From remarks made by outgoing Barnabas CEO to the Nassau County Democratic Club on June 7, 2021
By Susan Hardee Steger
July 6, 2021
“This is a community that helps when people are down.”
On June 7, the Nassau County Democratic Club welcomed Wanda Lanier on what was to be her last speech before retiring as CEO of Barnabas Nassau. Lanier reminisced on the past and spoke freely of the challenges ahead for a community she has called home for the last eleven years.
Most of Lanier’s career has involved helping the homeless with housing needs and access to healthcare. When she began her new position with Barnabas in 2010, her goal was to expand the safety net for those in need.
Barnabas came into being in the late 1980s when the nationwide safety net system for social services began to erode. Wages at the lowest level did not keep up with the cost of living. In 1980, there were several hundred food banks in the entire country. Now there over 50,000 food pantries run by church organizations, schools, and groups like Barnabas, said Lanier.
Another challenge during the 1980s was the deinstitutionalization of mental institutions. Although Lanier believes these efforts were laudable, there was no thought or plan at the community level to support those released. Little or no solid infrastructure existed for support services, so many individuals with mental illness went to the street. Even today, a significant portion of the homeless population suffers from mental disorders.
The private sector with limited resources can only do so much.
Lanier, speaking from experience as former head of Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition in Jacksonville, said without affordable housing for people to transition to, homeless shelters are not the answer. “Shelters were intended to be temporary.” Without affordable housing, shelters become “warehouses for people.”
The most significant issue facing Nassau County is the lack of affordable housing, said Lanier. Barnabas does a great job of providing access to affordable health care, healthy food, and homeless prevention. But, if there is no affordable housing, we will see more people leaving the county and we will see the impact of homelessness on our streets. Affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness requires mental health services and case management services. In Nassau County, developing the needed services has been a challenge.
Lanier is optimistic, though. “This is a community that helps when people are down.” Lanier’s core belief is a famous Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.”
This community, said Lanier, has a wealth of these kinds of small group efforts, such as the Tree Conservancy, Amelia Island Trails, Eight Flags Playscapes, and the Amelia Island Museum, to name a few.
When the pandemic arrived, Barnabas acted quickly. They knew the need would be great with more demands to feed the hungry and support those needing bill payment assistance. According to Lanier, Barnabas set a goal to raise $135,000. Suddenly, $135,000 became almost $500,000.
On the first day after realizing the harsh reality of COVID-19, Lanier opened the Barnabas Center and found a check placed through the door for $5,000. “This is a community that helps when people are down,” said Lanier. Barnabas served 12,500 households during the pandemic, many of whom had never asked for help.
In closing, Lanier spoke highly of the people she has worked with, and the volunteers who have worked tirelessly to support the ongoing mission of Barnabas Nassau.
Editor’s Note” After eleven years of service, Wanda Lanier is returning to Asheville, North Carolina to enjoy her retirement years. We are grateful for Wanda’s dedicated service to our community. Thank you Wanda for your leadership. We wish you well.