The vision of one man led to a ministry that helps many.
New Visions Homeless Services will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a gathering from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at River’s Edge Pavilion, 4250 River’s Edge Parkway. The event will also honor the Rev. Harry and Ginny Wallar, founders of the mission, who have now retired.
“I’ve worked for homeless people for about 30 years,” Harry Wallar said, adding that he worked at Children’s Square USA for five years before starting his own ministry. “I’m ready for a rest.”
Mayor Matt Walsh applauded New Visions for its work in the community.
“I think there’s a nationwide epidemic of homelessness that obviously we’ve experienced on a local level, and I think New Visions is on the front line of trying to provide services to the people who find themselves to be homeless for a variety of reasons and make efforts to address the reasons,” he said. “It is a struggle for many that we need to work together to find a solution for.”
Wallar’s influence continues, despite his retirement, Walsh said.
“He’s established a legacy, and his son and daughter-in-law are still closely involved,” he said.
The effort grew from small beginnings at the Christian Worship Center, which Wallar founded in 1993.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I started the whole ministry with six people and rented” space at the former Margarite’s Catering. The church’s first building was at North 17th Street and Avenue E. The congregation’s outreach to the homeless began the following year.
“To me, there was a hole in the community,” Wallar said. “The people, hungry people, needed fed, and that was what was in my heart — to feed people. We started with a little white van parked outside the kitchen at the church in 1994.”
That was replaced by a bus that was converted into a mobile kitchen, Wallar said. It was parked under the West Broadway viaduct and served suppers on certain nights.
“When we first started, it was just the church (members) – even on the bus,” he said. “The church just captured my vision and ran with it.”
Donna Campbell was — and is — a “phenomenal” volunteer, Wallar said.
“She did all the cooking,” he said.
Joe Thornton has been a board member “since the beginning,” Wallar said. Gilbert Thomas has been another mainstay, and Roland Burger retired from Treynor Community Schools and “drove our bus for years and years. There’s just so many.”
Next, Messengers of Hope Ministries, moved into a former hardware store at 1000 Creek Top which, with a little work, became the first MOHM’s Place and remained its home for 10 years.
“The problem was, we had nowhere to sleep the homeless men,” he said. “I had to turn them out into the heat and cold, and I didn’t want to do that.”
In 2003, Wallar moved the church to 133 W. Broadway, where he had purchased several store spaces from former hobby store proprietor Bud Kilnoski, and handed off pastoral duties to his son, Jay.
“I couldn’t pastor and run New Visions,” he said.
After five years, the property was sold to the City of Council Bluffs, and the church moved to 3205 Renner Drive.
Working with John Foley and Central States Development, Wallar developed a plan for a complex that would offer temporary shelter, meals and a transitional facility for adults who needed some time to get back on their feet. After a successful fund drive and construction, New Visions opened in 2008.
“We couldn’t have done it without Council Bluffs — the city, the volunteers, all the people that invested in us,” he said. “The city has been absolutely wonderful to us.”
The complex includes MOHM’s Place meal site, Joshua House homeless shelter for almost 150 men and Timothy House, which offers transitional housing for 26 single men and women, Wallar said. All Care Health Center operates a medical and dental clinic at New Visions and has “really stepped up to the plate” in reaching out to homeless people, he said.
“We really did change the course of history in southwest Iowa,” he said. “There’s no facility like this anywhere in southwest Iowa. The sacrifices my family made to bring this vision to fruition was (substantial).”
Being involved in the mission has been an eye-opening experience, said Wallar, who is also a founding member of the Pottawattamie County Homeless Link.
“The greatest thing I’ve learned is the level of need and the severity of mental illness,” as well as the lack of affordable housing, he said.
In 2012, Wallar opened New Visions Omaha, which offers 40 shelter beds for veterans and 14 permanent supportive housing beds for veterans (men or women).
“Not very many men get to see their vision come to fruition,” he said. “I’m one of the blessed ones. A lot of times, visions come to fruition because of tenacity and hard work, and we were able to invest those and touch a lot of people — touch thousands of people.”
Harry and Ginny Wallar moved to Neola in December 2018 to be close to their sons. The Rev. Jay and New Visions Program Director Brandy Wallar live there with their two children, and Jordan and Stephanie, who have three children, are also in that area. Jordan was shelter manager at New Visions for several years, and Stephanie continues to work as a case manager at the complex.
Their daughter, Julie Ann Clark, originally youth pastor at the church, lives in Buford, Georgia with her husband, Ken, and two sons.
Harry Wallar officially retired in January 2019 and now visits New Visions once or twice a month, he said.
“I didn’t realize how much New Visions took out of me until I stopped doing it,” he said. “I think one of the traits of a good leader is knowing when to release the reins — and I think I released the reins at the right time to the right person,” he said, referring to Bob Sheehan, who became the CEO of New Visions in 2016 and has responsibility for the facilities in Council Bluffs and Omaha, as well as the thrift store at 321 16th Ave. “We have a very strong board,” he added.
Since retiring, Wallar has been fixing up their house in Neola, spending time with family and resting, he said. He expects to get involved in another ministry at some point, but he’s not sure exactly what.
“I’m the kind of guy who can sit still for a while, but then I have to do something,” he said. “Success is not determined by what we’ve amassed but by how many lives we’ve touched — and I think we’ve certainly done that. But I think there are more lives we need to touch.”