The sirens shattered the quiet of the small town in the Nebraska Panhandle, and the safe, assured feeling locals had -- that bad things happened in other places.
News reports would tell of the gunman's spree which left his father dead; then, after failing to rob a downtown pharmacy, taking the pharmacist hostage during a 14-hour standoff, ending in a shootout with a SWAT team. That exchange left several law enforcement officers wounded and hospitalized, the pharmacist hurt, and the perpetrator dead.
The town of Alliance reeled from the violence, but vowed to take their community back.
Maria Swenson vowed to do her part, one troubled youth at a time.
"I thought about how tragic the lives of some of our young people are," she said. "Some never get the help they need, whether it's for lack of services, lack of money or lack of knowledge of what's out there, or a lack of perception that they do need some help."
She'd just need an SBA Microloan to provide that help.
Finding the inspiration to help her community
The gunman had a history of bad behavior, starting when he brought a pistol to school in the sixth grade.
"Maybe if somebody had stepped up and accepted him for who he was and had accepted him with kindness and respect and empathy, and taught him to live his life without the use of drugs and alcohol," Swenson said, "maybe all of that could have been averted."
That's why in 2012, Swenson decided to start MLCS Family & Youth Services, a trusted contractor with the state's Health and Human Services to provider education and support services to families and with Juvenile Probation to juveniles on probation and their families. Among those are parenting support and supervised visitation, drug testing, electronic monitoring, and other services help to change a young offender's mindset away from further malfeasance.
It's the last one with which they take particular care.
The MLCS stands for Making Life's Changes Sustainable.
"One thing I know in living my life and the experience I have," she added. "Sometimes all it takes is one kind person with one kind word to make a difference."
Swenson would know. She's faced many of the same problems in life her clients have. She dropped out of high school at 16, and spent time in counseling and in shelters.
While it took her 10 years to return to complete a GED, by 30, as a single mom, she was determined to finish a bachelor's degree, and begin a career helping people in need.
After earning her diploma, Swenson would work with all ages in crisis, from seriously mentally ill people and the disabled, those dependent on drugs and alcohol, children and parents in foster care, and with the most vulnerable as an advocate for victims and witnesses to domestic and sexual violence. But after losing two jobs in a row because of a loss of funding, despondent and tiring of "being at the mercy of other people for my living," she decided to start something of her own.
'I never thought about giving up'
And the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) was there to help.
Swenson reached out to Jerry Terwilliger, REAP's business specialist and the SBA's 2009 Nebraska's Financial Services Champion of the Year to assist her with a business plan, help setting up an accounting system, train her staff through REAP's Women's Business Center on Quickbooks, and after being turned down for financing by a local credit union, a $15,000 SBA Microloan for start-up costs.
"The amount I needed was small, and I didn't want to go in debt for hundreds of thousands," she said.
The SBA Microloan Program is the largest federal program solely dedicated to supporting the credit needs of very small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs. Working through a network of community-based nonprofit intermediaries such as REAP, the program provides loans and technical assistance to start-up and emerging small businesses unable to secure credit from conventional banks.
Now, all Swenson needed was a contract for client services.
Terwilliger said MLCS Family & Youth Services struggled for more than a year to connect with courts, law enforcement, and local and state human service offices.
"The hardest part was who exactly to ask," Swenson said. For example: "It took six months for me to find the appropriate person in Lincoln, meet with them and find out how to prove myself, and that my ideas were sound."
She turned back to REAP for another SBA Microloan for $5,000 to help meet expenses until, at last, she got a contract and her first referral. She ended 2012 with $184 in sales and $7,500 in the red.
Things didn't get much better the next year, with her accounts receivables running two months or more past due from the state and having "issues" with some of the staff.
But with revenue of $295,000 but profits of just $16,000: "I struggled in 2013 to meet every payroll, and we met each of them, no checks bounced and all the bills were paid. I never thought about giving up, because I knew I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. This is what I was meant to do."
By 2014, she'd trimmed staff to 13 dedicated people, and on revenue of $616,000, MLCS Family & Youth Services turned a tidy $190,000 profit.
Today, Swenson has offices in Chadron, Sidney, Gering and Alliance, is well on her way to surpassing last year's numbers, and was honored as the 2015 REAP Women's Business Center Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Thanks to Maria’s dedication to her business and community, the Nebraska panhandle is fortunate to have a place like MLCS Family & Youth Services. It’s truly an honor to recognize her efforts,” said Terwilliger at a presentation in Grand Island in March.
While the business is dependent on state funds to help their clients, they have received some grant funds--$2,000 from a foundation originally built to help orphaned boys to pay for a laptop as she started the business, and another $9,000 to help renovate a building in Alliance to provide transitional living for young men and women. Having available apartments for outcast youth is something Swenson said is needed in an area where homelessness is "very high and troublesome."
Return on business investment isn't just financial
Then there are the times that bring a tear to her eye. For youth on probation required to report after school or during summer months, MLCS Family & Youth Services often help teach basic life skills, such as relationships or how to cook a meal.
"I hear them when they first walk through the door, I can tell they don’t want to participate," she said. "Then after the first couple of weeks they’re happy, comfortable and they’re liking it. When they graduate off probation or if a judge excuses them early, those are our successes.
"When I know that a youth understands that they’re worth something, that they matter, that their opinion matters, that their voice matters, and I’m sitting in my office, and I hear them, it just … I get all choked up, because I know we’re making a difference," she added. "I know that for some of these kids, we are their only cheerleaders, the only ones who accept them, because most people don’t, they see them as just punks, as just thugs. They’re human beings; they deserve the same respect as everyone."
But Swenson is insistent MLCS Family & Youth Services wouldn't be where it is now without her dedicated staff. They recently had a celebration for those who stuck it through for the past two years.
"They deserve the credit, not me," she said.
And what about starting a business so late in life?
"It doesn’t matter how old you are," Swenson said. "I was told I was too old and too stupid to go back to college--well, I proved them wrong, I even made the dean’s list. So don’t give up, ever. Follow your dream. I have in my office a plaque that says 'if you change nothing, nothing will change.'"