FACETIME- Good Shepard: Best place to... be poor?
When Karen Shepard moved to Charlottesville in February, she was amazed to pay $2.99 for a half gallon of milk at the grocery, "the highest I've ever paid in my life," she exclaims, and she wondered, "What are poor people doing?"
She saw how much housing cost, and thought, "How do the poor afford housing?"
Good questions. As new head of Monticello Area Community Action Agency, those dilemmas fall squarely onto her shoulders.
For some of us, what MACAA does (other than its annual Men Who Cook fundraiser, which took place recently) isn't exactly clear. The organization was born in 1964, during President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, and the best known of its nine programs is Head Start.
In addition to the nine years on her resumé as a corporate lawyer in Omaha, Shepard has a pretty strong nonprofit background. "I started out in poverty law," she says. "I moved to Omaha to work as a teacher at Boys Town."
Even in the corporate world, she still did pro bono work. And then the director of Legal Aid position came open, and Shepard spent another nine years working there, before leading the Greater Omaha Community Action for six years.
"Karen stood out, not only as a community action leader, but also as a member of the school board in Omaha for 20 years," says Cass Cannon, who was on the MACAA executive director search committee. "The fact that she could do two very demanding, challenging jobs– at the same time– points to someone who's extraordinary."
Shepard's father is from Bowling Green, and she's always had a soft spot for Virginia. She grew up in New York, and remembers him working two or three jobs so her mother could stay home. The roots of her current mission were sown.
Her mother would make her father stop to give rides to women who had kids. "We picketed White Castle because they wouldn't hire blacks," she recalls.
Years later, Shepard, who prefers not to disclose her age, realizes, "I had a lot of opportunities a lot of people don't have."
She took the job here because she loves Virginia. But in an area known for its wealth and prestigious university, MACAA has clients who have never worked and need help– not just with a resumé, but with an alarm clock and clothes.
"We find programs to meet the needs of our clients," she says. "Some are just not ready to get a job." And then she points to a new group requiring assistance: the working poor.
Her mission is pretty daunting: to help people out of poverty. "My challenge is to bring in enough funding to bring in the programs we need," says Shepard. "The need is here."
In fact, in this economy, the need is bigger than ever, she says: "Wages don't go up; food and gas do. People are hurting." Some people, she says, have to decide whether to buy the medicine they need– or food.
Says Shepard, "It's scary."