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Banking on KC – Janet Baker of Shepherd's Center

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Janet Baker, the executive director of KC Shepherd’s Center, an organization that provides programs, leadership, and advocacy to help both active and home-bound older adults live healthy, engaged and independent lives. Welcome, Janet.

Janet Baker:

Thank you, Kelly. I'm happy to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

So could you please explain the Shepherd’s Center model?

Janet Baker:

I will. It's unique. It's been unique since its inception 50 years ago when it was founded by Dr. Albert Cole, who was then senior pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Brookside. And he looked around the congregation and saw his members retiring and in their mid-60s and thinking, "You have decades of life left, what are we going to do with that?"

Janet Baker:

And so he gathered about 25 inner faith leaders from across the city and they talked about the issues of seeing their members who are retiring from the workplace, but not retiring from life, and what are the things that create a purposeful life for people?

Janet Baker:

And so the Shepherd’s Center was created on several different pillars. One was basically to create a purposeful life for people as they age and to empower people as they age to live healthy and independent and active and engaged lives.

Janet Baker:

And so the Shepherd’s Center was born, and the Kansas City Shepherd’s Center is actually the original Shepherd’s Center that was born out of that collaboration across the community. And we are still doing the same work basically, and that work entails doing everything we can to keep people healthy and active and in their own homes, to reduce social isolation and to reduce food insecurity. All of those things play into people being able to stay independent and living in their own homes, which we know, by the way, has a huge impact on health and wellbeing.

Kelly Scanlon:

And it's obviously a successful model and it has now spread throughout the country. An idea that had its genesis 50 years ago right here in Kansas City is now a nationwide network.

Janet Baker:

It is. We call it a movement. And frankly, 50 years ago when Dr. Cole created Shepherd’s Center, a peer-led or a peer-driven model was unique. It was revolutionary for the time. And what that means is, frankly, if you look across the Shepherd’s Center network and across the country, and here, of course, as well, that all of our structures, our governance structures, our board of directors, our programs that have community advisory councils, our volunteer structures, and even our staff to a degree are comprised of older adults. We work through our senior advisors to make sure that the voice of the older adult is embedded in every decision that we make. And that I think is unique still in Kansas City and in social service agencies across the country.

Janet Baker:

You mentioned the national network. So Shepherd’s Center of America was created just a couple years after Kansas City Shepherd’s Center because Dr. Cole got some pretty immediate national media attention on this unique idea. And as a result, there were communities all across the country who reached out to him and said, "Well, we need that. We need that in our community. We need that in our neighborhood."

Janet Baker:

And so currently, there are 56 Shepherd’s Centers across the country, and I'm fortunate to participate in all of those executive director networks. I'm privileged to serve on the Shepherd’s Center of America board now. And so we have an opportunity to stay current on the science of aging, as well as best practices in our own Shepherd’s Center and in nonprofit leadership. So it just strengthens the entire network to have all of us be collaborating and working together to improve life for those as they age.

Kelly Scanlon:

If I remember correctly, right here in Kansas City, we're fortunate to have four Shepherd’s Centers, correct?

Janet Baker:

That is correct and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about that for a moment. We serve our own geographic areas. And while we all fall under that moniker of Shepherd’s Center, we may have different programs, but the same model and the same vision and based on the same values.

Janet Baker:

So in Kansas City, as I said, Kansas City Shepherd’s Center, it was the original one formed at Central United Methodist Church and has now branched out to all of Jackson County, mostly south of the river and west of Raytown basically. And we serve Shawnee Mission. We serve Johnson County as well. There's a Shepherd’s Center in Kansas City, Kansas. They do a fabulous job of serving the KCK community. Northland Shepherd’s Center is a large Shepherd’s Center that has multiple programs. And Raytown Shepherd’s Center has programs as well.

Janet Baker:

Each Shepherd’s Center identifies what the needs are in their own neighborhood, in their own communities. What we say is that Shepherd’s Centers are basically community centers without walls. Our programs are primarily delivered out in the community, in the homes. We do have some Shepherd’s Centers that have a community center where they bring programs or they bring people in for their programs, but primarily the model is to serve people where they are and to keep them in their homes and keep them independent.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about some of the programs that are offered through the KC Shepherd’s Center. You have Meals-On-Wheels, you have a Companion Care and a few others. Talk to us about those.

