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.