Charles Drew CEO Kenny McMorris (far right) shares plans for the health center’s expansion with (from left to right) DED Economic Recovery Division Administrator Javier Saldaña, DED Chief Strategy Officer Trevon Brooks, and DED Director K.C. Belitz.

In October, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) awarded $20 million in state aid to Charles Drew Health Center based in North Omaha. Charles Drew CEO Kenny McMorris said the grant “is a tremendous opportunity for Charles Drew and the community” and can serve as a catalyst for economic change in North Omaha.

DED awarded the grant to Charles Drew through the Federally Qualified Health Centers Grant Program. The program was created by the Nebraska Legislature through LB 531, the Economic Recovery Act, which became law this summer.

Charles Drew Health Center, whose main campus is at 2915 Grant St., is one of seven federally qualified health centers in Nebraska. These centers provide preventive health services, dental care, behavioral health services, substance use disorder services and specialty care to underserved populations. Charles Drew also provides transportation to its facilities for those experiencing homelessness and people living in public housing. Its primary focus is serving residents of northeast Omaha.

The health center is named after prominent African-American physician and medical researcher Dr. Charles Drew, considered the “father of the blood bank.” With 17 locations, including four school-based health centers and four centers at Omaha Housing Authority towers—plus mobile units—Charles Drew providers serve roughly 13,000 patients per year.

The health center is using its grant award for two main purposes: to expand the health center’s workforce and to modernize its main campus.

McMorris said the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the ranks of the nation’s health care providers. Many people retired or left the profession due to the stress and burnout they experienced. Charles Drew still hasn’t fully recovered from its staffing departures, McMorris said.

About $10 million of the grant money will go toward adding 50 to 60 staff members to the 150 people now employed by Charles Drew. “We’re hopeful that this will give us a shot in the arm, to be able to recruit and retain some of the best talent that we know we have,” McMorris said. The health center also has plans to develop a more robust relationship with local academic institutions as it relates to interns, externs and apprenticeship and residency programs.

Charles Drew also needs to modernize its facility, McMorris said. The last expansion of the building, built in 1983, took it from 13,000 square feet to 24,000 square feet. That work was completed in 2006, and no additions have been made since then. “We are gearing up to work through a process to imagine what the expansion of this campus will look like,” he said, adding that he wants to make sure to work with vendors and partners in North Omaha.

McMorris grew up in the Hilltop housing project near the health center’s original location at 30th and Burdette Streets, and members of his family were the first to receive services at the health center. “I am a living testament to the value of what community health centers bring across the country, and specifically here in Omaha,” he said.