A Family Man: Southern Miss Social Work’s Tim Rehner built relationships, shaped lives

By GEOFF LOCICERO,



Tim Rehner knew only one soul in Mississippi when he moved here, but he has spent 25½ years in Hattiesburg and Petal surrounded by family.

First there are his wife, Kay, and daughters Kendra, Kathryn and Karolyne. Eventually, two sons-in-law and two grandsons followed, and now there is a third son-in-law-in-waiting. 

Then there is his family at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he started as a visiting instructor and rose to the position of director in 2008.

Finally, there is the Family Network Partnership, an initiative he co-founded that audaciously rose from a handful of small grants to, at its height, a $750,000-a-year social service agency that changed the lives of hundreds of east Hattiesburg children and their families over 21 years.

And now, with his children and their families spread from Texas to Jackson to Georgia, Rehner and his wife will be starting over with a new family in Lima, Ohio. His last day at Southern Miss was March 15, and he starts a new position April 1 as dean and director of Ohio State University’s campus in Lima. 

He will learn the Lima community and try to replicate the same kinds of services that have helped change lives across the Pine Belt and south Mississippi through a variety of grant-funded projects over the past quarter-century. 

“That’s the plan,” he said. “I don’t know how I’d do it differently. It’s just how I think. I don’t think I’d enjoy myself if I couldn’t look at how to make these town-and-gown partnerships work. It’s for the good of the community in which the university lives. 

“I knew lots of faculty here, so I could plug them in on projects. I’ll have to figure that part out in Ohio. I’ll have to get a new Rolodex going up there.”

A Quick Impact: Preventing Juvenile Delinquency

The one person Rehner knew when he came to Mississippi in 1993 was someone he had been carrying around in his figurative Rolodex since the early 1980s. Beulah Compton was the dean at Indiana University when he received his Master of Social Work degree in 1983 and then chair of the doctoral program at the University of Alabama when he started the program in 1989.

After scouting for an accredited school of social work closest to Kay’s parents in Mobile, Rehner arrived at Southern Miss as ABD – All But Dissertation in academic parlance – as he worked to finish his Ph.D. The person who hired him? None other than Compton, who had helped found the first graduate school of social work in Mississippi in 1976 and returned to Southern Miss as the school’s director in 1990.

“When I applied to work here, I applied to Beulah Compton,” Rehner says. “When we came to visit campus, we stayed at Beulah Compton’s. That was all coincidental. I made the comment at her memorial service (in 2002) that I had been following her around for my whole career.”

Rehner quickly established other connections within the school. In 1994, having completed his Ph.D. and starting tenure track, he found a kindred spirit that fall in new colleague Michael Forster. Rehner and Forster helped establish the first of what is now an annual event, the School of Social Work Colloquium. 

Each year the event takes a deep dive into a topic of social welfare or justice. That first year, 1994, it was youth delinquency and featured a community panel that included then-Hattiesburg Police Chief Wayne Landers and then-Forrest County Youth Court Judge Mike McPhail.

That panel led to a follow-up discussion about establishing a community program to help keep youth out of the juvenile justice system. Landers and McPhail asked: Could Rehner, Forster and the School of Social Work create something out of, well, nothing?

“We had zero money, we had no space,” Forster says. “It could have easily fizzled away.”

But the project did have Rehner. And if the first seed that would grow to become the Family Network Partnership had been planted, then Rehner was the energetic Johnny Appleseed who would not only sow but also hoe, weed, water – and whatever else – to see the idea bear fruit. 

‘Dr. Rehner, We Don’t Just Give Buildings Away’

The victories were small at first. The city found office space in what is now the Eureka School on East Sixth Street. The Police Department kicked in a phone and used furniture. The School of Social Work provided student interns.

The Hattiesburg Housing Authority, under then-Director Milan Hoze, eventually provided another office – an unused laundry room – and the community center space at its building on Charles Street in the Robertson Place Apartments. 

Services were basic at first: an after-school program for young children and assistance with homework.

 “It was cobbled together,” says Forster, who preceded Rehner as director and later served as dean of the College of Health. “The question was how would we sustain it. Somebody would say, ‘You should talk to so-and-so.’ And Tim would be the one to talk to them. Tim deserves the credit for all this.”

