As a long-term missionary, serving with her husband and children in Zambia and the Ukraine, Donna Alexander witnessed the complexities and consequences of deep poverty in her day-to-day ministry.

Yet, when she arrived at Shepherd Community Center in 2018 to serve as director of volunteers, Alexander began to see poverty in a new light.

“I felt like I knew a lot about it,” she says, as we talk in the training kitchen at Shepherd. “But when I came here, I soon learned that poverty is completely different. In countries like Zambia, poverty is expected. Here, it’s more a of mindset.”

Alexander works to coordinate Shepherd’s army of volunteers – from churches, businesses, community organizations – and helps them to understand more about the people they meet at the center and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s not only about serving food or handing out clothing. Even more important, it’s about helping volunteers to connect on a person-to-person level with “our neighbors,” as Alexander describes the people who turn to Shepherd for help.

“God put a call in the heart of volunteers to serve,” she says. “I’ve learned that can be as powerful as with our staff.”

Recent volunteer opportunities have included home renovation projects, including painting, building fences, and constructing wheelchair ramps. During the holiday season, volunteers help serve meals and distribute toys, clothing, and food baskets. Many volunteers also serve at a Saturday morning food pantry, where families can stock up on necessities.

One major need, Alexander says, is for volunteers to read to Shepherd Academy students and listen as the students practice reading skills.

During the holidays, the volunteer season hits a new level with the distribution of 300 Baskets of Hope (donated this year by Indian Creek Christian Church), the annual Mozel Sanders Dinner on Thanksgiving Day, the annual Christmas Festival, and the Christmas Store (where volunteers help parents pick out gifts for their children).

“It’s a very festive time,” Alexander says.

One of Shepherd’s strengths is the depth of its volunteer corps. They come from small groups, Sunday School classes, congregations, and community organizations. They also come from the workplace. Companies such as Eli Lilly send teams of volunteers to meet a variety of needs on the Near Eastside.

Alexander says the annual Christmas Store, Shepherd’s largest event of the year, is a prime opportunity to serve. The first crews of volunteers, who fill 75-minute shifts, start working at 8 a.m. and the final teams wrap up the day at 6 p.m.

Last year, Shepherd served more than 300 families and distributed about 1,000 gifts at the Christmas Store. “It’s a very special event,” Alexander says.

For those who want to go deeper, Shepherd offers training to explore the complexities of the issue in Indianapolis and beyond.

“Poverty is about much more money,” Alexander says.

From volunteer to principal: “God always takes me out of my comfort zone”

Diana Reed had a decision to make.

She was serving as a volunteer in a kindergarten class at Shepherd Academy when the organization’s executive director, Jay Height, approached her with a question. Would she take a job as a preschool teacher?

I can’t be a teacher, Reed told Height, I have only a high school degree.

Well, why not go to college, Height asked?

Why not? Reed had two young children who needed her time and energy. She had bills to pay. She also had doubts about her own ability.

But Diana Reed took a step of faith. She went back to school, earned an associate’s degree, and became a preschool teacher at Shepherd.

“It was a hard road,” Reed says today. “I had to juggle school, family and work.”

Yet, as she traveled that challenging road, she was learning about faith and trust, and about answering God’s call.

“I had to trust God,” Reed says today. “He would always take me out of my comfort zone.”

A second opportunity to grow out of her comfort zone came a few years later. Jay Height approached her again, this time to ask if she’d become the preschool director.

I can’t be the director, Reed told him, I have only an associate’s degree?

Then why not go back to school, Height asked?

So, Reed took another giant step of faith, and earned a bachelor’s in early childhood education.

Even then, God wasn’t done yet.

Height came to her a third time, to ask if she would become an administrator at Shepherd Academy.

By now you know Reed’s answer. She returned to school, graduating with a master’s in education.

Now, 16 years after stepping forward to serve as a volunteer, Diana Reed is in her first year as principal of Shepherd Academy. More than 150 children, dozens of families, and a school full of teachers and staff count on her leadership, wisdom, and faith.

“Jay and others at Shepherd always see the potential,” Reed says. “They push me to the limit because they know I am capable of doing it. I’ve learned that I am capable. I’ve learned that I am intelligent and I have gifts to share.”

What did Height see in a classroom volunteer that convinced him she was ready for much more?

“It’s all about the heart,” Height says. “What she demonstrates is her heart for others. The skill can be taught. The heart is a blessing from God.”

For Reed, sharing her heart is a core part of the job. That includes those times when a child’s behavior warrants a trip to her office.

“One of the things I tell them, before I talk about consequences, is that I love them,” Reed says. “I also tell them that I forgive them, and that I will always love them. A couple of times the child has broken down and cried, not because they were in trouble, but because I showed them love and forgiveness.”

Comfort zones are nice. We all need places to rest, regroup, and prepare for the next adventure. But God has a way of calling us out of the safe places and into new areas of faith and trust.

Diana Reed heard that call. Her answer not only transformed her own life but continues to change the lives of hundreds of others she’s led and inspired along the way.

Indy, 46201

Meet Tim Swarens! Tim will be giving us the “inside scoop” of some events and happenings here at Shepherd. If you want to better understand Shepherd and our neighborhood, you won’t want to miss Tim’s articles.

Tim Swarens is a former opinion editor and columnist with The Indianapolis Star. He previously was an editor with the Miami Herald.

Swarens is a graduate of Indiana University and Vincennes University with degrees in journalism. He and his wife live in Indianapolis. They have four adult children. He enjoys reading, cooking, and long-distance walking. He and his wife worship at Eagle Church in Whitestown, Indiana, where he served as an elder for 12 years.

Swarens was the editor or writer on projects that in recent years have won awards from Sigma Delta Chi, National Headliners, Scripps Howard, American Society of Newspaper Editors, and Robert F. Kennedy Excellence in Journalism. He also is the 2016 recipient of the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing.

In 2018, Swarens was the author of the EXPLOITED project, a 10-part series that investigated child sex trafficking in the United States and internationally. Swarens spent more than a year reporting on the series in eight countries on five continents. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, described the series as “remarkable and important” journalism.

Swarens’ work as editor of The Manual Project, a yearlong examination of conditions at an urban Indianapolis high school, led to creation of the Our City, Our Children initiative, which has raised millions of dollars to aid youth in Central Indiana and inspired thousands of people to serve as mentors and tutors for at-risk children.

His commentary has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Arizona Republic, Detroit Free-Press, Seattle Times and USA Today. He has appeared on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He has been a regular panelist on IN Focus, an Emmy Award winning political talk show broadcast on CBS 4 and Fox 59 in Central Indiana.