It seems likes Rhonda Otteson has it all together.
She’s the Executive Director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Rhonda is a regular presence during Minnesota legislative sessions.
This year, Rhonda's advocacy helped get nearly $1 billion in funding for various housing programs throughout the state.
She has owned her home for nearly 20 years. She has her bachelor and master’s degrees. She has two beautiful college-educated daughters.
Rhonda is also well-known and respected throughout the state.
But, her life wasn’t always this nice and tidy.
Unfortunately, Rhonda began her adulthood well acquainted with poverty and faced plenty of struggles like a lot of the people she now advocates for and works to shelter.
“I was definitely living in poverty, definitely low income,” Rhonda recalled. Living paycheck to paycheck was a normal situation for her.
Still, she believed she could move beyond her circumstances, and she did, but it took dedication, a lot of long days and nights, and Community Action to do it.
“I always had big aspirations,” Rhonda said. “I was a single mother with a single income. Sometimes the path to get to where you want to go isn’t always very clear. Community Action was really helpful.”
Like a lot of people, Rhonda’s first introduction to Community Action was through the Head Start program when she enrolled her eldest daughter. Twenty-one Community Action Agencies in Minnesota have Head Start programs.
Rhonda was an active parent and joined the parent’s policy council. It during that time, she learned more about Community Action and began advocating and testifying at the legislature on behalf of Minnesota Community Action Partnership.
As she realized Community Action was a tool to help her move beyond a cycle of poverty, she started utilizing other programs and services such as circles of support, energy assistance, weatherization and the Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota (FAIM).
“The FAIM program is how I finished my bachelor’s degree and purchased my home,” Rhonda said. “I still live in my home that I purchased. That was in 2006, and I finished my degree in 2005.”
Community Action wasn’t just a bank of services and programs for Rhonda. As she worked toward her degree in sociology from St. Cloud State University, she interned with a Community Action Agency, which eventually lead to her being hired at what was then known as Heartland Community Action.
Rhonda would hold numerous positions at the agency. She held worked in Head Start, the energy program, was an outreach worker, did case management and eventually became a housing services manager. She was offered training and given schedule flexibility as she worked to achieve a greater goal.
Through those roles, Rhonda developed leadership skills and received “encouragement and confidence building” through Community Action.
“I always believed in myself, but it’s great when other people believe in you, too,” Rhonda said. “One thing Community Action does is really believe in people, invest in people.”
Rhonda’s advocacy led her to receiving the National Community Action Partnership’s Sargent Shriver Personal Achievement Award, which recognizes individuals who have changed their lives, embody Community Action’s spirit of hope, and are now working to make America a better place to live.
Awardees are individuals, with the assistance of Community Action, have achieved economic stability and are now working to assist others in doing the same.
Eventually, Rhonda took what she learned at Community Action and applied it to helping other organizations flourish. She held the role of executive director at The Link of Northern Kandiyohi County before moving on to the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
This year, led by Rhonda, the coalition was a major reason the legislature signed off on nearly $1 billion in housing program investments that will refurbish and build new shelters, create additional transitional housing spaces and build affordable housing stock.
“I always knew I would make a difference,” said Rhonda, who noted it took a coalition of partner organizations like Community Action and others to push the legislature to sign the once-in-a-lifetime housing bill. “I didn’t know what type of difference. You just never know what life is going to bring. What type of opportunities will present themselves.”
While Rhonda feels like she is now financially secure, has a stable living situation and a career with purpose, she understands a loss of a job or a major medical issue could take it all away. And if it did, she knows who she would turn to.
“I’d be back in Community Action to see what I can tap into,” she said.