Johnny DuPree’s name eventually came up. Before being elected Hattiesburg’s first African-American mayor in 2001, he was serving on the Forrest County Board of Supervisors.

“Tim came and talked to me about whether the county had a building we could give them,” DuPree says with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Dr. Rehner, we don’t just give buildings away, it’s not something we do.’ We had this building over here off Tipton Street. It was beat-up and probably should have been demolished. I showed it to them.”

Says Forster: “It needed a roof, the flooring tiles were all cracked up. I remember thinking, I don’t even want to touch this. Tim was like, ‘We’ll take it!’ ” 

The county agreed to lease it for a nominal fee. To rehab the building, Rehner and Forster convinced the State Department of Corrections to provide work crews made up of inmates from across the street at the county detention center. Rehner just had to guarantee to help provide supervision.

“It surprised the hell out of me,” Forster says. “But those guys were not violent offenders and many had worked construction over the years. One guy had contracting experience.”

That building became the hub for FNP and provided child and family counseling services. It was the beginning of a government-university cooperation that would have a far-reaching impact on the community.

“Tim and I tried really hard over the years to develop the town-gown relationship,” says DuPree, who served four terms as mayor and is now running for Secretary of State. “People would give their eyetooth to have a university in their town and have the expertise we have on any given subject. So if we can continue to grow that, the city and the school can only benefit.”

Growing the Program, With an Emphasis on the Arts

Grant money started to arrive from a variety of sources. There was $45,000 from the Mississippi Public Safety Department in 1998. A three-year grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission, with support from the Hattiesburg Arts Council, was announced in 1999 that provided $25,000 the first year and up to $30,000 each of the following years. In 2000, the Junior Auxiliary helped fund an arts workshop.

A $12,500 grant from the MAC and a $50,000 federal Learn and Serve America grant followed in 2002. The biggest windfall, though, was a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Human Services in 2006.

With funding, FNP began to expand. Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Dabbs Street became a teen center. The city provided access to the former Eaton School Annex and one-time Boys and Girls Club – rechristened the Aspire Center – on McInnis Avenue.  

There was no shortage of programming for children and teenagers: a community garden, art, dance, poetry, drama, ceramics, bicycle and computer repair workshops, and weight and fitness equipment. 

Dan Askew, a Southern Miss art graduate, helped run the arts programs for a number of years. He led the creative effort behind a 9-foot cast-iron obelisk installed in 2001 at Robertson Place and the 18-foot carved totem pole erected at the Hattiesburg Zoo at Kamper Park in 2003.

 “My big thing was public art projects,” he says.

One of the more innovative components of FNP was taking arts programming into the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center. 

“We would do weekly visits, and I would cart in this milk crate full of supplies,” says Askew, who now teaches at the Florida School of the Arts in Palatka, Florida. 

Askew worked with the youth in detention to sketch images of their life experiences on four-inch tiles. He digitally created a grid layout. Red and black Sharpies added color to the sketches, and they were eventually scaled up to 12-inch proportions, culminating in a mural 12 feet long. 

“When I went in and would sit with them, I’d just sort of poke at them about what are some of the elements of their lives – ‘What’s something you really like?’ ” Askew says. “But of course, there is a lot of glorified violence. I remember saying, don’t put gang stuff in there, keep it personal to you. People came up after and said, ‘You know, there are gang symbols in there.’ ”

Askew did a more lighthearted mural project with the children at the Robertson Place Community Center. He asked them to identify their favorite neighborhood locations, then helped them sketch buildings and streets, organized the locations into a map-like format and set up a paint-by-numbers system so they could bring the locations to life with vibrant colors. The final 24-foot-long mural was a snapshot of life in East Hattiesburg – schools, businesses, churches and the streets that connected them. 

“The kids in what we called the Neighborhood University had not been in trouble,” Rehner says. “Their mural just feels different because it’s about life and opportunities and all the important places in their lives. It’s bright, happy. With the kids in detention, the feel of it is dark and oppressive. 

“Overall, we had more intensive programs for the kids already in trouble. We followed them into the detention center and when they got out, we tried to prevent them from getting back into trouble. When they got out, we would put them into the Neighborhood University.”

