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Margo Nielsen

Meet Margo Nielsen, executive director of Rockwall County nonprofit Helping Hands. For 25 years, Nielsen has been at the helm of the social service agency that provides assistance to those suffering a financial or health crisis. She took the post after moving to the community in 1985 with her husband and describes her job as "pure joy."

Those who work with Nielsen admire her hard work and dedication to the mission of helping the less fortunate. She is lovingly described as a "community treasure." Nielsen is preparing to step aside and retire soon, but it is unlikely that anyone will be able to fill such big shoes. She has left an enourmous footprint in the Rockwall community and an even bigger impression on the hearts of those she has helped through the decades.

We wanted to know more about Nielsen and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself, Helping Hands and the community it serves. 

Dawn Tongish: Please begin by telling us about Rockwall County Helping Hands.

Margo Nielsen: Helping Hands is the principal social services and healthcare provider for Rockwall County residents facing a financial or health crisis. The agency has three primary programs: The Centsible Thrift Store, The Assistance and Referral program and the Health Center at Helping Hands.

The Centsible Thrift Store provides low cost household goods and clothing for area shoppers; qualified clients receive free merchandise. About 40% of sales from the thrift store provide funding for the emergency assistance program and Health Center.

The Assistance and Referral program offers financial aid to families facing a financial crisis. We like to say we can provide critical assistance during critical times. Payments for shelter and utility costs are made on behalf of qualified applicants. Limited funds are allocated for work related and educational expenses. Transient Assistance is provided for those stranded in Rockwall without other means of getting back home. The Food Pantry delivers an average of 25,000 bags of food each year and distributes hundreds of baskets during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Health Center of Helping Hands delivers healthcare to uninsured, underinsured and underserved area residents.  Patients with acute care needs and those with chronic medical conditions find a medical home at Helping Hands — a place to receive quality, affordable care with a familiar caregiver over a long period of time. With a grant from the County Rockwall residents at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level are eligible for sliding-scale fees. More than 1,700 residents qualified for sliding scale in 2013. The Health Center has mid-level providers including a physicians assistant and two family nurse practitioners, volunteer physicians, and dentists. The Center served more than 6,500 unique patients last year. 

DT: You have been involved since the start at Rockwall County Helping Hands; what are your duties?  

MN: Helping Hands was established as an association in Texas in 1976. Twelve years later, the agency was able to hire a director with a venture grant from United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. I was the third director for the agency and began on August 28, 1989. There were two other employees that worked in the Thrift Store when I was hired. I took care of emergency assistance, United Way and other funding opportunities, and the Board of Directors.

Now, Helping Hands has 37 employees and 150 regular volunteers, serves 9,000 individuals a year and has four buildings on two campuses. The annual budget is more than $2.5 million. The Thrift Store has grown and is projected to net about $500,000 in 2014 for our programs.

I still take care of the Board of Directors, do some fundraising and act as the face of the agency in Rockwall, but other senior staff members manage and direct the Health Center, Emergency Assistance Program and Thrift Store. 

DT: How did you become involved with Rockwall County Helping Hands, and why are you so passionate about the work being done at the organization?

MN: When Roger and I moved to Rockwall in 1985, I had a background in social work with the State of Florida. For the first four years in Rockwall, I happily played bridge and golf and got acquainted with our new community.

Then in 1989, the director’s position at Helping Hands opened up and a neighbor approached me about applying for the job. I did — and I’ve been at it since. If I had sat down 25 years ago and written out a job description for myself, it couldn’t have been better than what I’ve been asked and allowed to do at Helping Hands. Members of the Board of Directors caught a vision of what our mission should be — no one goes to bed hungry, everyone has a roof overhead (with utilities on) and everyone gets needed medical care. Fulfilling that mission has been — and remains — a joyful journey for me. 

DT: Why do you work in the nonprofit sector? 

MN: I didn’t really have a goal of working in the nonprofit sector; I was just in the right place at the right time. I loved working for the State of Florida. I acquired a good skill set for the job at Helping Hands because I had to learn programs like Medicaid and Medicare, Food Stamps and welfare aid. We had a code of ethics, professional standards and good training. All of it contributed to my success here.

The biggest difference is that in the nonprofit sector, you have to earn every penny — whether it’s through donor cultivation, special events or related businesses like our Thrift Store. If you can’t do that, then you can’t be successful in helping the people you want to help.

DT: It can be difficult for any nonprofit to pay the bills. How do you stay afloat? 

MN: Helping Hands has a broad base of community support because it’s been around so long and has a great reputation. The Thrift Store is the financial engine giving us the all-important cash flow every month. 

We also receive contributions from individuals, businesses, civic organizations, churches and grants from funders like the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, Presbyterian Hospital Rockwall, Rockwall County, Rockwall Women’s League and energy aid funding from TXU, FEC and Atmos. We have several major events that also raise money for our programs.

We’ve discovered social media and use it to communicate with our supporters, customers, clients and patients.  Some of our customers receive E-blasts from us every month and come from as far away as Texarkana, Waco and Denton to shop with us.

DT: How can the people of Rockwall County and beyond help you meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs? 

MN: There are several ways to help. Financial donations are always the number one need. Donations of clothing and household goods that can be sold or used by our clients are needed all year long.  We need a constant supply of food donations but especially in the summer months when kids are not getting breakfast and lunch at school. 

We run with the fewest number of paid staff possible so every staff position could use at least three to five volunteers as support and back-up. You can be a sponsor in one of our special events or a participant in a golf tournament or at the Festival of Trees Dinner and Auction or you can volunteer your professional services (write a will, see a patient, cut someone’s hair before a job interview...etc.).  

DT: What is the most memorable moment in your experience at Rockwall County Helping Hands? 

MN: Gosh, there have been a lot of memorable moments in the past 25 years, but the weeks and months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita stand out. Helping Hands served more than 1,000 evacuees from those storms. 

Rockwall turned out in force — RISD provided two gymnasiums next to us for food and other donations. Volunteers showed up to organize the donations, and handle the phones to field questions and find resources.

I think seeing the number of residents that showed up to help out and getting checks in the mail to help shelter, feed and help evacuees is probably the memory that will stick with me. The evacuees were pretty amazing too — patient and kind despite their trauma.

DT: What is the first thing you do when you walk into work each day? 

MN: I try to remember to say a prayer of thanksgiving for this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to make a difference in my community and in the lives of so many people.

Learn more about Rockwall County Helping Hands here:


If you'd like to nominate a local resident for a BubbleLife community profile, contact Dawn Tongish at or find her on Twitter at @DawnTongish.