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Edna Martin Christian Center: Decades of lifting up Indianapolis residents

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After almost 80 years of lifting up Indianapolis residents, the Edna Martin Christian Center continues its tradition of community care. And though the faith-based organization’s location and programs — and the needs of the community — have changed through the years, Executive Director Tysha Hardy-Sellers said the roots have stayed the same.

“We’re a guide. We’re telling people, you’re not stuck. Our whole mission is to empower people, to encourage people and to ensure they have a vision of hope,” Hardy-Sellers said. “Over time what we’ve seen is kind of an up and down flow of people feeling hopeful and then not. … Edna Martin has been consistent in being that guide and helping people understand there’s opportunity.”

With 46 employees and roughly 200 regular volunteers focusing on education, community health and family, the center serves nearly 3,000 Indianapolis residents each year.

Under the leadership of Hardy-Sellers — who has a background in communication and entrepreneurship — Edna Martin has focused on bringing innovation and instilling an entrepreneurial spirit into the traditional community center programs. She said ensuring that each program has an accompanying business model helps take Edna Martin’s offerings to the next level for clients.

For example, in addition to teaching job-related skills like resume building and interview techniques, the center runs a catering service and restaurant where clients can put their skills to work.

“It’s almost like an incubator. It’s one way people can apply their job training, and in a way in which they are paid for the work they do,” Hardy-Sellers said. “It also helps us better understand what some of the deficits may be, so we can help.”

With the organization’s vocational training and credential programs, partnerships with local employers help clients reach the next step in their paths. And though the after-school program model is mostly traditional, there is also a focus on youth entrepreneurship. 

“We have social enterprises so youth can figure out what’s their given talent and apply it, but also learn about how to make money and what to do with that money,” Hardy-Sellers said. “Then we start breaking that poverty mindset of ‘I don’t have,’ but instead, what can you have if you apply yourself in a certain way, or if you have more education or if you have the opportunity to do something different?”

In addition to the center’s traditional child care offerings, a new program funded by a grant from United Way of Central Indiana will try a two-generation approach, which will build on and combine existing financial stability and early childhood education programming.

Hardy-Sellers said the entrepreneurial approach is a way to carry on the legacy of the late Edna Martin (who created the organization and for whom the center was posthumously named), who wanted to be a missionary to Africa, but was inspired by news reports to stay and help at home.

Hardy-Sellers said Martin was incredibly industrious and innovative in her work, which included opening a clothing store to support her efforts to uplift the community.

Though EMCC has been a community staple for decades, even while Hardy-Sellers was growing up locally, she didn’t learn about the organization until she started working in journalism.

“I was very surprised and taken aback by everything that was being done out of a very small community center. … People were not only talking about what needed to be done but were actually putting their hands to it and doing it,” she said.

That work continues with Hardy-Sellers at the helm and with help from community partners like United Way, CICF, LISC, Lilly Endowment, American Baptist Churches, the Nina Mason Pulliam Trust, local and state agencies and several faith-based, corporate and individual donors. 

In some cases, the ones helping the EMCC are the ones who have been on the receiving end. Hardy-Sellers said one man turned to the EMCC for help after losing his job; his wife was pregnant and due to deliver soon, and they needed help. Among the services he used, the man took advantage of the center’s food pantry resources. 

Months later, he returned to the center — this time employed, a new father and ready to pay it forward — with his car trunk full of groceries to stock the food pantry.

Hardy-Sellers said seeing the support from the community for the EMCC is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

“It’s a good feeling knowing we’re all in it together and we’ll help each other out,” she said. “One of my favorite verses is, ‘Faith without works is dead.’ And we’re alive.”

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