Want to get plugged into Fort Wayne’s community? This new program for transplants can help

When Jessica Morales moved from New York to Fort Wayne in February 2018, she came to the city by herself.

Her fiancé had to stay on the East Coast until he could find a job in Northeast Indiana, so for about one year, Morales was on her own to navigate the city and meet new people.

During the past two years, she's found her tribe in Fort Wayne, helped her spouse land a job, and established herself as a rising young leader in the city involved with several boards and organizations. But the process hasn’t always been easy, she says. Morales

Now, Morales is part of a team that’s carving a path for other transplants to follow to get plugged into Fort Wayne’s community called Onboard Fort Wayne.

Created by a group of recent and seasoned residents alike, Onboard launched in October through the economic development organization, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. (GFW). It provides newcomers with resources, like digital guides to the city and a resume portal to help them and their partners find work, but that’s not all, says Barry Schrock, Director of Leadership Programs at GFW.

Onboard is centered on a few annual mixer events for newcomers and a Community Connectors program that pairs them with residents in their same stages of life to be their personal guides to the city and “first friends.”

“It’s really about coming alongside of someone and making sure they feel supported and feel welcomed to our community,” Schrock says. “Everybody wants this sense of belonging to a tribe or crew, so we want to help foster those connections in Fort Wayne.”

Jessica Morales, right, and her husband Jerry moved to Fort Wayne from the East Coast.

Schrock explains that Onboard Fort Wayne grew out of a Community Action Team (CAT) for GFW’s Leadership Fort Wayne program, a seven-month course designed to train, prepare, and inspire individuals to positively impact the Fort Wayne area.

While Leadership Fort Wayne has long formed teams to launch projects in the community, Schrock is shaking up the program by helping participants get involved with local nonprofits and organizations already working on projects that need support. One of five projects pitched to Leadership Fort Wayne teams last fall was a project of GFW’s own: A way to acclimate newcomers to the community. Schrock

Studies have shown that places looking to attract and retain talent need to not only be “open to all, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity;” they also need to be “proactively inclusive,” or “making it easy for people to plug in and follow their dreams,” according to American urban studies theorist Richard Florida.

With this in mind, a team of 17 Leadership Fort Wayne members rallied around the concept for Onboard Fort Wayne, led by Morales, Mandy Drakeford, Nikki Quintana, and Jamee Lock—many of whom are continuing to volunteer their time this year to bring Onboard to fruition.

Quintana, who took the lead on Onboard’s research and development team, says the platform was designed to replicate and localize the best practices of other successful welcoming initiatives across the country. It was also shaped by firsthand experiences from Morales and other Fort Wayne transplants, like Drakeford.

Unlike Morales, Drakeford already had a house, a spouse, and two young children when she relocated to the city from Charlotte, North Carolina, in July 2018 for her husband’s job promotion.

Mandy Drakeford, left, and her two children.

Looking back, she remembers the hectic process of homebuying and finding childcare for their children from afar, while still living in North Carolina to sell their previous house. She hopes Onboard’s Community Connectors program provides families in similar situations with a support system to ease the transition.

“I had built a really great network in Charlotte, but it was difficult trying to figure things out in Fort Wayne while still living in North Carolina,” Mandy says. “I would have loved to have someone here who I could have been networking with while we were moving.” Drakeford

Schrock says Onboard Fort Wayne is free and open to the public. Newcomers who have lived in the city for about one year or less are invited to apply on Onboard’s website.

Since the cohort-based program is volunteer-run, it is also seeking Community Connectors in Fort Wayne to meet with newcomers for about 6 months as their “first friends.” So far, GFW has been tapping Leadership Fort Wayne participants as well as Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana members to fill these roles, offering a crash course about local history and culture to prepare them for the task.

Overall, Schrock says Onboard is still in pilot mode, with its first cohort beginning Nov. 17, kicking off with a socially distant meet-and-greet at Sweetwater, made possible by funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

While in-person meetings are complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Morales says Onboard is moving full-speed ahead, selecting spacious venues for its gatherings, implementing socially distancing practices, and asking participants to wear face masks.

Along with helping newcomers get to know each other and the city better, Onboard is also helping local businesses and organizations outsource and extend some of their internal welcoming procedures for new hires. As such, it is sponsored by Parkview Health, Sweetwater, and Ash Brokerage as a way to assist their talent attraction teams. Schrock says other businesses and organizations interested in the project can get involved by contacting him via Onboard’s website.

Since its inception, GFW has helped newcomers and their trailing spouses get connected in the city on a case-by-case basis through its business partners. A key aspect of Onboard is democratizing the process, so all newcomers to the area have access to some of the economic development corporation’s services by submitting their resumes online.

Accessibility and inclusivity are a key part of the Onboard experience that convinced Quintana to get involved. Quintana

Having lived in Fort Wayne most of her life, she’s been excited to watch her hometown grow and evolve into an attractive hub for world-class talent. But she’s also seen that not all talented residents in the city are choosing to stay in Fort Wayne once they arrive.

Many of her friends who are young, Black women, for instance, have moved away after college to pursue opportunities in other places.

“They want more diversity,” Quintana says.

Nikki Quintana, left, and her family.

She hopes Onboard can draw attention to the diversity that’s already in Fort Wayne and provide resources to help people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and abilities find their community here—and get to know the city, as a whole.

“We want to create a platform that can help people step outside of their comfort zones, so whatever part of the city they move into, they get connected to resources across the community,” Quintana says. “We also want to let newcomers know that we have disability services, language services, and multicultural services here, too.”

Ultimately, the goal is to showcase Fort Wayne’s assets and, most importantly, its secret sauce to attracting and retaining talent: It’s people, Drakeford says.

“At the end of the day, we want people to choose Fort Wayne—and to choose to stay here,” she says. “What’s going to keep them here is their connections.”
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.