116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Veteran of nonprofit work ready to lead at Iowa City’s CommUnity
New executive director Sarah Nelson excited to work in two areas she’s most passionate about: mental health and providing access to services.
IOWA CITY — When Sarah Nelson steps into her new role as executive director of CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank, she’ll bring with her vast and varied experience in multiple fields.
An Iowa City native, Nelson’s more than 20-year career has largely been with nonprofits and included work in the areas of child care, family support, criminal justice, crisis services and youth services. She most recently served as chief operating officer for Foundation 2 Crisis Services in Cedar Rapids.
“I don’t regret trying so many different things in the human services arena before I got into one of my long-term positions,” Nelson said of her career. “It’s something I feel has served me really well.”
A graduate of West High School, Nelson earned her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies development from Colorado State University in 2003. Before graduating, she took on a role at the Women’s Center of Larimer County in Fort Collins, Colo., where she developed the first pilot project in the state to encourage inclusive child care environments. She later worked for Boulder County Housing & Human Services, supporting parents in danger of losing their parental rights.
“It was really meaningful,” Nelson said. “The ultimate goal in child welfare is to preserve the family unit.”
Nelson’s daughter was born in 2004, and she briefly returned to Iowa City from 2005 to 2007. During that time, she did play therapy with at-risk children in the Iowa City Community School District through her role at the Community Mental Health Center.
Upon her return to Colorado, Nelson spent six years as the director of programs at the Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette. Nelson said that experience was similar to the work being done at CommUnity, which ensures the basic needs of community members are met.
“The CEO and I worked really hard to convert it into a family resource model,” she said. Programs were implemented to help move clients toward self-sufficiency, such as parenting, technology and nutrition classes, and on-site mental health.
After about a year and a half working in court services in Boulder to address bond reform and equity in the jail population, Nelson moved back to Iowa to join Foundation 2. There, she oversaw mobile crisis outreach, independent living and youth shelter programs, and crisis center programming. She also co-chaired the Linn County Stepping Up initiative, which strives to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jail.
Nelson starts at CommUnity on May 10. She said the job will give her the opportunity to work in two areas she’s most passionate about: mental health and providing access to services. Nelson said she wants to see clients “not just survive, but thrive.” In addition to operating a food bank, CommUnity’s services include a crisis line, mobile crisis outreach, support groups, a mobile food pantry and a basic needs program.
“With everything CommUnity does, it gives me an opportunity to work on those two areas I’m very, very passionate about,” she said.
As the community comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a critical time for CommUnity, as well. CommUnity will soon employ a law enforcement liaison position that will be embedded with the Iowa City Police Department to respond to calls for service. The opening of the GuideLink Center also changes the crisis service landscape in Johnson County.
Nelson said she’s never satisfied with the status quo and is looking forward to making sure CommUnity is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. She said she looks forward to meeting stakeholders, evaluating programming and identifying areas to strengthen, grow and innovate.
“There’s going to be a lot of exciting things on the horizon we’re going to be able to accomplish,” she said.
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