By Holly Hinson

Jennifer stands outside of the new Freedom House which will provide additional housing for their clients.
Photos by Melissa Donald   

Recently, Jennifer Hancock reconnected with a former client at an awards banquet in Lexington. The woman, Karen, is now working as a social worker for the very agency where she and Jennifer first met. “Rarely do we know the outcome of the seeds that we plant, but in this case, I was reminded of how powerful our influence can be,” Jennifer says. “I have so much respect and reverence for that role of facilitator of change; it is one that provides hope and a vision of what can be. I was reminded of how sacred that trust is that is placed in us from people who seek help in the darkest points of their lives. Early on, we are truly just a stranger to them, but over time we may be a pivotal influencer of the trajectory of their lives.”

If you had to describe Jennifer Hancock in just one word, it would be advocate. From the time she was inspired by a high school class at Assumption High School, to today as president and CEO of Volunteers of America Mid-States, Jennifer has devoted her career and life to standing up for those who are struggling.

“I attribute that social justice class with activating in me a desire to be of service to others. That was followed by the service learning project I did that allowed me to experience what it was like to be engaged in my community in a really meaningful way,” Jennifer says.

She was hooked.

Jennifer received a scholarship from Metro United Way that enabled her to go to college at the University of Kentucky, earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Social Work.

In her 21-year career as a social worker and administrator, Jennifer’s life has been filled with opportunities to make a difference through direct service and through advocacy. For the last 10 years, two of those as CEO, her opportunity has been with Volunteers of America (VOA) in Louisville, which serves 23,000 clients a year.

These words of inspiration, located in the new Freedom House, were written by current and former
Freedom House residents. 

The organization’s mission is to create positive change in the lives of individuals and communities through a ministry of service. VOA programs are focused on housing for families, veterans, and low-income seniors; addiction recovery services for men and women; care and support for individuals with developmental disabilities; and HIV testing and education.

One key way Jennifer has worked to advocate for women in the community is through Freedom House. This VOA program assists pregnant and parenting women who are struggling with addiction, a client population she also served earlier in her career.

Jennifer holds a newborn baby of a Freedom House resident.  

“Freedom House takes care of the whole family,” Jennifer says. “We help them deliver healthy babies. We also help moms reunite with kids in foster placements or placements with other caregivers. We restore mom as a healthy parent who is clean and sober. I love to promote this program.”

In fact, under Jennifer’s leadership, Freedom House is expanding to serve even more individuals to meet the growing demand exacerbated by the burgeoning opioid epidemic. “We recognized a few years ago that Freedom House was at capacity and we could no longer serve women on the waiting list.”

This dilemma spurred Jennifer to action, and Volunteers of America embarked on a capital campaign, resulting in construction of a new building, which Jennifer hopes will open its doors in spring 2018. “I feel like this is an example of being highly responsive to community need. Rather than wait for someone else to step up, VOA emerged as a leader prepared to do whatever it takes to provide solutions for women pregnant and parenting and addicted,” she says. VOA is still accepting donations for this campaign.

Top Five Things that Shaped Jennifer’s Career and Life

My family – My parents modeled giving back to our community and volunteering for as long as I can remember. My siblings all chose service careers due to the extraordinary example set by my parents, who continue to volunteer in their 70s. My mom has been a volunteer for the James Graham Brown Cancer Center for over a decade, and my parents also serve meals at St. Vincent de Paul.

High School – Having a social justice class that absolutely resonated with me. The teachers saw that and nurtured and inspired me to pursue that career path.

College – I was expected to volunteer as part of maintaining my scholarship with Metro United Way. I did service on a crisis hotline, and I saw immediate impact in helping others. It was very motivating to me to continue to give back to the community.

Being mentored – I can’t say enough about the critical role mentors have played in my life. As a female in a leadership role, it is important to have mentors to nurture my self-confidence; to know that I can be highly successful and I can have high impact; to know that I can wake up and face the challenges of each day.

Interconnectivity – This has become a prominent and powerful guiding principle for me throughout my career. I have a very real experience of feeling deeply connected to people I have served — this sense that we are all interconnected regardless of what we look like, what zip code we live in, or where we went to high school. At the end of the day, what matters most to us is what we share in common. I am the one who tends to see where we are connected rather than look for things that divide us. We are all so connected when we allow ourselves to be.