Janet Baker:

We are working very hard to make sure that we are a holistic organization, we're serving the whole needs of people as they age. And if you think about it as sort of a life cycle, that when you are in your early older adult years, or maybe your 50s or 60s, you want to engage as a volunteer. You want to be involved and be of service. And that's part of the original tenant of Shepherd’s Center is to continue to be engaged and contribute to the community even as you retire and get older.

Janet Baker:

And so our programs are primarily volunteer-based. We have a small staff and rely on volunteers to deliver our programs. So we have about 80 Meals-on-Wheels volunteer drivers, who on their own time, their own dime, their own cars, their own gas, commit to delivering meals to older home-bound older adults weekly, and many have been doing it for years, eight, ten years. They get very committed and very close to their clients. They both consider each other friends.

Janet Baker:

We have our Senior Companion Program, which I think is just a magical program. It's a federal program and through the Corporation For National Community Service and AmeriCorps Sr, and we have about 50 older adults. You have to be 55 or older, live in Jackson County, and fall at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines to qualify for participating as a companion and receiving a small stipend, a $3 an hour stipend for 15 to 30 hours a week being a companion in the home of a home-bound older adult.

Janet Baker:

And that relationship, it's so touching and so life affirming for those clients, but also for the companions. It's very meaningful to them. And what it does is it allows caregivers to get some respite, much needed respite, even if all they do is get out of the house. Caregiving is exhausting in every way, and it also allows them to get a part-time job or to take care of business outside the home because they know that the companion is at home taking care of mom or dad or sister or wife or husband or whatever it is. And it's a very special, very special program.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have some other programs. One I believe is some counseling for Medicare.

Janet Baker:

Oh yes. We offer Medicare assistance counseling to the community to anyone who's Medicare eligible. Whereas our Senior Companion Program and our Meals-on-Wheels serves predominantly low income older adults, home-bound older adults, our Medicare program serves anyone who is Medicare eligible.

Kelly Scanlon:

Another one of your programs is one that I think is a lot of fun, and that is the educational programming. Talk to us about that.

Janet Baker:

Adventures in Learning, I love that program. Well, I love all our programs.

Kelly Scanlon:

But I think adventures, adventures kind of captures it.

Janet Baker:

It does. And what is so special about this program is this is one that it's 50 years old. It started with Shepherd’s Center at Central United Methodist church back in the '70s. And it is a perfect example of our of seniors by seniors for seniors model, in that there's a leadership team of older adults who participate in the program and there's a Class Development Committee also of the older adults who participate in the program, and they themselves design the curriculum, they get the speakers, they plan the day, et cetera.

Janet Baker:

And 40 Fridays a year for nearly 50 years from 9:00 to 1:00, 60, 80, 100 older adults would convene at Central United Methodist Church and go from one class to another and just take part in lifelong learning, which is one of the pillars of KC Shepherd’s Center, of Shepherd's Centers in general.

Janet Baker:

And it is so remarkable. I think of it in terms of sort of college mini courses. There's one that is news and views that is always on current events. We have some remarkable music appreciation courses led by Don Dagenais, who's I think one of the renowned music aficionados and critics and scholars in our community, and that's always a standing room only kind of crowd, and any number of other subjects that the group decides that is most interesting to them at the time.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the issues that the pandemic has brought to the forefront is the social isolation of older adults. Now, it was a problem before the pandemic, it will be a problem after the pandemic, but COVID-19 has magnified it and it's created a lot more awareness of it. So talk to us about the impact of social isolation on the health of older adults.

Janet Baker:

Well, thank you for asking that. That is absolutely at the crux of what we do. And again, credit to Dr. Cole for being so visionary 50 years ago, but he realized that reducing isolation and loneliness was one of the core principles that had to be included in Shepherd’s Centers all across the country.

Janet Baker:

And what we know now about the impact of loneliness and social isolation for older adults is well-documented and it wasn't so much at the time. So now we have the research that tells us terrible things, like social isolation and loneliness actually are the physical equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We know that that is devastating to physical health, and yet not of their own making, not because of any choice that they've made, we have so many older adults who are just living in loneliness and isolation, and it is affecting their health to a huge degree. It actually increases the rate of dementia or cognitive decline by 50%. It actually has an impact on mortality. Loneliness increases the death rate by 40%.

Janet Baker:

So to the extent that people think that, "Oh, isn't that just so nice? You just offer companionship," and, "Oh yeah, that's sweet," no, this is life and death work that we're doing.

