For the Children: Gene Klein Guides Project Harmony Through Programming

If Gene Klein had launched and grown his own startup 20 years ago in the way that he’s led Project Harmony over that time, it would be one of the biggest for- profit success stories in recent Omaha history.

Instead, he accomplished something far more important: shepherding the essential nonprofit through substantial growth in people, programming and impact.

“When I came here in 2002, we had five employees and served about 400 children a year,” said Klein, who’s been executive director over the entirety of his tenure. “Today, in 2021, we have about 110 employees and we’ll serve over 6,000 children this year.”

Project Harmony can be thought of as the hub into which the spokes of government agencies at the city, state and federal levels connect to carry out a shared purpose of responding to cases of child abuse and neglect. This adds a level of complexity to Project Harmony’s mission, to say nothing of the programmatic growth that has come along in response to community needs.

“Back in 2007, our board took a turn in the mission of the organization,” Klein said. “We used to be the organization that just responded to abuse and neglect.

The board added to our mission to put an end to it.”

That decision opened up new dimensions for the nonprofit, including training and education programs serving audiences from professionals responding to abuse cases to educators, after-school program personnel and day care workers who discover evidence of abuse, to the public at large. Today about 12,000 people are trained annually on how to deal with such situations appropriately.

A Vision

Jim Jansen, chief legal counsel at Creighton University and board member and one of the founders of Project Harmony, said Klein’s instincts for community needs and his ability to pivot and execute new programs are two distinguishing characteristics of his career.

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“He’s got an amazing, well-focused vision for our agency,” Jansen said. “When I say Gene’s got this amazing vision, from the very outset he thought that there would be a realistic path forward to ending child abuse in our lifetime. That was a formidable task, focused on education and prevention training for a number of people who are enrolled in the child welfare system. His ability to collaborate with people within the child welfare industry is second to none.”

Klein’s vision continues to yield innovative services that address abuse and its effect on children and youth, be it direct or indirect. In 2015, Project Harmony launched Connections, which sought to proactively identify kids in need of counseling. That program now leverages 80 therapists in the community who are deployed as needed to serve 135 local elementary schools.

Then, between 2017 and 2018, Klein led the launch of the equally ambitious Missing Youth Services program, mending a hole in the social safety net through which slip as many as 3,000 youth annually.

“Missing kids tend not to be immediately reported,” he said. “These are children that parents report as a son or daughter who ran away after a fight and they haven’t been home in two days. Law enforcement would find those children and then return them back to the home. For some kids, maybe something was going on at home that caused them to run or to leave.

“Law enforcement saw the need for doing more for these families. So, we created a response for those kids with specialists who sit down and talk to them about what’s going on and what the family needs to do to minimize that running behavior. What we do know is when you’ve got an 11-, 12-, 13-year-old who is routinely running, they’re prime targets for sex trafficking. So, we see this work as trafficking prevention.”

Help Through Darkness

The pandemic has brought specific challenges, such as more severe abuse resulting from kids quarantined with their abusers and deprived of live school where they could ask for help. Knowing this lends additional weight to the job. Klein regularly reminds managers to focus on staff stress levels, as well as their own coping skills — part of an overall responsiveness his staff appreciates.

“Under Gene, we’ve developed very focused efforts on secondary trauma and burnout, because we do see that a lot in our work,” said Colleen Roth, senior director of response services. “He’s definitely a man of his word, easy to communicate with. I can walk in at any time and say I want to problem-solve or bounce something off him and he’s always open for that.”

Klein admits that decades of this kind of work is a taxing assignment. Yet through even the darkest days, the 2004 Midlands Business Journal 40 Under 40 honoree said the positive outcomes far outweigh the stressors of his job.

“To be a part of an organization this mission critical is rewarding,” he said. “While we see some of the darkest stuff that go on with children, we also are a part of opening up the other door, which is hope and healing and moving them on to something new. There’s darkness, yes, but there’s also a ton of light that happens in this work.”

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