Meet Anna Valeria-Iseman, Executive Director Of The Open Door Mission

Anna Valeria-Iseman, new CEO of Open Door Mision
Anna Valeria-Iseman, new CEO of Open Door Mision

By Susan LeDoux

After a nationwide search, the Open Door Mission’s Board of Directors discovered the perfect candidate right here in Rochester. In fact, Anna Valeria-Iseman was already on staff at the Mission, because the previous Executive Director, Michael Hennessy, had hired her as his executive assistant.

In an interview with The Good News, Iseman said she grew up locally, graduating from Wheatland-Chili High School and Roberts Wesleyan College, with degrees in religion and philosophy. She felt called to urban ministry but soon realized she needed to learn more about the resources and social service system in Monroe County. To that end, she worked as a caseworker with Rochester’s Volunteers of America and Rochester General Hospital’s inpatient department, as well the Behavioral Health Network.

As anyone who serves people who need social, physical, and emotional assistance will tell you, solutions can be elusive. As a frontline advocate for the homeless and addicted in the city and in shelters, Iseman searched for answers to what worked and what did not.

“As material needs were met, I wondered what the root causes of peoples’ predicaments were. And where are the places that get it right?”

Three years ago, she reached out to Hennessy for answers, and that is when he hired her as his executive assistant. The future Gates Women and Children Residential Home — part of Hennessy’s impressive legacy —  now with Iseman at the helm, will bring help to women and children in desperate need.

Last year, the 19th ward rejected the presence of the residential home, even though 20% of its population was homeless. Although Hennessy and others at the Open Door Mission addressed the neighbors’ concerns at town meetings, assuring them this was not emergency, transient housing, the “not in my back yard” attitude reigned, and the residence was denied. Anna recalled that two nights before meeting with the city, she received a “clear message from God” in a dream.

“I saw a person we knew from the 19th ward screaming at the children,” she said, and added she believed (the dream) was God’s way of protecting the children.

The response to the residence from Supervisor Mark Assini and others in Gates could not have been more different. Anna said that, although they had the same questions, Gates people heard the answers and learned how this would work.

And so, the DOVE Campaign was born to create this transitional housing at 220 Coldwater Road that will use “best practices” to provide women with educational programs, life skills training, and case management.

 The Good News asked Iseman to describe these “best practices.”

  • They include job training, and capitalizing on existing community resources. Besides helping women become strong job candidates (preparing resumes, dressing appropriately, and developing interview skills), they will be taught how to maintain employment.

“Many women have stressors, such as family crises, that cause them to lose jobs,” Iseman said. Therefore, the Mission will work with companies that hire the women, providing liaisons for job support, so the women can develop a backup system or network for when crises occur.

  • Help the women obtain their GED through local adult education programs.
  • Help moms get to the root causes of their crises, such as difficulty handling conflict, and other life and parenting skills.

Iseman added there is a faith component.

“When identity is in Christ, breakdowns in relationships around her will not be the end all and be all of her life. It is key that her first relationship must be with God.”

  • Relief, restoration, and development based on the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Iseman believes that, in the residence, deeper, longer lasting efforts can be employed. First, a woman must be safe, clean, fed, and clothed; only then can she move to the restorative phase, to the place she was before her crisis happened, not where it was imminent.

Development addresses achieving goals and seeing them through for a year. As a privately funded agency, Iseman measures success “not just by numbers but where were the people we serve a year ago? How sustainable is their progress?”

Iseman believes the lack of shelters for women and children has been because many homeless women were not “counted” as they moved from house to house or couch to couch. They fall under the radar, and their children suffer because they are not getting to school.

The Mission recently celebrated its Gala event to raise money for the DOVE project. Iseman described the evening as “fabulous” and said she found it “overwhelming” as collaborators gathered to make this effort a success. Although they are starting small, they hope to open by summer 2018.

Meanwhile, the Open Door Mission continues to offer emergency housing for men, a community meal program, chapel services, clothing distribution, and the men’s addiction recovery program.

When asked what her message to our readers would be, Iseman said she “believes in seeing the potential in every person they serve. People have gifts they can’t develop. God changes people. We want to provide the environment that encourages that to happen.”

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