Until recently, both murals had spent well over a decade-and-a-half in the School of Social Work’s home in Fritzsche-Gibbs Hall. With the school’s upcoming move to the renovated Joseph Greene Hall, the murals have been moved. The first is being touched up and will hang where it was created, back at the youth detention center. The second is already in place back at the heart of FNP, at the Robertson Place Community Center.

“There was a lot of sadness in taking the murals down,” Rehner says. “There are so many memories of investing in the community, wondering where they are and how they’re doing.”

One major success story that Rehner and DuPree both point to is Jarvis McKinley. FNP programming gave him the opportunity to hone his dance skills and rallied to raise money to give him additional training opportunities nationally. In 2007, as a 20-year-old, he was accepted into the prestigious Ailey School in New York City. He has gone on to dance on Broadway.

“This young man found a love for dance,” DuPree says. “It never would have happened if he had not been involved, if Tim had not been involved in his life. That young man, he called Tim and Mike his fathers.”

A Tenacious Soccer Dad

Just as he was working to bring opportunities to children in the community, Rehner was pushing for equal access for his three soccer-playing girls in the Hattiesburg youth leagues. 

“When we started, there were no girls’ teams, so we had to fight to get those teams,” he says. “When we finally got them, we had to fight the male coaches in order to quit taking soccer nets off the girls’ fields because the boys wanted them. In that sense, we got some opportunities for girls and were part of bringing some changes to Hattiesburg.”

One of the coaches Rehner worked with was Stacey Hall, at the time a graduate assistant and doctoral student after lettering four years on the Southern Miss women’s soccer team. It just so happened that Hall also was a member of Northern Ireland’s national women’s team, which she went on to captain from 2005-2008.

“When I first met Tim, I was helping coach the local U10 and U12 girls,” says Hall, who is currently interim dean of the Southern Miss College of Business and Economic Development. “I coached Kathryn and Karolyne. I did the coaching, and he was the manager. He did all the hard work of equipment, organizing competition, logistics for tournaments. He was present at all the coaching sessions, making sure all our needs were met. He also managed the parents, which was a bonus for me, too. 

“He was definitely involved in his girls’ soccer career, but I think he also understood the importance of personal growth and how you could grow just being involved in sport and a team environment. He was supportive not only of his girls but all the players on the teams and the coaching staff. I would say at that point I kind of looked up to Tim as a mentor, a go-to person in the community. He introduced me to a lot of people and was always looking out for my best interests.

“I got hired on my first year at Southern Miss and continued to coach a bit. He would always welcome me with a hug and a smile on campus. It was always good to see a friendly face across campus. Tim’s always been community-driven, and he genuinely cares about people. Maybe it’s the social worker in his nature, but I think he’s just inclusive and respects diversity and tries to spread goodness throughout the community or any group or person that he touches.”

‘We Could Make a Difference for the Better in Hattiesburg’

For Rehner, the principles of his work couldn’t help but spill over into family time at home. 

“At our supper table at night, the things we discussed were social justice issues, opportunity issues,” Kay Rehner says. “The girls always knew what Tim was involved with on the east side of Hattiesburg, and our girls had interaction with some of the kids receiving benefits. Just being aware of those issues growing up has had an impact on them. What they’re doing now is really the result of Tim’s work in Hattiesburg and their exposure to that.”

Kendra Rehner Fokakis has her law degree and works for a firm that litigates against nursing homes that neglect or abuse patients. Kathryn Rehner is a social worker and former political candidate for the Mississippi House who now works for the Mississippi Center for Justice. Karolyne Rehner Bell directs programming for people with disabilities at a county recreation center.

Kay taught English at Rowan Junior High, served as an elementary school counselor in the Hattiesburg Public School District and later worked as a guidance counselor at Petal Elementary.

“Having the same values and commitment to the community and to what Tim was doing … even though I wasn’t a part of his profession, in my heart I felt that what he was doing was vital and crucial,” she says. “I felt that we could make a difference for the better in Hattiesburg. 

“Tim left early and got home later, but somehow he managed, when he came home, to take over. It was like the cavalry had arrived. I wouldn’t say (work) was a hardship, but there was frustration that the dinner was always cold. He’d call and say he was on his way home, but he hadn’t left the office yet. ‘On my way home’ had a broad, expanded definition for him,” she says with a laugh.

