Jay Height

Easing the Pain of the Pandemic

For Shepherd Community Center’s Jay Height, the year of COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to meeting neighbors’ deepest needs, and a fresh measure of hope.

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For more than two decades as executive director of Shepherd Community Center, Jay Height has poured his life into breaking the cycle of generational poverty in Indianapolis.  

He’s seen the success stories of first-generation college students earning full-ride scholarships, parents landing family-sustaining jobs, and families buying their first home.  He’s also witnessed the loss of his neighbors to overdose, suicide, and homicide.

Nothing, however, quite prepared Height and the Shepherd team for what they would encounter in 2020 on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We recently sat down with Height to talk about the lessons learned in leading a nonprofit during a time of unprecedented challenges.

What stands out for you about meeting the needs of Shepherd’s neighbors during the pandemic?

Our neighbors are hurting.  They’ve struggled to find work, to feed their children and to pay the rent as the pandemic has dragged on.  They’ve also struggled to hold on to hope.  When we lose hope, the consequences are devastating.  We saw a spike in suicides, drug overdoses, NARCAN use and violence last year.  So, 2020 was a year of pain, but it also was a year of blessing and of getting to know our neighbors and their needs better.  The community’s response to those needs has been amazingly generous.  With the help of great partners and donors, we distributed more than 400,000 meals, feeding more people last year than at any time in Shepherd’s 35-year history.  Our Shalom Team, which includes a city paramedic, helped meet the medical needs of more than 700 people who otherwise might have ended up in emergency rooms during the pandemic.  Meeting those immediate needs is a core part of our mission, but to truly break the cycle of poverty we also are committed to investing in our neighbors’ education and in job training.

What does the longer-term picture look like for the tens of millions of Americans touched by poverty?

Workers employed in the service and hospitality industries faced a sudden loss of employment and a drastic drop in income as restaurants, office buildings, hotels and sports venues shut down because of the pandemic.For some, the jobs they held for years will never come back.  The pandemic has been described as an “extinction event” for the restaurant industry.  The hotel, tourism and event industries have been slow to recover and may retool procedures to permanently reduce costs, including payroll.  The trend toward automation in the manufacturing, retail and logistics sectors will likely accelerate as a result of the pandemic.  Even worse, the damage may last for a generation.  Recent studies indicate that students from lower-income families (who are disproportionately Black and Latino) have suffered significant losses in education attainment because of school shutdowns and the pivot to e-learning.  Their ability to one day land family-sustaining, growth-oriented jobs could be forever lost without significant intervention.  We’ve responded at Shepherd by working with universities and other partners to provide job training, college scholarships, learning pods to support students while they can’t be in classrooms because of the pandemic, and internet access and internet-connected devices so children can study online and parents can apply for jobs and benefits.

What are a couple of key lessons you’ve learned as a nonprofit leader during the pandemic?

One is to adapt quickly and to be open to new ideas as conditions on the ground change.  We had to close our school with little notice and suddenly shift to virtual learning last March because of COVID-19.  Online learning is a big obstacle for many of our neighbors, in part because they didn’t have internet access at home.  We immediately set up a mobile hotspot in our parking lot so neighbors could get online access while social distancing.  We later partnered with Spectrum Communications to provide free internet access at our neighbors’ homes.  Those moves weren’t a part of the plan heading into last year, but internet access is oxygen.  It’s essential.

A second lesson that really became apparent last summer is to listen.  The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis made clear that we haven’t been listening when it comes to racial justice.  It’s not about money or programs. It’s about relationships.  If I’m listening to you, and not trying to fix you, if I hear you, then we have a chance to understand each other. The art of listening is especially important now for white Americans, because most of us have had a different set of experiences than our African American neighbors have had living in this nation.

Adapt, learn, and listen.  If we can do those things together, we will accomplish a lot.

Learn more about the work of Shepherd Community Center on its website.

Tackling a complicated challenge

It’s critical to understand that the health, economic and social consequences that COVID-19 has wrought will not soon fade.

At Shepherd, we do life with our neighbors, and see their felt needs first-hand.  Some causes of poverty are systemic, and others are situational, but all restrict people’s ability to navigate life.  Breaking down our preconceived notions and cultural blind-spots is key to achieving real impact in the lives of neighbors living in generational poverty.