How do you change a city and a country? Maybe it starts small, by meeting your neighbors’ needs

For decades, if not longer in the U.S., there’s been a prevailing notion that supporting the essential needs of our fellow human beings is a “selfless act of charity.”

We stuff shoeboxes, pluck angels from trees, donate cans, and deliver heaps of clothing to nonprofits, all largely rooted in the assumption that we’re doing something generous—for someone else.

But as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic—a virus that started on the other side of the world and made its way into our homes in Northeast Indiana—maybe it’s time we reexamine how connected we are to our fellow human beings, in our neighborhoods, our cities, our country, and our world. Maybe it’s time we reexamine the notion of charity and reconsider the reality of mutual aid.

The pandemic has, in many ways, given us a visceral depiction of an often invisible reality that underlies our community’s health, wellness, and economic vitality: We are all connected.

This is the conviction that inspired Input Fort Wayne’s Solutions Series in 2021, made possible by support from United Way of Allen County, the NiSource FoundationNIPSCO, and Brightpoint. Throughout this 10-part series of stories, we’ve explored how our regional community is responding to residents’ needs in many “essential” areas—from food to housing to childcare and mental health. And we’ve seen how solutions designed to create greater equity and outcomes for those who are most vulnerable in these areas, ultimately uplift us all.

NeighborLink volunteers collaborate on service projects in Fort Wayne neighborhoods, like building ramps.

But among the many organizations, projects, and programs we’ve explored creating change in Fort Wayne, we’ve seen that perhaps the most fundamental building block of an effective crisis response is the simple concept of neighboring, or getting to know your neighbors and their needs.

Some of the most powerful stories we’ve encountered are of Fort Wayne people working hard, under the radar in their communities to care for those around them. And by supporting one person or one family, they’ve created a ripple effect of goodwill that is changing their own lives and chipping away at larger, systemic challenges.

As we conclude our series, we’re taking a look at two stories of residents building a better future in Fort Wayne by starting small and meeting their neighbors’ needs.

Caring for the caregivers

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of safe, affordable childcare has come to light as a top issue in the U.S.

For Deondra Steward of Fort Wayne, it’s a challenge she’s known throughout her life, first as the daughter of a working single mother, staying home from activities to take care of her younger siblings, and later as a working single parent herself.

“Even if you have a full-time job, paying for daycare for two kids is so expensive when you’re a single parent,” Steward says. “I couldn’t afford rent, utilities, and childcare.”

Deondra Steward, Owner of Unique Cherubs, a home-based daycare service in Fort Wayne.

When she started working as an attendance liaison at South Side High School, she began to see the systemic nature of the challenge and how she could help.

“I was seeing a lot of young women missing school,” Steward says. “When I looked into it further, I realized these women missing class were the ones who had babies, and they were missing school because they didn’t have childcare.”

This information inspired her to resign and to work for the Status Offenders Court Appointed Program (SOCAP), helping her better understand how a lack of childcare limits young women and families. Then, drawing on her knowledge and lived experience, Steward opened a childcare program of her own on the South side of Fort Wayne in 2018 called Unique Cherubs Home Childcare.

“I knew that this can’t just be what life is,’” Steward says. “These families are having the same issues I was having as a single parent, so something has to change, and I thought, ‘I can make a difference here.’”

Deondra Steward, Owner of Unique Cherubs, takes care of children from left, Jaliyah, JereMias, and Domonique.

Since the spring of 2018, Steward has been hosting children in her home in Fort Wayne’s 46816 zip code, starting with her own nieces and nephews. In March 2019, she became a licensed childcare provider for about five children, and in August 2020, she earned her CDA (Child Development Associate) certification, which has allowed her to increase her numbers. This summer, her attendance doubled to 12 as families went back to work and school during the pandemic. Steward has seen a growing need for more childcare providers, particularly for infants, as the crisis continues.

