Not long after the death of her father, Rachel Hester, Executive Director of Room In the Inn’s Campus for Human Development, was on her way to work when a homeless man stopped her. The man was a member of the community at the Campus, a high profile service provider for Nashville’s homeless, and he knew about Hester’s loss. Worried that money might be tight with her father gone, he offered Hester a handful of cash.
The incident showcases the friendships that develop at this unique ministry. This homeless man and Hester had a relationship that went beyond her providing services to meet his needs. He reached out to her to provide for his friend in her time of struggle.
For nearly 20 years, Hester has served and advocated for Nashville’s homeless population. Her first experience at Room in the Inn was in 1989, when she arrived at the agency as a Trevecca student volunteer, eager to help. The nonprofit then employed just three people. Today, she heads this sophisticated, comprehensive service organization that helps thousands annually.
Hester is one of several Trevecca Nazarene University former students and alumni who have devoted their careers to advancing compassion and justice in Nashville. Although Trevecca’s administration does not keep records on graduates who are now involved in social justice oriented careers, Micah Mandate has identified at least 10 alumni active locally with nonprofits seeking to advance the common good.
“They are entering into the brokenness of our communities to help restore their lives to wholeness again,” said Jamie Calser, Director of the J.V. Morsch Center for Social Justice at Trevecca.
Hester’s work at Room In the Inn and the Campus for Human Development has become her mission field. She says the Campus is a place for encouraging people to serve and live radically. People here volunteer and work together with a common goal to bring hope to the homeless. Hester has the vision of the Campus for Human Development to be a place where all can find a place to use their talents so that the no one will have an excuse not to serve.
“It is a ministry of presence,” Hester said, “It is being there in their everyday life.”
Each day her work is about building relationships with those who come to the Campus for help. For Hester, the best experiences with these relationships are simple, like someone stopping her and just telling her she is loved.
“Relationships are the most important. They allow you to do more. Why would they (homeless) trust you just because you gave them clothes?” Hester said.
Hester’s latest project is overseeing the construction of an estimated $13 million 5-story facility that will be the Campus’s new home.
Space will more than double when the current building expands into a 44,000 square foot structure. The total 64,000 square foot campus will provide 38 permanent housing units, continue the medical respite program and the long-term recovery and transitional housing programs, and create a learning center to enhance the agency’s educational program.
“I really want to see the building up and running…create infrastructure that really allows (the homeless) to see hope,” Hester said.
Her talents as an interior designer have been utilized throughout the building process. Hester graduated from Watkins College of Art and Design with a degree in Fine Arts and Interior Design. She has worked with the architect to dream and design the building. She did not want an urban, contemporary look. Instead, Hester wanted it to look like home, not an institution. The newest part of the campus will have a chapel, a memory tree for those lost from the community, prayers on tile placed in the foundation, and polka dot carpet to add a home-like atmosphere.
Whenever the contractors had ideas that didn’t fit this homey vision, “I was able to say, ‘That doesn’t work for our population,’” Hester said.
Room at the Inn practically is home on some days to the Hester family. Rachel and her husband Tommy met at the Campus when working as volunteers. Often she brings her 4-year-old son Austin to work with her –not so he can have a babysitter, but to teach him that people who are homeless are not any different from him. This family has spent holidays together serving at the Campus.
“People here, homeless and non, have made me who I am,” Hester said.
But some days, life on Campus can be stressful, Hester admits. She has learned to take time for herself. She spends this time painting, shopping, and playing with little Austin. She doesn’t want her work with the homeless to be all consuming. She fights to find peace in between constant phone calls, meetings, projects, 282 emails on some days, and late nights at the office. In addition to this, she is always on call in case someone needs her at the campus.
“You can’t ever let your guard down,” Hester said, “You’re always thinking about your job.”
But Hester has made her work more than a job. It has become her passion.
“I can’t imagine not coming here. This has been my life for so long. I can’t imagine having the dollar be what rules what I do,” Hester said.