Norma Phillips: At Home with Change

October 27, 2009

"Leaving home was a little scary for me, and OBU seemed to be a good fit," said the 1966 graduate. "I went to an orientation in the summer, and the students who introduced us future OBU students to the campus made it feel just like home. It ended up being exactly what I needed; a place where I could mature in a Christian atmosphere and try out new ideas."

Phillips not only considered OBU a second home, the campus also was an environment where she could grow and be challenged in her thinking.

"What OBU did was to enable me to think for myself," she said. "Both OBU and the era I was there challenged me not to accept blindly what was or what appeared to be. The mid-'60s was a time when civil rights and academic freedom were the issues, and they were discussed openly at OBU by students and teachers from all walks of life. Those lessons enabled me to reach for new experiences."

Phillips left OBU with an enthusiasm for making a difference through change. She began working in Kansas as a secretary in a government setting. Though she had not planned on becoming a civil servant, Phillips started gaining knowledge in many areas and got a taste of what it was like to work in a state occupation.

"I found it interesting to move from place to place and to feel that I'd done something that benefitted a number of people, even if it was simply cutting some red tape or finding an answer for someone who needed help," she said.

As a rising agent of change, Phillips turned her attention to a specific public: low-income families. She desired for the feelings of security and comfort instigated by the idea of home to be conveyed to families through change. She began her work with the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services with the hope of seeing effective transformation in housing programs for low-income families.

Phillips saw the housing programs within the department grow to receive the HOME Investment Partnership Program, federal assistance helping provide affordable housing for low-income Americans. The program eventually became a quasi-governmental agency called the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation. Phillips took the housing organization to new heights, innovatively working with a program to make houses more energy efficient by conducting thorough energy audits for each home.

"The success of the program influenced other housing programs, leading to energy improvements in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and the HOME programs," she said.

Phillips and colleagues in the newly formed KHRC used their experience and expertise to also help the Topeka, Kan., community by building two Habitat for Humanity houses.

"It was fulfilling just to be active in helping families actually put together their homes, but we went one better and used the two homes to compare different types of insulation and study how well they performed," she said.

Perpetually inspired by positive transformation within the state system, Phillips synthesized her own experiences. She began to combine her previous work and connections with disability groups and her ongoing work with the KHRC to improve handicap accessibility in new homes.

"Through my continued connections with disability groups, I was involved in the development of a state visitability law," she said. "It required a standard level of handicap accessibility in selected newly constructed homes which were partially or wholly funded by the state."

Phillips also worked with the KHRC to develop programs that funded accessibility modifications for low-income families and homeowners. She recently began working with a national Web site to help list rental vacancies free-of-charge to landlords who assist specific groups seeking rental properties in the state.

"This Web site enables case workers to identify landlords who are willing to house targeted populations, such as ex-felons, domestic violence victims, people with disabilities, etcetera," she said.

As her inspirational work continued through the housing organization, Phillips unceasingly thought of more ways she could influence not only individuals and families, but communities as well.

"Our organization was very involved with rebuilding efforts in Greensburg, Kan., after a tornado essentially destroyed the town in 2007," she said. "We invested program dollars into building new homes and apartments, both for renters and for home buyers. I was with a group that visited Greensburg a few weeks after the tornado. I saw destruction unlike any I've seen anywhere else."

Phillips also worked with the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center and the Governor's Mental Health Services Planning Council. Over a career spanning nearly four decades, she saw a far-reaching transformation among community members who benefitted from the state's programs and services.

"It was gratifying to see the impact of the programs like a young family able to buy its first home with down payment assistance, an elderly couple able to live safely and more comfortably after their home was weatherized, a disabled person able to stay in her home after it was made handicap accessible, low-income families able to find affordable housing," she said. "I saw the good that tax-funded programs make happen."

Now retired, Phillips and her husband, Lorne, a 1965 OBU graduate, reside in Topeka, Kan. Reflecting on her career, she said she drew motivation from her time at OBU and the encouragement she received to embrace new experiences and ideas. She used those resources to help provide the comfort of home to people throughout Kansas.

While the OBU environment influenced Phillips, she also recalled individuals who helped to shape her career. She remembers Manoi Adair, professor emeriti of business, as someone who pushed her to become a catalyst for change.

"She gave me opportunities to do things I would never have attempted on my own, like substitute teaching a class or two," she said. "I was never cut out to be a teacher, but her confidence in me gave me the confidence to try new things."

She did not know a degree in office administration would lead to a career as a civil servant. But Phillips used the opportunity to help bring lasting change - and a sense of home - to families across Kansas.