This increasing demand is part of what inspired Early Childhood Alliance (ECA) in Fort Wayne to develop a way for childcare small business owners, like Steward, to network, share tips, and prevent burnout. Myla Rogers, Quality Improvement Manager of ECA, says the Learning Community grew out of a larger project in Allen County, known as Engaging Childcares to Impact Infant MortalityMyla Rogers

It is a program largely funded by the Indiana University School of Medicine and Riley Foundation that is focused on reducing infant mortality rates (IMR) in the county through Safe Sleep practices. The program launched in Allen County’s zip codes with the highest IMRs: The 03, 05, 06, and 16. Before the pandemic, Fort Wayne’s 46806 zip code, in particular, had the second highest IMR in the state, Rogers notes. Infant mortality is also disproportionately high among Fort Wayne’s Black and Brown communities.

For years, ECA has been meeting with providers in these zip codes, including Steward, to help them become Safe Sleep ambassadors and to promote life-saving practices with their families. It was out of these relationships that ECA kept hearing from providers that they needed more support during the pandemic, and since ECA had a full roster of service organizations they partner with, they were poised to help.

Deondra Steward, Owner of Unique Cherubs takes care of children, JereMias, left, and Domonique.

In 2020, they called together several organizations, including Bridge of Grace, INAEYC, Spark Learning Lab, and the Child Care Resource Network to create a Learning Community called the Family Child Care Home Providers in South East Fort Wayne. The group asked Steward and another provider in the area, Tonia Creech, to join their planning committee.
As a team of about 12-20 providers and organization leaders in the childcare space, the Learning Community meets monthly, either at Bridge of Grace or virtually during the pandemic. Steward says the Learning Community is a way to bring home childcare providers and like-minded service organizations together to share their knowledge and collectively address systemic challenges.

The group has also given childcare providers, like herself, some much-needed adult interaction, self-care, and space to reflect with a network of peers, too. 

“As childcare providers, we have people to talk to every day, but they’re little people, so it’s hard to get adult interaction during the week,” Steward says. “We have also been trying to focus on how we can provide a warm, comforting feeling to our families. We want them to feel loved, so a lot of our work in the Learning Community is figuring out how to do lesson plans or even character building within ourselves, so we can help others. Because it doesn’t stop with us. A lot of single parents don’t have anybody to talk with either.”

Deondra Steward, Owner of Unique Cherubs, takes care of children, like JereMias, during a learning activity.

Steward says every family currently enrolled in her childcare is a single-parent family, and these parents need stronger networks of support.

“If they have to work an extra shift on the weekend, who are they going to call?” she asks. “I’ve tried to make it my personal mission, even outside of my business to say, ‘If you need me, and I can do it, I got you.’ Their kids are like my nieces and nephews now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Even so, being flexible and capable of meeting families’ needs can take a toll on a childcare providers’ own mental and physical health, which, in turn, reduces the effectiveness of their care. According to research led by Dr. Nancy Swigonski, MD, a pediatrics specialist in Indianapolis, “the wellbeing of caregivers/teachers is particularly critical, not only for their own sake but also for the wellbeing of the children they serve” (Early Childhood Education Journal, June 2021). In fact, teacher-child relationships in preschool have been found to impact a child’s skills in first grade, even when controlling for other sociodemographic variables.

Domonique participates in a learning activity during Deondra Steward's home-based daycare service Unique Cherubs.

Therefore, along with strategizing ways to support families, self-care is a critical part of the Learning Community’s purpose, giving providers the energy and strength they need to persist.

“The Learning Community has given us a place to be human, where we can share our woes,” Steward says. “Because sometimes, we hold onto the things our families are going through, and we need to take care of ourselves so we can give.”

Since the Learning Community reached its one-year mark in October 2021, Rogers says she’s proud of the progress they’ve made so far. The 06 has improved from the second highest IMR in the state to the fourth highest, and the Learning Community is sparking connections that empower childcare providers in their work.

“You see many providers realizing, ‘Now I know who to call when I have a particular issue,’” Rogers says. “They’re building a network of support.”

The Learning Community of Family Child Care Home Providers in South East Fort Wayne have gathered once in-person as a group in the fall of 2021.

Still, she acknowledges that much more progress is needed to reduce the IMR in Allen County, improve social determinants of health in neighborhoods, and empower caregivers in their small businesses.

To further reduce the IMR, Rogers says the next step for the Engaging Childcares to Impact Infant Mortality project is to get more small business owners in neighborhoods on board, going beyond childcare providers themselves to recruit more Safe Sleep ambassadors. The Learning Community of Family Child Care Home Providers in South East Fort Wayne share ideas and best practices.

