By Stacey Saldanha-Olson, Topeka Capital-Journal

The Topeka Justice, Unity and Ministry Project is turning over a new leaf with a new initiative and change in leadership.

Over the past year or so, JUMP has acclimated to its new director and last fall began working on its newest justice initiative — combating homelessness.

JUMP is a nonprofit and coalition of 29 faith groups across Topeka and Shawnee County. The organization was founded by Shanae Calhoun in 2012 and started as a small organization with only a few congregations.

“Shenae did a fantastic job because she started this from the ground and under her leadership, I’m not sure how many churches there were when she started, but when I came in (nine years ago) it was only like 12 or 13,” JUMP co-chair and In God’s House Church pastor Curtis Odum said.

Topeka JUMP is under new leadership after founder starts new business
JUMP hired Sarah Balzer as the new director after Calhoun left to start Willow Consulting, a local business to help Black and Brown women in leadership.

“I feel like it’s gone very smoothly, and I think that’s in large part to just how well Shanae set up this organization,” Balzer said. “Please make sure to give Shanae her flowers, because she has done amazing work.”

Balzer began working in Topeka in January 2023. Before working for Topeka JUMP, she worked for a sister organization in Lawrence called Justice Matters. She received her social work degree in May 2020 from Bethel College and a minor in peace, justice and conflict studies.

“I think that that tradition of service has been passed down through generations in the Mennonite Church,” Balzer said. “So, that really gives me some foundational values that are taken over into this work.”

In Balzer’s capacity as JUMP director, she works with the leaders of all 29 congregations and helps actualize their visions.

“This is their organization. They’ve been here far longer than I have, and I just get to work with them,” Balzer said.

Homeless initiative is Topeka JUMP’s main priority in 2024
This year, JUMP has made addressing homelessness its main priority after completing a public survey across the 29 congregations.

“So the way that our process starts with JUMP is that we start in early fall,” said Trinity Presbyterian pastor Meredith Kemp-Pappan, who is a homeless steering committee member. “Just hearing from our congregations and what their concerns are in their community. We often use the question, ‘What breaks your heart or keeps you up at night?’

“This year, it was overwhelmingly people lifted up homelessness.”

After completing about 20 research meetings on homelessness, JUMP’s homeless commission understood homelessness is a complex issue and members wanted to focus on one possible solution.

“We learned that it was just very complicated in Topeka,” Kemp-Pappan said. “Just through listening, we listened to and had over 20 different meetings with local stakeholders and experts on the issue and Topeka, and we just ended up narrowing down.”

The commission decided having a low-barrier shelter could significantly help the homeless population and they are advocating for one in Topeka.

“It’s kind of surprising that we don’t have something like this in our community,” Kemp-Pappan said. “We’ve talked with Topeka Rescue Mission (TRM Ministries), and they’re very much in favor of this.”

Shawnee County and Topeka leaders urged to visit Minnesota facility
At JUMP’s annual Nehemiah Action meeting Monday, Shawnee County Commissioner Kevin Cook was asked if he would advance discussions or action items about getting a low-barrier shelter in county meetings. He said yes.

While JUMP isn’t building the facility, members are playing the role of advocacy and facilitation by bringing elected officials, community leaders and JUMP members together.

One way this is being done is by asking elected officials to visit Avivo Village in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Kemp-Pappan said Avivo Village is a prime example of what they would like to bring to Topeka, citing its well-maintained facility and extensive wrap-around services.

Cook was also asked during the action meeting if he would visit Avivo Village and he said yes.

Deputy Mayor and Topeka City Council member Christina Valdivia-Alcalá was the only city council member in attendance, JUMP organizers said. Valdivia-Alcalá said she won’t commit to going to Avivo Village until she has more information.

Mental health and high violence rates still on Topeka JUMP’s agenda
While homelessness is JUMP’s main initiative this year, members will continue to address mental health and high violence rates.

These two initiatives were carried over from previous years and also have a committee with roughly 30 members and five to seven steering committee members, Balzer said.

Through these initiatives, JUMP will continue to advocate for a mental health crisis intervention center and more programs to tackle the rise in violent crimes.

During the action meeting, speakers from both committees discussed the continuous improvements and hardships of these issues.

Tecumseh UMC pastor Lorna Boden, member of the violence reduction committee, said the past year has been frustrating as the community suffered from its worst year of violent crime with 35 homicides.

“We do need to break the cycle of violence,” Boden said. “A year ago, everybody on this committee was frustrated and directionless, but we knew we serve a great big God. He hears our prayers and our sufferings. He knows that people need to pick up and we are not OK with the violence in our community.”

Despite those frustrations, CIVIC members Danielle Twemlow and Courtland Davis announced at the action meeting that they will receive $560,000 from the Department of Justice to address violence in the community.

Along with addressing the growing violence rate, Valeo Behavioral Health CEO Bill Persinger told JUMP members that Topeka will be getting a crisis intervention center and it will be bigger than expected.

“We’re getting there. We’re so close,” Persinger said. “It’s coming and we do respect your voice, the volume of your voice and the support that we feel and believe in many causes to be taken up in support employment, crisis care, homelessness and all kinds of really important issues for the community. Thank you.”

What will come next for Topeka JUMP?
Balzer said the most important event coming up is the Topeka City Council meeting on May 21.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the Topeka Homelessness Task Force will give the council its recommendations on how to address homelessness.

“I mean, we had Councilwoman Valdivia-Alcalá here (Monday), and I’m so thankful for that, but none of the other city council members were here,” Balzer said. “So, we’re hoping to just take the support of the low-barrier shelter and the homelessness initiatives work to them.”

During the action meeting, community members were encouraged to fill out a form in support of a low-barrier shelter. Balzer said the forms will be given to the city as a sign for support.

View the original story here.