Clare Rutz Wallace, the new executive director of South Louisville Community Ministries, is surprised at how at home she has become in Louisville.
Wallace, 31, has always had an interest in international development and as a young woman, she envisioned herself as a world traveler. After graduating with a degree in international relations and policy studies from Syracuse University, the upstate New York native worked for the Global Giving Foundation and later the Peace Corps, where her work took her to Hong Kong, New York City, Washington D.C., and Senegal for two years.
But six years ago, Wallace decided that she needed a place to settle down. She wanted a small city in the United States where her community-building skills could make a difference. After a few months searching, she ended up in Louisville.
“I originally visited because I had a friend who was going to school here. He left soon after I arrived, but I stayed. The winning ticket for me was that it was hospitable,” she said, adding: “There was something really familiar about that coming from Senegal where hospitality was everything. This city also has all of the culture you would want, but it is small enough that you can know your neighbors and even talk to the mayor when you need to.”
Wallace eventually became director of development for the Americana World Community Center in the Beechmont neighborhood. More than 12 percent of Beechmont residents are foreign-born. Americana provides holistic, comprehensive programs to immigrants, refugees and low-income individuals in the community.
Wallace said the diversity in Beechmont made it the perfect place for her to live and work. Wallace transitioned to her role as executive director of SLCM on Oct. 1. She said she was not looking leave Americana but was approached by the organization’s board after the former director left to take a job at another nonprofit three months ago.
“I didn’t want to go too far from Americana and also I’m working with a similar population in my new position. Because of my time at Americana, I fell in love with south Louisville. I think it’s truly a special neighborhood. When you talk about building community and looking for community, there is something extra special about this one,” Wallace added.
SLCM has a long history of service to families in the south end of Louisville: It was founded in 1975 by several area churches. The organization has only five full-time employees and a $500,000 annual budget, but operates a food pantry, offers emergency financial assistance for rent, utilities or medication, and has a Meals on Wheels program. Most of this is done with the help of volunteers.
SCLM clients come from some of poorest census tracts in the city. It serves more than 2,500 people a month in the ZIP codes 40214, 40215 and 40209, and those families in 40208 who live south of Eastern Parkway. However, the food pantry only assists families in the ZIP codes that reside east of the Taylor Boulevard/New Cut Road corridor.
“This is a good opportunity because there is such need, but also potential in this organization and this work,” Wallace said. “It’s a wonderful thing to still be able to use some of my cultural competency knowledge, my rusty Spanish and a little bit of my Wolof (the native language of Senegal). That’s a big part of why I find this neighborhood special.”
Wallace said she wants to change the public perception of SLCM. Because it originated with churches and has many faith-based partnerships, she said, some people in the community feel like they have to attend a service or be part of a specific religious group to receive help or volunteer at the organization. She wants people to know SLCM is for everyone in south Louisville.
Wallace plans to broaden SLCM’s focus to include more contemporary problems like digital inclusion. She has started conversations with metro government about being part of the Louisville Digital Inclusion Plan and spoke to officials at the Louisville Free Public Library about partnering with her to offer Google Applied Digital Skills, video computer lessons, to the community.
“Even at my time at Americana, I could see that if you don’t have a computer or internet access in your home then you don’t have access to job applications and a myriad of social services,” Wallace said. “That’s just one example of making sure that we serve all the needs of our clients. The goal is not specific quite yet. With me being new, I still have to think a lot about where we are now and what direction we want to go in.”
Correction: The story and headline have been updated to correct the name of the organization.