“We want to help more business owners spread the news and information on infant mortality and become advocates, too,” she says.

Thanks to funding ECA received from Early Learning Indiana’s Stronger Together grant, it is also helping several members of the Learning Community maximize their time, energy, and business growth by starting a Shared Service Network. This involves transitioning childcare providers from paper records to a new digital childcare management system for operations, like check-ins and tax documentation.

“Now, they’ll be able to do things like sign parents in and out with a mobile app,” Rogers says. “It’s a continuation of building their business practices, their relationships with each other, and their collaboration with other organizations.”

As the Learning Community grows, she and Steward plan to extend it beyond the initial zip codes to all of Allen County and, hopefully, more communities across the state and country.

“We want to reach every child and family we can and give them the blessing we’ve been given,” Steward says.

Strengthening a city by ‘neighboring’

As Fort Wayne-raised Eric Wood watched the COVID-19 pandemic unfold from his home in Portland, Maine, he had a realization.

“It was when our faces were wearing masks that our hearts were unmasked,” he says. “You couldn’t see people’s mouths, but you could see their hearts. What we really were inside started showing up—in the division, the polarization, the lack of ability to see somebody behind their mask, to care about a person.”

Eric Wood, right, Executive Director and Megan Chandler, left, Development Coordinator of NeighborLink.

Even so, for all of the challenges Eric saw in the daily news, he also found hope in a new sense of community emerging in his neighborhood.

“When everything slowed down, people started walking the neighborhood, and all of a sudden, one relationship after another, people were fixing each other’s homes and protecting each other’s kids and making meals for one another or meeting outside around the firepit when they couldn’t hang out indoors,” he says. “All of a sudden, people who had never spent any time together began to see one another and serve one another.”

This was the vision of “community” he had dreamed of as a pastor back in Fort Wayne. It was the reason he moved to Portland, Maine, with his family in the first place.

“We went to Portland to learn how to love people in an everyday kind of way—how to do it in our jobs and in our neighborhood,” Eric says.

Eric Wood, Executive Director and Megan Chandler, Development Coordinator of NeighborLink work together to clear leaves while volunteering at a home in Fort Wayne.

When pastors talk about “loving” people or “serving” them, it often entails an element of those with “plenty” helping those who have “less.” But Eric’s experience in Maine turned that paradigm on its head. Rather than charity, he experienced the value of serving his neighbors as a form of lifestyle-based mutual aid, stripped of the typical power dynamics and platitudes and focused instead on intentional, consistent personal relationships.

It’s this concept he wanted to bring back to Fort Wayne in 2021 as Executive Director of NeighborLink, a nonprofit that connects volunteers with service projects in the city with a vision to build bridges between needs and resources.

“We wanted to help people learn how to be neighbors again,” Eric says.

Eric Wood, Executive Director of NeighborLink, helps clear leaves while volunteering at a home in Fort Wayne.

While NeighborLink sees needs in Fort Wayne increasing during the pandemic with more requests for help coming in, they’ve also seen steady, but less robust numbers of groups and individuals taking on projects.

“We only see about 45 percent of requested jobs filled, so 4.5 out of 10 is not great,” Eric says, noting that many of NeighborLink’s dedicated volunteers have continued showing up strongly during the crisis.

“One group known as Carpenter’s Sons is about 30 retirees, and they are serving almost 500 homes a year,” Eric says. “So we do have many dedicated volunteers who are faithfully serving the neighborhoods of Fort Wayne. We’d just love to see others join us.”

One group of NeighborLink volunteers, known as Carpenter’s Sons, build ramps and serve almost 500 homes a year.

To encourage more volunteers, NeigborLink is in the process of updating its website to make it more user-friendly for anyone to request or claim a service project around town.

“The new website is going to be developed for the neighbor in need and the neighbor who wants to help, so you don’t have to go through lots of steps or red tape,” Eric says.

He suggests that NeighborLink’s new website is timely, too, since self-care and mental health are likely to be critical in 2022, and serving others can be a powerful way to meet those needs in people’s own lives.

