INDIANAPOLIS—Drive 10 minutes east of downtown Indianapolis and you’ll find a neighborhood of used car lots, vacant buildings, a check cashing business, and a dollar store with a front door fitted with plywood (instead of glass). Children hawk roses at a roadside stall, advertising with a sign that says, “Honk if you love Jesus.”
Along side streets, some homes look well-kept. Others are boarded up, or have plastic covering windows or mismatched shingles covering the roofs. At an intersection, a man with a yellow sweater and a shaggy, gray goatee holds a cardboard sign that says, “Homeless vet. Will work for food. God bless.”
Here, hidden behind an Advance Auto Parts store, sits the Shepherd Community Center, where programs including a food pantry, a medical clinic, and counseling/mentoring activities try to meet immediate needs and prompt long-term spiritual change among local residents, in the hope that fewer will end up on street corners. Shepherd’s multipurpose building includes seven classrooms where a pre-K through fourth grade school enrolls about 150 students.
On a recent weekday, teacher Chelsey Wiley’s first-grade class excitedly stood at their desks—or wriggled, or hopped in place—and played a game that functioned as a group spelling bee for words like hopes or smiled. Many of the students spoke Spanish along with English. Shepherd is trying to bring children from low-income families into this Christian school by subsidizing tuition. Parents only pay between $70 and $210 a year to send a child to the school, with the rest covered by the organization and state vouchers: Shepherd also pairs many students with volunteer adult mentors who might take them out for pizza or teach them to play the steel drum.
Jay Height, Shepherd’s executive director, keeps two desert tortoises in his office that he occasionally lets crawl across the floor: “It’s a great way to diffuse a tense situation with a child.” Height is also senior pastor of the affiliated church on the opposite end of the parking lot, Shepherd Community Church of the Nazarene, which spiritually engages families who have benefited from the organization’s services. In 1998 the Indianapolis Police Department named him “Crime Fighter of the Year,” in part for chasing down and pinning to the ground a man on the street who had tried to grab a woman.
At the entrance of Shepherd Community Center is a wall hung with about 50 photos of young men and women formerly involved in Shepherd’s school or after-school programs who have gone on to college or military service. In this neighborhood, just one in four people has earned a college degree, so the pictures serve as inspiration for youth who pass by. So do stories from Curtis Adkins, 31, director of after-school and summer programs, who was living on the streets and with friends by the age of 12 (see sidebar below). Shepherd helped him years ago, and because he emerged from poverty himself, he’s able to “look a kid in the eye and say, ‘You can do it.’”
Antoinette Johnson did it. She first heard about Shepherd when she was 8 years old, when a church member came to her house to patch up holes from a drive-by shooting. She says Shepherd taught her the gospel and later helped her transfer from public school to a Christian high school, where she studied the Bible and began to learn God could use childhood trials and her dyslexia for her ultimate good. Today she’s 24, works for a church in Denver that ministers to impoverished families, hopes to become a missionary, and says, “I give God the glory for bringing Shepherd into my life, because that was all Him.”
Chris Berry, 36, did it. He’s a deputy sheriff who says he had a cynical mindset until, through Shepherd, he began to pray and read the Bible. His attitude toward arrestees changed: Instead of assuming everyone was guilty, he gave them the benefit of the doubt, and realized, “I could have been in the same situation that they were in.”
On Saturdays at Shepherd, examination tables on wheels transform school classrooms into makeshift doctor’s offices. Volunteers—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and interpreters—scurry to complete checkups, take blood samples, and fill prescriptions for the 15 or more patients who come each week. The clinic is free, and the only requirement is that patients must be involved in some other Shepherd program. The clinic is funded by private grants and donations.
Bill Lynn, a doctor who has volunteered at Shepherd for four years, often uses an interpreter since most patients don’t speak English. “Let’s talk about that chest pain,” he told a 56-year-old Spanish-speaking woman during a recent exam. “Sharp pain, or like a weight on your chest? ... Any shortness of breath?” “Mm-hmm, poquito,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like heart to me,” concluded Lynn, after pressing his stethoscope against her chest and back. He ended up prescribing a muscle relaxer and an anti-inflammatory drug.
Lynn later noted that Shepherd patients are uninsured and have similar problems as patients at his own practice—high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity. But he enjoys volunteering and not having to worry about processing payments and insurance codes. “I think as physicians we get as much out of them as they get out of us. It puts the fun back in medicine.”
The patient, Elsa Dominguez, later said she’s been coming to the clinic for six months and has attended a women’s program at Shepherd. Meeting with a Shepherd counselor, she said, has helped her fight a long-term depression resulting in part from childhood molestation by a male schoolteacher. She appreciates getting not just a doctor but “the Word of God” at Shepherd.
Height says he always thought he was called to minister to the city but realizes the city has ministered to him: “So many of the stories are of people who teach me every day how to be Christlike.”
• 2011 income: $3.9 million
• 2011 expenses: $4.1 million
• Salary of executive director Jay Height: $58,249
• Employees: 44 full-time, 13 part-time
• Volunteers: About 430 individuals from churches, high schools, and colleges logged hours in the past year, not including work groups
• Website: shepherdcommunity.org
Curtis Adkins, Shepherd’s 31-year-old director of after-school and summer programs, once resembled the city kids he helps today. As an elementary student, Adkins’ financially unstable family moved three or four times a year, allowing him to pick up only bits and pieces of academic concepts from schools he briefly attended. Teachers labeled him learning disabled: Adkins recalls, “Everybody was telling me I wasn’t going to succeed, so I eventually turned into the kid that didn’t really care whether he succeeded or not.”
At 12 years old, Adkins’ stepfather kicked him out of the house after longstanding friction ignited during a dispute between Adkins and his sister. He spent the next six months sleeping at friends’ houses, at his grandmother’s, or on park benches. He stayed in school to get the free meals. Finally, a friend’s parents agreed to house Adkins if he agreed to stay in school and attend Shepherd’s after-school youth programs. He agreed, but he butted heads with teachers and administrators, who twice kicked him out of public high schools.
At Shepherd, though, people began tutoring him and giving him homework help, and eventually helped him enroll at a local Christian school, where classroom sizes were smaller than at his public school. The extra attention he received helped him catch up academically from the years he’d fallen behind. Shepherd and the Christian school gave Adkins janitorial jobs so he could pay his tuition, and the long hours motivated him to get his money’s worth from the classes. Looking back, he realizes that having to work to reach his goals was a valuable life lesson.
Though he felt insecure about his academic abilities, Adkins finished high school and went on to play as a soccer goalkeeper at an Ohio university, where he graduated cum laude. Now Adkins is married, has two young children, wears a goatee and a loop earring, and works at Shepherd offering students the encouragement he once needed: “I came back to serve after being here because of the relationships that I built with people, and how people encouraged me and told me I could do it, even when I didn’t believe in myself.” —D.J.D.