 ‘No Other University – Nobody – Has Done That’

From 2005-2009, the program peaked with approximately 20 employees, 60 volunteers and five to eight student interns each semester, according to former program director Laurie Risher. 

“There were days we had over 100 kids between Robertson, Aspire and Holy Rosary,” says Risher, who started in 2003. 

But around 2008, as the Great Recession hit, funding for FNP began to dry up. An earlier grant of $300,000 from the federal Department of Justice was not renewed. Programming ended at Robertson Place in 2009, at Holy Rosary in 2010 and at the Aspire Center in 2011. 

“We really miss FNP,” says Derrit Looper, the occupancy director for the housing authority. “Those programs benefited the parents as well as the students. They helped children complete their homework so that parents who worked didn’t have to worry about it.”

FNP adapted, scaling back its services to focus on child and family counseling and relying on students as unpaid interns.

“FNP has always been a program that utilized interns,” Forster says. “We just started using different ones, those trained in more clinical skills.”

Although FNP has never technically shut down, from a practical standpoint it completed its services in the spring of 2017 in the aftermath of the January tornado that hit Hattiesburg and heavily damaged the FNP building on Tipton Street. Clients who were being counseled were transitioned to other case workers from January to May.

“We haven’t killed it,” Forster says. “Man, that’s a long time, 20-plus years of operation. No other university has done that – nobody has done that. One of the things I’m most proud of is starting it, but to keep it going for 20 years on top of everything else, it’s just remarkable. And Tim get most of the credit.”

And the FNP building has seen yet another renaissance, with renovations to fix the damage completed last fall. Again, it was a combination of Rehner’s persistence and the county’s willingness to commit workers who were available when bad weather kept them off outdoor projects. 

Today, the FNP building houses two additional grant-funded projects in the School of Social Work that serve Mississippians: the Mississippi Person Centered Practices Initiative and the Mississippi Wraparound Institute. MS-PCPI trains case workers whose clients are receiving services through one of five Medicaid waivers, while MWI does training, outreach and technical assistance around a care model for children’s mental health. Both receive funding from the Mississippi Division of Medicaid, with MWI receiving additional support from the Department of Mental Health.

The Mississippi Integrated Health and Disaster Program, a six-year project completed last fall, grew from funds drawn from the legal settlement of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The school partnered with Biloxi-based Coastal Family Health Center to integrate social workers and graduate-level interns into primary care settings to add mental and behavioral health services. 

“Those dollars allowed us to provide services and enhance the skills of providers in treating underserved populations,” says Rehner, who helped secure the funding for all three projects. “We served thousands of patients and also changed the way services are delivered through a system change. I’m real proud of those kinds of things. Those will continue long after I’m gone, and should make life better for people in Mississippi. That’s what I’d hoped for.”

Lifetime Achievement Award: ‘It’s a Collective Honor’

For his quarter-century of service, Rehner, 63, was honored March 6 with a lifetime achievement award by the Mississippi chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. 

“I think it says a lot about the people in the School of Social Work,” he says. “None of these types of awards is about what one person does. It’s a collective honor, and I really consider that to be the case with mine. It’s hard to imagine a lifetime achievement award, because I don’t feel old enough to receive the award. It’s a great honor for my colleagues to have recommended me for this. That part is humbling.”

Rehner has also had a hand in the Hattiesburg Housing Authority receiving a federal grant that will once again bring programming for children to Robertson Place. The Resident Opportunity and Self-Sufficiency grant comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It will be a tie-in to what FNP started here,” HHA Executive Director Judy Mellard says. “Dr. Rehner gave a letter of support for this particular grant. So as far as his legacy, he’s going to have a little piece of this.”

Says Forster: “To me, the key to understanding Tim as a professional social worker, but also who he is as a person. … At that proverbial end of the day, I’ve never seen Tim do anything that he believed wasn’t the right thing to do. He’s more than capable of taking the shortest route from Point A to Point B. But he’s absolutely certain that Point B is the place to go.”

Unfortunately for the Pine Belt, Point B is now 800 miles away in Ohio.