BY BOBBY BRIER
Lisa Durkin knows the value of teamwork.
As president and CEO of United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Durkin is proud of the fact that most of the accomplishments at the nonprofit come as the result of working together with her colleagues. Throughout the pandemic, UNC continued to provide services, including a food pantry open five days a week. The team also made sure to keep in touch with senior citizens to provide food services on a regular basis. Although UNC had to close its childcare services for one day, staff immediately applied for a state waiver in order to keep it open for essential workers.
“I felt like for three months, from March of 2020 (until) probably May, it was nothing but adrenaline that kept us moving,” Durkin said on a recent morning inside her South Scranton office.
Durkin, who grew up in Carbondale and still lives there with her partner, Steve, took over the role of president and CEO of UNC from Michael Hanley in February 2019. Prior to that, she served in various roles in the organization, beginning her career as a housing counselor.
“I started here two weeks after I graduated from college,” said Durkin, who has a degree in social work from Mansfield University. “And so it was meant to be my starter job and (to) get a foot in the door, learn social services, start to figure out, you know, if this is where I wanted to be. Certainly, I never expected to still be here 23 years later. I don’t think anybody goes into a job thinking that it’s going to last that long. But really, it’s just been a place where I always saw opportunities and growth and nothing ever stayed stagnant. So it was easy to stay and never feel like I was stuck.”
The changing nature of the job mirrors the growth of the organization since Durkin started there. As a young housing counselor, Durkin said, UNC did not have substantial assistance programs in place to help with people’s needs, such as rental and utilities, like the organization does now. Back then, she often assisted people in emergency situations and helped them to “put the crisis in a more manageable universe.”
Her career continued to grow as she was promoted to assistant director and then to director of the community services program of the nonprofit, which included overseeing 20 crisis intervention programs.
“I felt like really in that role, and the subsequent roles that followed, I was really training for this role that I’m in now, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she said.
Through these various experiences, Durkin continued to listen and learn about the developing needs of the Scranton community. With her colleagues, she worked on a 10-year renewal project, which included building rental properties in South Scranton. One of Durkin’s best memories from this time involved witnessing a mother, whom Durkin had met while working as a case manager, transition from homelessness into the UNC rental property. Eventually, the woman purchased her own home.
“It was nice to see her kind of go through this continuum of support and, you know, realize her own success,” Durkin said.
The Upvalley woman and her colleagues are focusing on a similar renewal project in the Pine Brook section of the city. A key component of this work involves speaking to community members, including neighbors and business owners. Despite challenges presented by the pandemic, Durkin said they conducted meetings over Zoom and met on front porches with Pine Brook residents to get more information on what’s working in the community. In addition to meeting the housing needs of people across the city, Durkin sees a growing need for workforce development and said that there may be a crisis looming in the community with a shortage of skilled labor.
“Anything we can do to help develop and support a skilled labor force, we’re going to do. So, we’ve been working on our new program,” she added. “We’ve partnered with Johnson College. We’ve got support from our local foundations to really give this our all and assist people in getting back — not only getting back into work but really building a career and hopefully building wealth for themselves.”
Today, UNC’s childcare centers bustle with activity, and the healthy aging campuses are returning to in-person programs, such as tai chi and yoga, with older adults gathering afterward for smoothies and coffee. The food outreach program remains strong, she said, with food bags being distributed to about 50 households. Housing counselors also work tirelessly to assist families who fell behind with rental payments during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the education department continues its outreach to new immigrants in the community while also providing English language learning services virtually and in person.
With all of these services simultaneously provided at the nonprofit, Durkin emphasized the importance of housing and the stability that it provides as “the No. 1 indicator of somebody’s success in overcoming barriers and in lifting (them) out of poverty and advancing and building wealth.”
In UNC’s near future, Durkin sees the organization continuing to build up its workforce development program as well as its childcare and affordable housing options.
“What’s rewarding about this role is that I get to be a part of so much of what’s happening,” she said. “We have a large team here at the agency who really executes the mission. They all have a very specific role here at the agency, and I get to play a small part of all of that.”
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