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Rhonda Mart makes a difference in a rewarding career at New Hope

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Rhonda Mart, executive director at New Hope, meets with representatives from Des Moines Area Community College in 2014 to talk about the new collaboration to provide housing and employment for students.

When she arrived at New Hope Village, as it was known then, in 1980, Rhonda Mart didn’t imagine she’d retire decades later as the organization’s executive director.

“This started as a job for me, turned into a career, and now today, it’s a mission I was meant to serve,” Mart said.

Mart, 65, joined the New Hope team 40 years ago as a registered nurse. She officially retires Sept. 30.

New Hope is in the process of selecting a successor to Mart.

A “Drive-Bye” event will be held for Mart on Monday, Sept. 21, from 2:45 to 4:15 p.m. on New Hope’s main campus, 1211 E. 18th St. in Carroll. Attendees are asked to remain in their car, driving through the New Hope campus. Mart will be sitting alongside the circle drive about halfway through, greeting attendees as they drive by.

Mart and her husband, Gary, will remain in Carroll following her retirement.

In her final weeks, Mart has reflected on her time with New Hope.

“I was working with a nurse at another health-care facility who also worked at New Hope at the time, and she spoke so highly of the organization. I’d had experience in acute care and geriatric services, and I was interested in learning about rehabilitative nursing,” Mart said.

Through the years, she worked as a residential supervisor, director of allied health services, director of residential services and associate director. In 2011, Mart succeeded Frank Hermsen as executive director. In New Hope’s 43-year history, she’s the fourth executive director.

During her time as executive director, Mart worked diligently to ensure New Hope was financially viable for the long term, investing in the organization’s future and that of those it serves, and striving to be a workplace job-seekers turn to. Mart oversaw the development of New Hope’s Leadership Education and Training Program (LEAD), she created an innovative program to enhance employee wages through the creation of a challenge grant and endowment retention incentive for support staff, and she worked with Des Moines Area Community College’s Carroll Campus to put together the innovative Hope Hall and student partnership with DMACC.

“DMACC students have benefited greatly from the Hope Hall partnership with New Hope,” said Joel Lundstrom, DMACC Carroll Campus provost of the Hope Hall partnership. “Students have a newly remodeled dorm space at the lowest cost in the state for student housing, and this is only possible due to New Hope leadership seeing the larger vision and priority of supporting each other. Many of our students have taken advantage of the opportunity to work for New Hope in a rewarding position and enjoy a great housing option on New Hope’s campus. I can’t thank Rhonda Mart enough for her vision with this and helping DMACC establish a great human service program. No other employer has been more aggressive in working to address workforce needs with long-term vision and strategic partnerships.”

Not all communities are able to successfully provide the environment for services like New Hope offers. It takes caring employees, volunteers, donors and community employers who embrace the benefit of diversity.

“I remember talking with Dean Onken from Farner-Bocken Company many years back about the individuals we support working there and cleaning totes,” Mart said. “He said it was a job that his own staff had disliked, but when individuals from New Hope arrived and loved the opportunity they were presented and were so grateful to have a job and loved coming to work, it made everyone look at their jobs differently and realize how fortunate they were.”

In 2017, under Mart’s leadership, New Hope was nominated for the Character Counts Award. The nomination spoke volumes regarding New Hope’s presence in the community, saying, “Having New Hope in Carroll makes our community a kinder, more tolerant place to live.”

One of the biggest changes during Mart’s career were the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) rulings that pushed organizations such as New Hope to significantly expand services provided within the community. When these rulings came into effect in 2014, New Hope’s landscape changed, closing one on-campus home, closing New Hope’s Carroll and Manning Enterprise businesses and expanding the Connections (day habilitation) program at the Clark Street, Carroll, location. New Hope’s Employment Resources program also grew at this time, and today, 75 percent of all services offered by New Hope occur in the community.

“I served on New Hope’s Board of Directors from 2011 to 2016. During those years, Rhonda led the organization through tremendous changes, Medicaid Managed Care in 2016 and new federal rules about the places that services could be delivered, which resulted in the growth of community-based Day Habilitation services, the expansion of community living services, and more individuals employed by a community employer,” said Jeff Heuton, human resource manager at Pella and former New Hope board president.

Looking back over it all, Mart notes the landscape is continuing to change, particularly today, creating unique challenges.

“We serve very vulnerable individuals, and the environment we work in is significantly impeded by limited funding,” she said. “We’re in a highly regulated environment and struggle with a workforce shortage. It can create very challenging times.”

But the bright spots shine through. Individuals getting community jobs, moving to their own homes and learning to drive an electric wheelchair are just a few examples of those bright spots.

“I’m not the same person I was as a 24-year-old when I started here,” Mart said. “The opportunities New Hope has provided me have made me a better person, given me different skill sets and abilities and instilled a sensitivity in me to the needs of others.”

When asked what piece of advice she might share with someone considering a career in the field of disability services, Mart ended with, “Expect to be changed for the better; you’ll see the world in a different way.”

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