“When we talk about self-esteem, depression, mental health crises, many people are focused so much on healing the self that they haven’t spent as much time thinking about: How does healing happen when we’re servants?” he says.

NeighborLink volunteers collaborate on service projects in Fort Wayne neighborhoods, like building ramps.

While service projects are part of NeighborLink’s work, it’s also about building deeper relationships and inspiring organic, service-driven lifestyles that extend beyond the projects themselves into general “neighboring.” One resident who has taken this mission to heart is Dolly Woods, who has lived on the South Side of Fort Wayne her entire life.

Dolly has invited Neighborlink into her neighborhood and life for the past five years. At age 68, she is raising her three great-grandchildren, ages 10, 7, and 5 in her home. She says many of her neighbors are also working hard and raising their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to support a better future for their families, too.

Dolly, right back, is raising her three great-grandchildren, ages 10, 7, and 5 in her home.

Over the years, she has gotten to know many of NeighborLink’s staff as they’ve helped out with projects at her house. She met Eric earlier this year when he mowed her lawn for her great-granddaughter’s birthday party, and the two hit it off quickly.

“Eric is like another boy of mine now,” Dolly says.

Something that gives her hope for the future is seeing people in Fort Wayne help others and collaborate with groups like NeigborLink to do service projects in her neighborhood.

“NeighborLink encouraged me to keep doing good in my neighborhood and to help keep my neighborhood up,” Dolly says. “A lot of people in our neighborhood are handicapped, and they can’t keep their lawns up, so I help out as much as I can. NeighborLink has really stepped in and helped out in a lot of ways, too. They’ve helped me, and that allows me to help others.”

NeighborLink volunteers collaborate on service projects in Fort Wayne neighborhoods, like painting fire hydrants.

This connection, forged through mutual aid, is creating meaningful experiences in Eric and Dolly’s lives, too. Growing up as a young Black girl in Fort Wayne, Dolly remembers being told she shouldn’t go past Creighton Street because that’s where white people lived.

“There were a lot of things we could not do when I was growing up,” Dolly says. “I don’t want to raise my great-grandkids like that.”

This summer, she went on a drive across town with Eric, a white man, and although she is 68-years-old, it was the first time in her life she was invited to ride in a white person’s car.

It’s breaking down barriers like these that Eric believes helps people to see each other as humans and to get to the root of deeper, systemic challenges in their communities. Some of the most powerful neighboring can happen when people from different physical neighborhoods in a community learn to treat each other as neighbors.

“These are the types of surprising moments of what neighboring has the potential to become,” Eric says. “We aren’t committed to the fix, but the relearning of how to love our neighbors through relationship. Imagine what could happen in Fort Wayne if we learned to really see each other again.”

NeighborLink volunteers collaborate on service projects in Fort Wayne neighborhoods, like building ramps.

While politics and social media might be tempting ways to “change the world,” these outlets might not be the most effective way to make an impact, and the impact they do make might not lead to the best solutions. Instead of griping about the way things “should be,” Eric offers Fort Wayne a simple question.

“Do you know eight of your neighbors and their names and their needs?” he asks. “Because if you don’t, then we really don’t need to know your political rant about what will ‘fix’ our nation. I believe an individual loving their neighborhood will transform a city and a country.”

A volunteer with NeighborLink, Elijah Wood, 17, helps clear leaves with a leaf blower at a home in Fort Wayne.

Looking to the future, NeighorLink plans to partner with Fort Wayne schools more robustly in 2022, to foster this service-driven mindset among local youth. It’s part of addressing what they call the “missing generation” of parents investing in children and young adults and engaging them in service opportunities.

“The reality in a lot of neighborhoods is that nobody has ever invited kids into helping, serving, learning, and loving,” Eric says. “One of the big pivots we’re making is engaging youth ages 12 to 22 as a way to reach the next generation of parents and help them see the needs of their neighbors and jump into the gap. We believe that, long-term, what helps neighborhood development is young people taking interest in their neighborhoods.”

That’s something all of Fort Wayne can learn from, too.

“What excites me is what could happen if everybody knew their neighbors and their needs, and what could happen if they actually chose to do something about it,” Eric says.
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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.