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  • Writer's pictureSherry

There's no Place Like Home: A talk with Madelynn Hirneise of Families Forward

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

You know the saying, “there’s no place like home.” The leaders, staff and families served at Families Forward know what that means in big ways. I joined the Board of Families Forward in 2018 and have become a passionate supporter of helping OC families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness through this amazing team of people.

Madelynn Hirneise is the new CEO of this Irvine based non-profit, however she is not new to the organization. She has played key roles for eight years and now has the opportunity to lead and continue the incredible work that brings lasting change to those in need.

I know we are all quite aware of the homeless crisis and yet the complexity of family homelessness is not often discussed or understood. I sat down with Madeynn to learn more about her and her vision for this important work in our community.

Sherry Benjamins: As the new Executive Director – tell us about what you see as priorities for 2020.

Madelynn Hirneise: Our priorities for the New Year will be in several areas. It starts with staff development and building our team. We look at people from a strengths perspective and see the connection between development, personal growth and improved organization performance. A critical 2020 priority is our continued commitment to ending family homelessness.

Each month 30-40 families in Orange County find themselves experiencing homelessness due to job loss, separation, medical issues, or domestic violence. The unfortunate reality is that we do not have enough housing to meet the needs of our most vulnerable families. In fact, Orange County is experiencing an incredible housing shortage crisis and needs 112,000 more affordable housing units to meet the needs of families in OC. Families Forward is committed to creating housing opportunities for families in need through our partnership with local landlords, affordable housing developers, and ownership opportunities.

SB: How have these priorities changed in the eight years you have been with Families Forward?

MH: Our priorities have evolved to focus on the true solution to homelessness: housing! Home is the foundation for a family’s wellbeing and health. Once we can identify a sustainable housing solution, we can dive deep into what it takes to maintain housing through our supportive services. Through career coaching, counseling, and other services we can help a family regain true self-sufficiency. In addition, we have embraced technology and are continuing to develop new ways to engage with families in need, volunteers, and potential donors. Our social media presence and growing footprint in Orange County is stronger in communicating the focus on housing for families. We anticipate the growing needs in OC and know we can have positive impact in addressing these homeless issues.

SB: What attracted you to Families Forward eight years ago?

MH: I was ending my work in the Peace Corp in Guatemala where I was fortunate to create and facilitate six volunteer women’s groups focused on preventative healthcare. The idea was to introduce a “promotora model” which is a peer navigator platform designed to create tools and frameworks that build capacity in the community. It was such meaningful and important work to empower others but more importantly to create lasting solutions for change through a hand up and not a handout. Upon my return to OC, I was ready to continue my work serving others and learned about Families Forward. Although I was originally interested in a volunteer coordinator role at Families Forward, our former leader and my mentor, Margie Wakeman recognized that I could play a key role in the organization as a Housing Resource Specialist. This was a new position for the organization and for Orange County, but we quickly realized how critical it was to support not only the family in need, but the landlords that were willing to open their doors and give a family a second chance. Today the housing specialist team is comprised of six individuals and we have partnerships with nearly 300 landlords in Orange County that are willing to open their doors to a family in need. We are so thankful for their incredible support!

SB: Tell me about your leadership journey and your philosophy.

MH: I have learned that we are only as strong as our team members. t is important to empower team members to step outside their comfort zone, develop new skills, and build confidence. By focusing on building trust and fostering open communication we can create a culture of proactive leadership. Having an open-door policy and encouraging questions and feedback encourages others to share potential opportunities and threats that we may not otherwise see while having a greater, more reciprocal exchange of ideas.

SB: Some say the best leaders are coaches. Share your view on coaching and how that impacts your relationships with your team.

MH: My coaching philosophy comes down to leading by example, being authentic, embracing change, and knowing that words matter. We are working collaboratively as a team to cultivate dialogue that is development oriented in our organization. We encourage discussion about what works, what doesn’t work, and what we learned through the process.

SB: What do you suggest other leaders do to foster a coaching culture?

MH: I believe in having a mentor and trusted listener as a sounding board. It needs to be someone you can talk to and have open conversation with which includes the good and the not so good. That way the relationship is honest and developmental for both parties.

Last year I was given the opportunity to take part in a six-month leadership training and cohort retreat hosted by Fieldstone. This was an incredible experience that provided a safe place to talk about the experience of leading with others in the non-profit space. We were able to learn from each other and build a network of trusted colleagues. If you have the opportunity to participate in a similar space, I highly recommend it!

B: How might our readers get involved in family homelessness in OC?

There are many ways to get involved, especially this time of the year. At Families Forward we have two great opportunities to do so – our Thanksgiving Baskets Distribution and Adopt-a-Family programs. Each program provides several ways to offer support to the families in our community. From hosting a food drive to volunteering at our headquarters and helping to prepare the baskets and distribute them to the families. You can also adopt one of our client families and provide the gifts that will brighten their holiday season or hold a toy drive to support the program. We also have many volunteer and donation opportunities year-round, just reach out to us! With all the possibilities we will find a meaningful way for you to get involved and make a difference.

If you would like to learn more please call Mike Lopez, the Development & Outreach Coordinator at (949) 716-5862 or

Learn more about Madelynn

A proven leader, Madelynn began her career at Families Forward in 2012 as a Housing Resource Specialist. For the past 7 years Madelynn has been instrumental in designing, developing and implementing Families Forwards’ strategic housing acquisition and partnership programs.

Throughout her time at Families Forward, Madelynn has overseen the Housing Program, Prevention and Diversion, Career Services and Community Resources. Under her direction, Families Forward saw an increase of nearly 75% in their housing continuum while maintaining a reputation in the community as leaders in quality care. She is dedicated to the mission of the organization and brings a passion for helping others to the role.

We are excited for Madelynn to continue the growth and impact of the organization as Families Forward moves into the future. Our agency is on the leading edge of effective solutions for families, including dramatically increasing the inventory of affordable housing available to vulnerable parents and children in the county. Families Forward is dedicated to ending family homelessness and there is no better person to lead the organization as we navigate the changing landscape of homelessness in Orange County.

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