Kelly Scanlon:

It certainly does, especially when you consider the stats that you just provided, it certainly does have an impact on the health of older adults. And when you talk about the mortality rate in particular and the kinds of programs that you have and that you offer, it gives people something to get up and do every morning. It gives them a reason to get up every morning. And when they contribute like that, they're still contributing members of society, of our community. It gives them dignity too.

Janet Baker:

It does. Absolutely one of the pillars of our organization is to ensure dignity across the lifespan, either as a volunteer or as a client or as a donor, or in any way that people connect with our organization. It is about mutual respect. And I will say having only been on board here a year, I did not really understand the Shepherd’s Center model myself until I got into it. We facilitate seniors helping seniors. That's what we do. We're not providing to, we're helping them, we're facilitating work and volunteerism and services and programs among older adults.

Kelly Scanlon:

How have you been able to make adjustments during COVID when social isolation ironically is key to overcoming the pandemic. For example, are you still able to deliver your Meals-on-Wheels? Are you able to offer some of the other programs like your Adventures in Education, for example?

Janet Baker:

We are still delivering our Meals-on-Wheels. In fact, that is one of the programs that never missed a day. Fortunately, Mayor Lucas, when he issued the initial stay-at-home order, exempted certain organizations as essential, and feeding the hungry is one of those essential services. So we have had to make some immediate and significant alterations to how we deliver meals, but we were fortunate never to miss a day in doing so.

Janet Baker:

Typically, we have volunteer drivers, many of whom are older adults themselves, who were asked to stay home to stay safe. So we had to make some immediate adjustments in terms of who's driving those meals to the older adults. And we've had a great influx of volunteers who were corporate, who were families, who were younger people who are able during COVID to work at home and take a few hours out to do something to contribute to the community.

Janet Baker:

But what we have also had to do unfortunately is, for an organization like ours that exists for the very purpose of reducing social isolation through personal connections, we have had to turn our world upside down almost overnight and suspend the critical human connection on which our programs are based, and rely more on technology, on socially distanced programming, et cetera.

Janet Baker:

Meals-on-Wheels, for example, our drivers, some of them have been delivering to the same clients for many years and they're friends and they go in and visit. And that's that not just delivering a meal, we like to say it's more than a meal because truthfully, it's a well-check and we have assessments in place that help us identify do they have other needs? Do they need a senior companion? Could they benefit from some other program? Et cetera. Well, right now and during COVID, the best we can do is hang their meal on the door, step back six feet while we have a mask on, knock on the door and make sure they get to the door to get their meal. It's not the same, but it's still providing that essential service.

Janet Baker:

And so we look forward to when we can get back to the real relationships that so many of our programs have made possible.

Kelly Scanlon:

Janet, you mentioned that you've been the executive director of KC Shepherd’s Center for about a year, but you have a much longer, a much deeper personal connection to the Shepherd’s Center. Tell us about that.

Janet Baker:

Well, I do. I have a very personal connection to the Shepherd’s Center. My dad, Dale Carlson, served on the Shepherd’s Center's of America board for a number of years, and now I'm privileged to serve on that board and follow his footsteps and hopefully honor him a little bit. But he was here working as a board member and as an engineer and chief organizer and chart maker, which was true to his personality, helping the Shepherd’s Center staff organize a move from one office to another in 2007.

Janet Baker:

And he actually passed away in the office. And I have such great empathy for the staff director who had a board member pass away in her office, but from my standpoint, to have them reach out to me and be so kind and so amazingly supportive and share with me how much they cared about my dad and so forth, it was life-changing for me at the moment.

Janet Baker:

But that was in 2007. And since then, I sort of compartmentalized Shepherd’s Center and set it aside because that was my dad's passion and his deal and went on with life. And my husband and I were living in Portland, Oregon for the last eight years and trying hard to get home, and then this job came open. And so I sent a letter to the search committee and told them that I'm sure they will find many, many qualified executive directors in Kansas City, but I don't think they'll find anyone more passionate about it because of my dad's work here. And I was fortunate enough to get the job, and 28 days later was driving a U-Haul cross country and coming home.

Janet Baker:

I do feel his presence around me every day. I have some of his special office things in my office and I see his picture. And I can actually see his old office at BMA Tower outside my window. And I just am working hard to honor him.

