Inspiring hope

Topeka’s Let’s Help Inc. makes changes to ensure financial security


by Marc and Julie Anderson

TOPEKA — It’s amazing the difference a year can make. Just ask Ken Gudenkauf, the executive director of Let’s Help Inc. and a parishioner of Mother Teresa Parish here.

Founded in 1969 by Patty Coughlin, Let’s Help Inc. is a non-profit social service agency dedicated to “inspiring hope, promoting success and changing lives.” Each year, the agency strives to build “a better community by providing emergency assistance, food programs, education and employment counseling” through its various programs.

For eight years, Coughlin distributed food from the trunk of her car to those in need. Then, in 1977, Marge Roberts became the first executive director of Let’s Help, a post she held until her death in October 1997.

Dedicated to teaching people self-sufficiency, Roberts recruited hundreds of volunteers, increased financial resources and expanded educational programs. Her passion for service, in fact, continues to permeate the agency.

In recent years, however, the agency has struggled financially.

In February 2007, Gudenkauf was heading toward a 15th year on the agency’s board of directors. Retired from a career in state government, and part-time legislative liaison for the Kansas Department of Transportation, Gudenkauf wasn’t looking for full-time work.

But it found him anyway, when his fellow board members asked Gudenkauf to consider serving a the agency’s executive director. He agreed, and juggled Let’s Help and KDOT until the end of the 2007 legislative session, when he became Let’s Help’s full-time executive director.

At the time, the agency had a budget of $1.7 million; more than 17 percent of that, or approximately $300,000, however, was being used on its three buildings alone. That didn’t cover staff salaries and other expenses. In addition, the agency had (and still has) a mortgage obligation of $2.8 million for its buildings. Together, Gudenkauf and the board of directors came up with a plan to address the agency’s financial crisis.

One of the main components of the plan to return the agency to financial stability involved the decision to sell one, if not all three, of its buildings and then either find a new home for the agency or continue to operate out of one or more of the buildings by leasing back some of the space.

That decision proved to be a good one, Gudenkauf said, as the agency currently has a contract on its 8,700-square-foot building located at 234 S. Kansas Ave. in downtown Topeka. The new owners, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, closed the deal on March 4 and took possession immediately, although Charities is not expected to move in until sometime between May and July. All of Catholic Charities’ Topeka programs will be relocated to the new site, which is only two blocks away from its current location.

“It’s a win-win for both sides,” said Gudenkauf, adding that Let’s Help sometimes refers clients to Catholic Charities for counseling or other services the agency doesn’t provide on a regular basis.

Dr. Mike Jurkovich, director of health care services for Catholic Community Healthcare, a division of Catholic Charities, agrees.

“Being on the Let’s Help campus allows us to collaborate much more effectively, a one-stop shop, if you will,” he said. “In addition, we will have room to expand programming as new needs present themselves or current needs grow.”

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