De’Niece Harrison-Hudson, the community affairs director at Indianapolis-based OneAmerica, joined Shepherd Community Center’s Board of Directors in 2021. But her relationship with Shepherd started long before then. As a 10-year-old living on the near Eastside, she started attending Shepherd’s after-school programs. Earlier this year, United Way of Central Indiana honored her with the Emerging Leader of the Year Award.
Q. What prompted you to join Shepherd’s Board of Directors?
Harrison-Hudson: I had many reservations about joining the Shepherd Board. I felt like a ‘Shepherd kid’ for so long that I worried I might not be a valuable voice in the board room. I didn’t want to be seen as ‘that kid’ or just viewed as someone who hadn’t earned her spot on the board. But it has not been that way at all. I am valued and respected as who I am and even more so for my experiences. My time on the board has been interesting and very rewarding, seeing a different side of Shepherd. It feels as if I have come full circle. I now get to understand first-hand the love and prayer that goes into all the decisions. It is so different to see the full picture.
Q. What impresses you the most about Shepherd?
Harrison-Hudson: Shepherd continues to be innovative when it comes to addressing the true needs of the community. I can tell you from first-hand experience that Shepherd not only understands the people it serves, but they love and care deeply for every child, adult and senior. They take the time to build relationships and understand the needs of everyone.
Q. How has Shepherd affected your career and future?
Harrison-Hudson: Shepherd gave me confidence and cultivated my desires for the future. I knew I wanted to go to college — something no one else in my family had done — but I didn’t know where or what that looked like. Shepherd walked alongside me through it all. They took me on campus visits and tours, helped me navigate my options, and assisted me in applying for financial aid. They introduced me to Olivet Nazarene University, wrote me recommendations, and helped me apply for scholarships. Best of all, they never let me give up on myself. Colby (former high school director) was always there whenever I felt like I was failing to speak truth into my life. I always had someone in my corner to talk about my life and to push me to keep going. When I first went to school, I thought I wanted to be a nurse, but quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. Colby did assessments with me to help me find my niche. He didn’t let me quit or give up. No one at Shepherd did. They gave me resources, helped me process it all, and affirmed my God-given strengths and what careers would help me be successful and fulfilled. When I graduated with my degree in Actuarial Science, Shepherd hired me as my first job. I loved working at Shepherd, and it was a great fit, but one day my boss, Rex, looked at me and encouraged me, ‘De’Niece, you can be doing so much more with your degree. Let me connect you with another, better job to challenge you and help you do even greater things.’ Shepherd staff were so proud of me when I accepted my current job at OneAmerica. They saw potential and a future for me that I couldn’t even see for myself! I truly wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for all the people, encouragement and resources Shepherd poured into me for more than 20 years – and still does!
Q. How has Shepherd made a difference for you and your family?
Harrison-Hudson: Growing up my life wasn’t great. My mom struggled with addiction, and we lived in such poverty – not just financially, but physically, spiritually and emotionally. My siblings and I saw what was going on inside the house and we wanted a different life. It was enough for us to know we wanted something different and better for ourselves. We all longed for it, but we had no idea how to achieve it. Enter Shepherd. I was the first to go to Shepherd. I was in third grade, and I had classmates telling me how much fun they had when they went to Shepherd and I felt like I was missing out. I convinced my mom to let me go too. I wanted to go anywhere that wasn’t home. It wasn’t long after I started at Shepherd that I adopted a more hopeful and positive outlook on life. I was always focused on my academics because I could control school and it was my stability. But Shepherd became a new form of stability for me. My mom started to see how different and happy I was at home. I made friends who were living differently and had such joy; I was safe to be myself. Someone at Shepherd was always there for me and continues to be there for me: every award, graduation from high school and college, birth of my daughter, the death of my brother. Shepherd has always been my safe place. Shepherd is what family is supposed to be. They aren’t perfect but they are genuine places and relationships. I always knew they cared and wanted to support me and make a difference. What Shepherd gave me was wrap-around support. It is so easy to give up when you don’t have people in your corner to tell you to not give up or settle. They told me I could do more. Most people will just repeat the cycle because it is easier to repeat what you know than to try something new and possibly fail. I remember different staff at Shepherd asking me, ‘But what if you succeed? We believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself, De’Niece.’ As for my family, my older siblings came with me to Shepherd after I had been going for a little bit, and they loved it. We were all excited to have somewhere safe to go. Shepherd helped my siblings find hope and possibilities just like they did for me. My mom got clean and hasn’t touched a cigarette or drug since 2008. She joined a Bible study, found Jesus, had women pouring into her one-on-one, and it made all the difference. She has her own mentors and support system that have walked alongside her through it all over the last 20 years. Since then, my mom has volunteered and served at Shepherd in lots of different ways.
Q. How are your passions being used at Shepherd and on the board?
Harrison-Hudson: Shepherd helps me use my desire to create safe spaces for kids now and create hope for new life and their future. I get to do this in my full-time job as well as my role on the Shepherd Board. My mission is to stand in the gap. I want kids to see for themselves that there is hope. They can aspire to be better and be confident. I draw from my strengths and network to help however I can. I want to help students – even start from nothing – and make it by advocating for them. I get to pay forward hope the same way that Shepherd did for me.
Q. What does hope mean to you?
Harrison-Hudson: For me, hope is the expectation that things will get better. Hope has been the guiding light in my life since I was little. Hope keeps me going. Whenever I am feeling down or my finances are struggling, I remind myself that this is just short-term, and my circumstances will get better if I don’t give up. Shepherd embodied that for me since I was little. Using the 10 assets, Shepherd is the pillar of hope in each of those areas: faith, health, support, stability, skills, models, advocacy, knowledge, future, and income. And it all starts with building one-on-one relationships with people. Shepherd is doing that and doing it well!
Q. What is your vision for Shepherd’s future?
Harrison-Hudson: My vision is that the community will continue to see new opportunities present through Shepherd that will elevate our neighbors up and out of poverty. I want Shepherd to be a place where neighbors feel comfortable coming broken but are empowered knowing there is a plan in place to break the chains and the cycle of poverty.
Q. What can you tell us about yourself?
Harrison-Hudson: I lead the Pathways Program at OneAmerica, where I get to encourage and support students to live out their potential and calling. I get to help give youth access to opportunities they may have not known existed or even possible. It is very rewarding! In addition to the Shepherd Board, I also volunteer and tutor kids struggling with math. I have a beautiful 7-year-old daughter named Zyla. She loves cheerleading, and even made cheer captain for her school. She also won her Junior Outstanding Miss Circle City Indy Pageant for the fourth straight year and has learned a lot from being surrounded by community leaders. She and I love to volunteer together. It is a joy to see her develop a passion for serving the community and help her make a difference at such a young age.