A day experiencing Shepherd Community Center’s Shalom Project

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

On a Thursday morning, in mid-August, Shane Hardwick, a paramedic, slides into the passenger seat of a police car parked outside of the Shepherd Community Center, a nonprofit organization in the heart of Indianapolis’ Near Eastside — one of the city’s most troubled and blighted neighborhoods.

His work partner, Adam Perkins, a police officer with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, sits in the driver’s seat as they tune into a weekly 9 a.m. virtual meeting on the vehicle’s computer monitor.

During the next 45 minutes, they join other team members of Shepherd Community Center as they discuss the challenges facing about 20 to 25 individuals and their families in the area surrounding them — primarily within the 46201 zip code.

They talk of the individuals with familiarity, giving updates on how they’re currently coping and what they need to gain more stability in their day-to-day lives. An elderly couple, fearful of venturing out during the COVID-19 pandemic, hadn’t left their home in a six-month period. A survivor of a domestic violence stabbing is having trouble managing a confusing mix of medication. Another woman wants to improve her job prospects but needs internet access for a medical coding class. A man estranged from his family hasn’t taken his high blood pressure medicine for months, putting him at risk for serious health complications.

Each person mentioned — Jesse, Amy, Bob, Ericka, Maria, Angela, Derek and others — are considered part of the key to transforming the 46201 neighborhood under Shepherd’s Shalom project. By focusing on individuals, couples and their families, the initiative, which was started nearly eight years ago in partnership with the city of Indianapolis, the team is able to take steps toward rebuilding a community that faces one of the city’s highest rates of poverty, crime, unemployment and food insecurity,

The center, which has been serving the community for nearly six decades, launched the Shalom Project as an outreach initiative in 2015, sending a community police officer, Perkins, out on neighborhood patrol to get to know residents on a personal basis. When they realized that many residents were facing health-related challenges, paramedic Hardwick joined the team to meet those needs.

Five days a week, the pair go out into the neighborhoods to give residents the gift of time — time to build trust and make a connection, time to understand the underlying challenges that eventually lead to a crisis … in some cases calling 911 “as primary care,” as Hardwick puts it, and, consequently, time to rebuild a community one neighbor at a time.

Building on a vision to become experts at relationships

According to Andrew Green, assistant executive director of the Shepherd Community Center, the shift to outreach has been significant in truly meeting the needs of residents in the community — especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Shalom model, which focuses on going out to meet the needs of local residents, instead of expecting them to come to 4107 E Washington St, where the center is located, has taught the Shepherd team the importance of building relationships and connections as they move toward the goal of making the 46210 area a stronger, healthier and safer community. 

“It fits a theme for us for the last few years — we’re focusing on the humanity piece,” Green said. “Relationships are what make the difference. And we want to be considered experts on building relationships.”

Shepherd continues to build on its legacy of providing quality services and programs, including after-school programs, a clinic, a food pantry, job training, counseling and legal aid. Yet, as IMPD leaders shared in a conversation with Shepherd, “Great things are happening on site, but your neighborhood is crumbling,” Green said.

At one point, it offered a clinic on Saturdays to address acute medical issues but quickly realized that residents were arriving for primary care. “It was staffed with volunteer doctors, pharmacists and nurses,” Green recalled. “However, it was becoming primary care because of underlying chronic conditions.”

Under the Shalom model, the Shepherd team now connects with individuals one on one and ensures that they see the right medical professionals. Another key is maintaining those relationships long-term — following up to make sure that people are continuing in a positive direction, Green said. 

“The whole theme of building relationships is driven home day after day. The pandemic moved us toward that model even quicker,” he added. “We are now making calls to people twice a week.”

Making critical connections

After their morning meeting, Perkins and Hardwick start the work of making face-to-face connections in the 46201 community, where they are welcomed into the living rooms, porches and yards of the nearby residents. They also respond to 911 calls, joining other EMS respondents and police officers in addressing emergency situations that range from several suspected overdoses, a dog bite, an arrest on a suspicion of a stolen car, and also, on this particular day, a search for a cow on the loose.

On their first stop, Perkins and Hardwick drive a couple of miles to a rooming house where Derek, a middle-aged man, is waiting outside in anticipation of their arrival. He smiles as Perkins and Hardwick exchange warm greetings with him, commenting on the weather and how each other are doing. Derek, still smiling, replies that he’s doing great. Hardwick pulls out a blood pressure cuff to determine how Derek really is doing.

“That’s not looking good,” Hardwick announces as he shares the reading with Derek. Just as the Shepherd team had suspected, Derek’s blood pressure was dangerously high after going without his prescribed medication for about five months.

These are the types of situations that lead to unnecessary 911 calls, Hardwick later explains. Without intervention, Derek’s medical condition could reach a crisis stage — leading him to make a 911 call.

The reading reveals what the Shepherd team had suspected: After going without his medication for about five months, Derek’s blood pressure is high. Without intervention, Derek could reach a crisis stage — requiring a 911 call

“In many cases, people end up using 911 as primary care,” Hardwick says.

Hardwick orders an Uber driver to give Derek a ride to the Shepherd Community Center, where social workers and staff members work on his behalf to ensure he receives his medication. After a series of calls, including long waits on hold, they are finally able to address the source of Derek’s challenges and barriers. As it turns out, under the restrictions of his medical plan, Derek could only see one physician for medical care, who apparently had moved to California months ago, and could only get his medication filled at one pharmacy — located miles from his current address.

After spending hours resolving his challenges, Shepherd was able to ensure that Derek was assigned a new doctor and was able to get his medication filled at a more convenient location.

During that same day, Adams and Hardwick visit the family of an elderly man who was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a fall on ice. The man wants the dignity of dying at the home of his sister, in the company of his children and other relatives.

The daughter is distraught, telling Adams and Hardwick that she feels he has given up on his battle to live. She doesn’t understand why he refuses to go to the hospital to get further medical care.

The Shepherd team gathers with about eight relatives on the expansive porch for a while, discussing various options. As he leaves, Hardwick gives the daughter his business card, encouraging her to call him if they need any assistance.

Hours later, the daughter does call. The father has agreed to be taken to the hospital to rule out any medical complications that could be resolved. Adams and Hardwick return to the home to assist emergency responders who take him to the hospital for a medical check.

The next day, the family calls the team once again to let them know that their loved one had returned home and had passed amongst his family as he had wished. They invite Adams and Hardwick back to the home as they gather.

The connection represents yet another long-term relationship built through the Shepherd Shalom project.

By focusing on individuals, couples and their families throughout the neighborhood, the Shalom initiative not accomplishes critical needs — it meets the needs of many individuals and families who need someone to care, lightens the load of the emergency responders and rebuilds the 46201 community — one neighbor at a time.