Note: The following story appears in the summer issue of Hindsight alumni magazine. For more information about the Hinds Alumni Association, see the website.
JACKSON – The faces of poverty, homelessness, addiction and despair walk the same hallways Rev. Jill Barnes Buckley walks daily.
Being able to lift spirits and fortunes with caring words and deeds is second nature to Buckley, who credits mentors at Hinds for helping her then so she can help others today.
“I decided I wanted to do something more meaningful with my education than sit at a desk most of the day,” Buckley said. “Hinds was a great experience for me – the perfect next step.”
In January, Buckley became executive director of Stewpot Community Services in downtown Jackson. Housed on West Capitol Street in a spread anchored by the former Central Presbyterian Church, the nonprofit operates four shelters that offer a clean place to sleep for up
to 100 men, women and children nightly. Hot meals are provided year-round at its on-site cafeteria for anyone in need. The organization estimates more than 650 poor and homeless individuals are served daily by its 17 different ministries.
Each person helped in some way by Stewpot can be a case study in sociology, which was Buckley’s major subject in college. Merging her religious faith with a desire to put that faith into action resulted from her education at Hinds and beyond, she said.
“The perception is that community college gets students ready for college, but it’s also good for students like me, who needed kind of a middle place where I knew all my professors and they challenged me,” she said. “I didn’t live on campus, plus I worked, so I learned how to balance school and work.”
She counts former instructor Mary Kuhn and current instructor Debbie McCollum, who directs the college’s Honors Institute, as key mentors during her time as a Hinds student.
Kuhn, who taught sociology and related subjects at Hinds, remembers a student willing to step outside the usual comfort zone for an 18-year-old.
“She had told me once about helping an older gentleman to read at the Eudora Welty Library in Jackson,” Kuhn said. “She was always very inquisitive and highly motivated.”
Buckley showed a calm focus in English Composition I class and interactions with classmates even as a fresh-faced teen, McCollum said.
“I remember Jill being a very positive, engaged student who had an air of self-confidence about her even as a very typical age college student,” McCollum said. “Jill formed friends easily and was a person other students could count on for help with assignments.”
“She moved me pretty quickly into Honors English,” Buckley said of McCollum. “Then I joined Phi Theta Kappa. Part of my experience at Hinds was having that kind of challenge. And so I’ve helped several teenagers coming out of high school in that same position connect to Hinds.”
After earning an associate’s degree at Hinds, the Sumrall native and Clinton High School alum secured a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University. She then earned a Master’s of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology.
She worked for the Secretary of State’s Office just after college, then went to work for Stewpot in 1996 as a volunteer coordinator. For 12 years leading up to her return to Stewpot, she was associate pastor of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson. “It was due to my experiences at Stewpot and the impact it had on my life that I went to theology school to pursue my Master of Divinity.”
“Once I got here and started meeting people in deep need, I understood it more,” she said. “These are people with stories and histories, who had difficulty and ended up here needing help.”
Those stories can be as simple as a run of bad luck with money or as complex as the issues of poverty and homelessness themselves.
“For many people, it’s mental illness or substance abuse,” she said. “For others, it’s family tragedies. For the most part, those who come to Stewpot don’t have enough of a support network when they have life-altering situations.
We can be their stand-in family. Their stories are all unique, but they have common elements.”
In the past year, a connection has developed between Hinds and Stewpot as it relates to lifting people from hopelessness on multiple fronts. The organization connects people it helps with the MI- BEST program, in which those without a high school diploma can earn that credential and train for a job at the same time.
“We help people register for MI-BEST, and our commitment to those students is that we help with transportation,” she said.
Buckley’s lunchtime chats with those the organization helps lift out of despair offer her a comforting spiritual satisfaction.
“Getting here is the work of God’s spirit in my life,” she said. “I just wanted to make more of an impact on the world and for my work to have meaning.”