Mothers Making a Difference

Mother and child

Mothers are often referred to as the backbone of their families, and many times, they extend their nurturing instincts beyond their homes and into their communities. When they see a need, they roll up their sleeves and work to fill the gaps in their neighborhoods and communities. In honor of Mother’s Day, Sioux Empire United Way is celebrating a couple of inspiring mothers who were instrumental in the development of community programs making a difference in the Sioux Empire.

Here4Youth (formerly Liberty Center)

Liberty Center was established in 1995 to provide out-of-school care for students with differing abilities and their siblings. Until then, there wasn’t a program in the community like this, one that kept families together, caring for all siblings regardless of their care needs. This gap in the community was felt by many families of children requiring special care. One mother, Deb Docken, recalls a conversation in the early 90s with then President of Sioux Empire United Way, Bill Barlow, to voice her concern, “I told Bill, that we needed a daycare in Sioux Falls that took children with special needs.” Deb’s daughter, Patricia, was born with a rare syndrome requiring around-the-clock attention and special care. Deb needed to return to work, she needed the health insurance benefits it provided for her family. Deb asked herself, “Where am I going to take a fragile child to daycare?”

Deb wasn’t alone, many families felt the pressure during this time to make a choice between proper care for their children and furthering their careers outside of the home. Julie Ashworth was one such mother. Julie was mom to Chris, a bright and clever 13-year-old boy who lives with autism. Julie, like Deb, was at a crossroads between quitting teaching, a lifelong passion of hers, and staying home with Chris to ensure adequate care for him. It was at this juncture that Julie became one of the founding Board Members of Liberty Center. “The establishment of this program helped us create lives for our children and for ourselves. It’s an absolute necessity. It didn’t just empower us… it empowered everybody.” Julie explained.

Liberty Center became a funded program through Sioux Empire United Way in 1999. In 2014, the program, having changed their name to Here4Youth, became a program under Lutheran Social Services.

Today, Here4Youth fosters both friendship and learning with large recreational rooms, outdoor play areas, sensory rooms, and many other classrooms with the capacity to host special activities. The program focuses on what the children and youth CAN DO, not what they can’t do. One student, Lloyd, has a syndrome that severely impacts his speech, vision, and hearing. One Here4Youth teacher shared the following example of how the program has impacted Lloyd and his family. “One night, Lloyd was the last student to be picked up and was still working on this letter app when his dad arrived. Staff invited Dad to see what Lloyd was working on and his dad was almost moved to tears to see Lloyd spelling words.” Through the support of Sioux Empire United Way and its donors, Here4Youth provided services to 41 youth during out-of-school hours in 2022. To learn more about the Here4Youth program, visit their website.

Emily’s Hope

No parent should have to suffer the loss of a child. Unfortunately for Angela Kennecke, she had to experience this tragedy in 2018, when her daughter Emily passed away from fentanyl poisoning. “On Mother's Day, May 13th, 2018, I had the privilege of spending time with my daughter Emily, who tragically passed away just three days later. She gifted me with a beautiful pot of pansies and a heartfelt card that I hold dear to my heart.” Shares Angela. After the initial shock subsided, Angela knew after only a few months had passed that she was going to devote her life to supporting other families grappling with grief and advocating for prevention and education on substance abuse. “When my daughter Emily died, there were very few resources available for families like mine. I initially started a fund to support patients undergoing treatment at the Avera Addiction Care Center,” she adds. Over time, her work has expanded beyond providing financial support to those in need to become a charity with a mission to raise awareness, provide prevention education, and rid the stigma associated with substance abuse disorder.

Thanks to support from Sioux Empire United Way, Emily’s Hope recently received funding to help fight the opioid epidemic by offering access to support groups for individuals who have lost a loved one to drug overdose or fentanyl poisoning. The grant funding also supported the development of prevention curriculum to educate children about substance abuse and how to stay healthy. "Overall, we will be providing educational materials to 40 classrooms through the next school year, impacting 800 students”.

While the opioid crisis and cases of deadly fentanyl poisoning are on the rise, Angela shares what drives her to continue her work’s mission, “Through our organization, we are creating a place for people to turn to when they need answers, help, and support. It gives me great pride to be able to offer these services to others, and I hope that we can continue to make a positive impact on our community.”

To learn more about Emily’s Hope and the services and resources they provide, visit their website.


Dr. Julie Ashworth, Assistant Professor of Education, Augustana University, Mother, and part of the founding board for Liberty Center (read above if you’ve skipped ahead 😊), does not shy away from a challenge. In fact, some could say it is what drives her. As Julie’s son, Chris, entered adulthood and graduated from high school, his network of support and peers disappeared almost overnight. “Everyone wants to feel like they belong, and that’s a challenge for people with differing abilities,” Julie adds. “We want our children and young adults to have a life that is rich within the community and gives back.”

Julie, her son Chris and their family were once again experiencing a program gap in our community. Young adults of differing abilities, like Chris, can experience obstacles when making the transition from the structured environment of high school to young adulthood, whether that be finding a job or heading onto a post-secondary campus. Thankfully, Julie knew what she needed to do. She started a program in collaboration with Augustana University that eventually would be called FRIENDSLink, an organization dedicated to forming and fostering friendships between adults with differing abilities and the Augustana Community. “It needed to be in a setting where they were surrounded by their peers. It needed to be a place where they would continue with life-long learning.” Julie explained. The group focuses on creating a welcoming environment for all students and hosts various events and activities throughout the academic year. Some of the events organized by FRIENDSLink include game nights, book club, cultural celebrations, and service projects. The organization also provides students with leadership opportunities and encourages them to get involved in planning and organizing events.

While all adults with differing abilities may take part in FRIENDSLink, an emphasis is put on people who live on their own, with family, in group homes, or receive minimal assistance. These individuals have very limited opportunities to participate in recreational and educational activities, as well as very limited discretionary income to afford them. Without learning and social interactions, research shows that adults with differing abilities become isolated and often depressed. In 2022, FRIENDSLink provided service to 92 individuals, all reporting an increase in quality of life, maintaining or improving a healthy level of not feeling isolated, and having gained a new life skill. To learn more about FRIENDSLink, visit their website.

These mothers’ dedication and hard work have created lasting legacies that continue to make a difference in the lives of those around them. As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we at Sioux Empire United Way want to say, Happy Mother's Day to all the wonderful caregivers and parents out there. Whether you are an adoptive mother, biological mother, grandparent, or any other type of caregiver, your love and dedication to your children is deeply appreciated and valued. We also want to extend our thoughts and support to those who have experienced loss or are yearning to become a mother. We understand that this day may bring up difficult emotions, and we want to acknowledge and hold space for you. On this special day, we celebrate all forms of motherhood and the unwavering dedication that it entails.