‘Long journey’ for Heather Novak leads to local United Way
This piece is part of the Grand Forks Herald's Women in Business section, which published in the April 30 edition.
GRAND FORKS – Heather Novak calls her trek to United Way “a long journey.” Nonetheless, with other stops in nonprofit work, it has prepared her for the leadership responsibilities she now has with the organization.
Novak became executive director of United Way of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks & Area last October, but started working for the nonprofit in 2019.
She graduated from Mayville State University with a business administration degree, emphasis in accounting, but also has an early childhood education degree.
Both serve her well in her current position, especially since she and her team plan to open a youth care center sometime over the next 18 months to two years.
Soon after graduating in 2012, Novak started working for a nonprofit child care center in Devils Lake. But after commuting every work day for two years from her home in Larimore and back again – some 120 miles round trip – she decided to find something closer to home.
She did, at Northland Rescue Mission, a Christian-based nonprofit shelter for homeless adults. By now she was well-versed with the intricacies of child care, but at Northland she gained additional experience in nonprofit work. It fueled her interest further.
“I wanted to stay working with nonprofits,” she said. “I really liked helping people.”
Today, as executive director of United Way, Novak keeps busy with administrative duties but said a big change has been doing public presentations. She and a donor liaison did some 150 presentations during last fall’s campaign drive. She also continues to review the organization’s strategic plan and, with her team, considers where they want to take it into the future.
It is a future that Novak and her team of five spend a lot of time thinking about: What the needs are in the community, what partnerships to make, how their organization and the community can work together.
As they explored community needs, they found something lacking – child care assistance. Thus, top of mind is the child care center they want to establish, which, she said, would be open to any family in the community in need of its services.
Novak also remains concerned about the area’s homeless population, noting that sometimes homelessness is compounded by the need for child care.
“We know from working with our homeless families that one of their number one barriers right now is child care in the Grand Forks community,” she said.
Novak said she and her team still have to find and acquire a building, then work with local agencies, such as public health, to get a center up and running.
Once established, it will have social workers on site to, among other duties, help families file applications for child care assistance. It also will offer scholarships to help families who don’t qualify for funds.
“Maybe they're just over the limit but are still in need of assistance. That's where we want to raise funds to help with the scholarships, so that kids are able to go to child care and parents can go to work,” Novak said, noting a challenge is making sure all of the parts come together. “We want to be able to provide wraparound services for families who are coming to the child care center.”
Other goals include expanding United Way’s internal programs and looking into possible ways to fill other gaps in the community.
“That is what our goal is, essentially,” she said.
Novak has a lot on her plate, including educating the public about United Way, especially since she said it has “changed drastically” over the past two years.
“We went from a pastor organization to a direct service provider,” she said, explaining that United Way can now work directly with the homeless population and others in need.
The organization contracts with hotels in the community and rents apartments to temporarily place homeless families.
“I think some of our biggest challenges right now is getting the word out about how we've changed,” she said.
United Way also continues to host its annual fundraising campaign in the fall, and some other events throughout the year. Novak said the pandemic didn’t slow the organization but, if anything, did the opposite. It held community discussions in fall 2019 and spring 2020, when it learned about some of the current community needs.
“We expanded so much and made so many changes throughout the pandemic,” she said. “The fall of 2020 is when we launched four of our new programs. It was a time of need. That's really what made us make that switch. …
“Our goal is to help close those gaps, or limit those gaps, not to duplicate any services, because we have a lot of great services in the Grand Forks community.”
Does Novak have time for life outside of work? Yes – sometimes, anyway – and she usually spends it with her family. She and her significant other, Justin Fuglem, are expecting a second child in April.
Novak said she appreciates the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks communities, knowing that United Way wouldn’t be able to fulfill its mission without their support.
“The best thing about United Way in the Grand Forks community is how they work together,” she said. “United Way is providing opportunities for families to have long-term stability, and we could not do that without the Grand Forks community, because we are a nonprofit. With the donations and the grants, that is what keeps us functioning and being able to allow us to do what we're doing in the community.”