By CRISTINA JANNEY
Linda Mills has had a lifelong mission of helping people, whether that was being a mentor to college students or Girl Scouts or leading efforts to help those facing hunger or homeless in Ellis County.
Mills will retire at the end of March as the executive director of First Call for Help.
First Call for Help addresses many community needs, including helping Ellis County residents with rental and utility assistance. It operates the Backpack for Kids program, which supplies backpacks and school supplies to families in need. The center also has a diaper pantry, operates Meals on Wheels and a small food pantry.
Before Mills worked as the director of First Call for Help, she worked for AmeriCorps at Fort Hays State University. She also worked as the director of the Sunflower Girl Scout Council.
When the Sunflower Girl Scout Council merged into the Girl Scouts of the Kansas Heartland, Mills' job required more travel.
She decided she wanted to remain in a service-oriented position, but she wanted to stay closer to her home in Hays.
"It was a good mission," she said of First Call for Help. "It helped people in ways that I had not experienced before."
She said she immediately started to learn about the needs in the community.
"I was getting to know what services were available in the county and what wasn't available and what was lacking and dove into that," she said. "I learned a lot and grew a lot personally through what I was learning."
She didn't know all of First Call for Help's services or what other services in the community existed.
"You don't know what you don't know sometimes," she said.
She said she learned people who grew up in a cycle of poverty think differently than those who were raised in the middle class.
A family from Nebraska ended up at the Hays Police Station because they ran out of gas and had no money. The family, which included four children ages 10 years to 3 months, were on their way to a funeral for a family member in Texas.
Mills said she didn't understand why a family would leave home, knowing they didn't have enough money or gas to get to their destination.
"It was not something that I understood, but as time went on I learned that people have different circumstances. They grew up differently than I did or a lot of us did. Whatever situation they're in is the situation that they're in. We don't place blame. We try not to judge."
"My family was certainly not wealthy," she said. "My dad was in the military. [I thought about] how blessed we were to have what we did have and parents who instilled that in us. Not everyone has those same opportunities."
During Mills' tenure, First Call for Help has reached several milestones.
The board began seriously discussing how to address homelessness in Hays. You might not see people in Hays sleeping on the streets, but people in Hays are still dealing with homelessness, Mills said.
First Call's board decided it was going to move its office out of the Hadley Center and buy its own building on 13th Street with an eye on adding a transitional housing program.
The organization launched a $250,000 capital campaign in 2019 to remodel a portion of its new building into a four-units for a transitional housing program.
Initially, some community members didn't have a lot of buy-in for a shelter in Hays, Mills said. During her tenure, she worked to increase First Call for Help's visibility and financial support.
"For me, it's not all about money, but it's all about the mission," she said. "You've got to get your mission out there in the community in order to get the support for it. ...
"When we were able to get that final dollar of our capital campaign and continue to move ahead with our housing and then getting that housing open, [that was a milestone,]" she said.
Mills said community members have helped First Call for Help meet its mission in small way and large.
She recalled an older woman entering the office when the agency was still in the Hadley Center. The woman said First Call for Help assisted her 15 years ago when she was struggling.
"She said, 'Things in my life have turned around, and I'm in a good place now. I want to try to give back,'" Mills said.
She handed Mills a donation for the agency.
"The check she gave us wasn't huge, but it was just the fact that she took the time to come in and do that. ...
"People are very grateful for the help that we can give them," Mills said. "That is always a good feeling to know that you have been able to help somebody."
Laura Shoaff, First Call for Help project coordinator and office assistant, worked with Mills at both First Call and the Girl Scouts.
"Sometimes people come into your life for various reasons," Shoaff said. "Our paths have crossed in many different avenues throughout our lives so far. Neighbors in our early years, friends, HRC kids’ soccer, co-workers, and for a short time walking partners. ...
"Not only have I enjoyed working for Linda through these past nine years, but I also appreciate our friendship. I wish her a wonderful retirement full of glamping in her van, painting and cheering on the Chiefs!"
Laura Allen, First Call for Help client services specialist, said Mills is a joy to work with.
"As one of the most non-judgmental people I have ever known, she treats not only employees but clients with respect and kindness," Allen said. "Directors don’t always like to 'work in the trenches' so to speak, but Linda was never scared to jump in and help wherever she was needed in the community.
"Her desire to help our most vulnerable populations was, and I am sure, will remain, genuine. She will be missed, but the work she did at FCFH will always be remembered."
"It's been a good experience here," Mills said of First Call for Help. "I've learned, I've grown. The things we as a team, both this organization and the community have done are for the betterment of the community. I'm proud of that."
Mills, 66, hasn't ruled out working again or volunteering for a non-profit agency. However, now she's planning on some much-deserved me time.
She said she plans to take a year off from any job or service work. She wants to travel and spend more time with family, who are scattered across the country.
There will be a come-and-go reception for Mills from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on March 29 at the Chestnut Street Building, 1200 Main, Hays.