Kelly Scanlon:

Before becoming the executive director of KC Shepherd’s Center, you were on numerous boards, and you still are on some boards. And you have a very, very specific philosophy that you adhere to when it comes to board service. It's something that you adopted I believe more than 30 years ago, and it continues to serve you well. For some of our listeners who may be considering board service or who may already be on several boards but perhaps find it overwhelming, tell us about your approach.

Janet Baker:

Well, I can't take credit for the philosophy. This is something I learned from my mentor and I think probably the nonprofit leadership Ameritas guru in Kansas City and anywhere, Beth Smith, who was truly just, she was a community treasure. And she and I had the pleasure of serving on the Women's Employment Network board together many years ago. And then I was in the year 11 Kansas City Tomorrow Class, which was 32 years ago now, and Beth was our facilitator for one of the day-long training sessions or orientation sessions. And her subject of course was nonprofit leadership.

Janet Baker:

One of the very important points that she made always resonated with me, and that is that if you are going to be a good board member and do your due diligence and actually make the kind of contribution you need to make, if you're going to take up a seat on the board, you need to do the work. And in order to do the work and to make the contributions and make a financial commitment to the board, which you need to do as a board member, delve in to understanding the organization and being that kind of ambassador for the organization in the community, you can't do that for 10 boards at a time.

Janet Baker:

So Beth's advice that day, which resulted in me getting out of that room and going and resigning from a couple or three or four boards, was that if you're going to be the kind of board member you need to be, that you can't do that for more than two or three boards at a time. And it makes sense. I remember thinking at the time as a young person in my early 30s, that, "My gosh, but she's been on so many boards. How could she say you can only do a couple at a time?" But if you think about it, I was 30, 31 years old, and that was 30 years ago, I've had the privilege of sitting on probably 25 different boards in my adult life. But if you do one or two terms on the board and then get off, then you can do two at a time and still have a monumental impact over decades.

Janet Baker:

It's a model that I will follow for the rest of my life. We need term limits. Term limits are important. We need fresh blood. We need new talent. We need new ambassadors so that we engage more leaders with nonprofits so that they too can love the organization and get out and advocate for it in the community

Kelly Scanlon:

For our listeners today who may be interested in some of your programs or who may want to help you with some of your programs, what's the best way to get in touch with you?

Janet Baker:

There are so many ways. I think the first and easiest recommendation I would have is ask people to go to our website, kcshepherdscenter.org, shepherd's is plural, and just look around, see what really grabs you. We have so many programs. There are so many ways to engage with each one of those programs, either as volunteers, or what I'm hoping people will do is say, "You know, I really think my mom could use Meals-on-Wheels," or, "I think my dad needs a senior companion," or, "I'm turning 65, I need to go get that Medicare counseling." So in addition to volunteering, we need people to refer older adults across the lifespan so that they can benefit from the amazing programs and services we have, number one.

Janet Baker:

Number two, I will tell you my biggest fear right now is as COVID takes a back seat and our attention span when fortunately vaccinations are going to make it less of an everyday crisis for us, that the attention that you mentioned about the plight of older adults who are lonely and socially isolated and suffering alone will go away. And we need that attention.

Janet Baker:

Furthermore, what we've had this year fortunately with the philanthropic community gathering together and making large contributions to nonprofits, I am afraid that that attention will go elsewhere too. And for now, while we have this attention on older adults, my request of everyone would be consider making a donation to organizations like KC Shepherd’s Center. We're serving a need that is doing nothing but growing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Janet, thanks for being with us on this episode of Banking on KC. It's clear that you have a deep love and passion for Kansas City, for its citizens, especially for the older adults in our community, and we appreciate all that you do.

Janet Baker:

Well, thank you for shining a light on the issues affecting older adults, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Janet Baker for being our guests on this episode of Banking on KC. KC Shepherd’s Center fulfills an important mission in our community, helping older adults live healthy, engaged, and independent lives. By successfully achieving that mission, they help to create a world where everyone ages well, where older adults continue to feel purpose and retain dignity because they can still contribute.

Joe Close:

Country Club Bank embraces the belief that every person has a meaningful talent, insight, activity, or experience they can share, whatever their stage of life. In today's aging society, organizations such as KC Shepherd’s Center need our support more than ever. And if you're thinking about plans for your later years, Country Club Bank bank welcomes the opportunity to talk with you about charting your financial future.

Joe Close:

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.