha Philanthropies.
We are thrilled to welcome Joe’Mar Hooper to the CommonBond team! He recently joined CommonBond Communities as the inaugural Wisconsin Market Leader.
In this role, Hooper leads Wisconsin business growth and relationship development activities. This hire is part of a bigger move by CommonBond in Milwaukee and the greater Wisconsin market — in addition to this hire, CommonBond plans to serve more people, shift its governance model to enhance local Board influence, and expand its property management presence. After more than a decade in the state offering affordable housing and services, CommonBond Communities is expanding its efforts and presence to better serve Wisconsin residents.
Hooper brings with him an expansive mix of policy, legislative, finance, housing, community engagement, and economic and community development experience. His background will help create an even stronger foundation for advancing CommonBond’s growth in Wisconsin.
“Having grown up on Milwaukee’s Northside and seeing the effects of poverty and housing insecurity on my friends, neighbors, and loved ones, the mission of CommonBond Communities resonates with me. I am excited to work with this great organization to grow affordable housing and supportive services in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin,” said Joe’Mar Hooper.
Hooper will partner with Greg Lamas, CommonBond’s Wisconsin-based Regional Manager of Housing and Services, in advancing partnerships and opportunities to expand CommonBond’s work in Milwaukee and the greater Wisconsin community. The engagement of Joe’Mar Hooper will help us put down even deeper roots in Wisconsin.
“I am thrilled to have Joe’Mar provide leadership for our new business and community partnerships,” said CommonBond CEO Deidre Schmidt. “Joe’Mar is a perfect fit for our organization. He is a respected professional, has demonstrated real creativity in the face of financial and regulatory constraints, and comes to our work with a heartfelt connection to our mission.”
Hooper’s professional career spans two decades and includes leadership positions at the local and state level, including serving as the Budget Manager for the Department of City Development/Redevelopment Authority, Legislative Fiscal Manager for the Department of Administration, Deputy City Treasurer, and Operations Manager for the Milwaukee Health Department. He has strong relationships within the Milwaukee community and throughout the state of Wisconsin.
In addition to his work experience, Mr. Hooper has a passion for community involvement (and excellent BBQ, in case you were wondering about his favorite food!). He has been an active member in civic organizations and boards in the Milwaukee community, including serving as a commissioner on the Social Development Commission of Milwaukee County, and is currently a member of the board of directors of the Milwaukee Public Library (Finance Chair) and the Salvation Army. He holds an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
CommonBond Communities and its Seward neighborhood partners have invested significant time and resources in the two Seward Towers. To make the Seward Tower properties more welcoming, environmentally friendly, and safe for residents – and to preserve the buildings for the long-term – extensive renovation of the common spaces and individual apartments began late in 2015. Aging buildings, old sewer pipes, older mechanicals, and windows that no longer met code were some of the building issues that were addressed.
Throughout the duration of the construction period, residents had to move out of their units to accommodate the apartment upgrades. More than 35 families were relocated to a nearby apartment building, and the remaining households were temporarily moved within the buildings. With the well-being of residents as its top priority, CommonBond worked with a proven partner, Frerichs Construction, to complete the renovations in record time – the construction schedule was reduced by more than six months. All residents moved back into their apartment homes to find new windows, flooring, countertops, and appliances. In addition to new mechanicals and other technical upgrades to the building itself, light and airy entrances and common spaces were improved the resident experience.
“Residents displayed such patience with the many unknowns of this renovation project. This community is made up of some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met, and residents tried hard to see the positives of the renovation instead of focusing on the day-to-day challenges such extensive remodeling presented,” said Kim Christoffel, CommonBond Advantage Services Coordinator at Seward Tower West.
Most residents were happy to move back into their updated homes. They expressed appreciation for the readily available parking, homework center for their children, and the sense of community that exists at Seward Towers.
Sandy Myers, a Seward Tower West resident, shared his experience with the renovations:
When the construction started, it was hard for me since I have good days and bad days with pain. It was so helpful to have a crew move my belongings and take care of the whole move to the temporary place. I’m thrilled to be back in my renovated apartment. Every morning it’s a blessing to wake up in this place. My remodeled apartment feels like a Christmas present and New Years present all wrapped up in one!
I feel so happy here. I’m not the kind of person that’s happy every day – but even on the days when I have pain, I still feel grateful and thrilled to be here! Everything is new – doors, cabinets, stove, fridge – and I don’t hear any freeway traffic even though I live right off I-94. It’s a lovely place and I treat it like that – I like to keep my floors clean and shining because I care about this place. I wouldn’t give up this home up for anything!
The Frey Foundation understands the power of home. Since 2006, a major focus of its grantmaking has been to help end homelessness. The foundation trustees understand that to have an impact on homelessness, funding needed to go beyond bricks and mortar – it needs to be extended to support those who have experienced homelessness address underlying issues that led to their homelessness.
In part because of the Frey Foundation’s commitment, CommonBond has been able to expand its work in providing supportive housing so that now 369 individuals and families – including 58 veterans who have experienced chronic or long-term homelessness – are experiencing stability in their CommonBond home. These residents have the added advantage of having onsite services that address mental and chemical health issues, education, and employment.
“A family can move from a shelter or precarious living situation into decent housing, and the same issues will follow them – mental health challenges, chemical dependency, domestic abuse, lack of a high school education, and no employment,” says Jim Frey, president of the Frey Foundation. “It’s extremely difficult for people to cope with chemical dependency and mental health issues, for example, when their lives are in chaos, constantly moving among temporary living arrangements. Once living situations are stabilized, people then need supportive services to help them overcome the underlying issues that led to housing instability.”
Last summer, CommonBond received a matching grant from the Frey Foundation aimed at attracting new donors, encouraging existing donors to give at an increased level, and inviting prior donors to be generous again. In December, the match was successfully met thanks to an outpouring of support from individuals who – like the Frey family members – want to be a part of ending homelessness in our community.
Thank you to the Frey family and all of our donors who believe in the power of home. With your support, we will continue to be able to help build stable homes, strong futures, and vibrant communities with and for those with the greatest need.