I am amazed, in awe, and inspired by the way many nonprofit leaders – many of whom are women – are leading their organizations through the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a special series about Badass Nonprofit and Small Business Executive Women who are living in the trenches, working to keep their nonprofit running, and doing critical work to continue to serve individuals and families during this crisis. I’m curious about their work and the people they’re serving, their biggest concerns, and how they are taking care of themselves and those around them. So I asked!

Chrissy Vasquez, Chief Development Officer, Indy Reads

Chrissy joined Indy Reads in September, after serving as the executive director and vice president of operations for Back on My Feet. Her role as chief development officer is to oversee marketing, development, and the nonprofit’s retail bookstore. She’s an advocate for the underserved and supporter of second chances. When she started at Indy Reads, she led the organization’s fundraising efforts during their year-end campaign. Now she’s working hard to help raise money and awareness of Indy Reads amidst a pandemic.

Q. Who are you serving and how are you serving them during this crisis?

A. A lot of people don’t realize we’re more than just a bookstore on Mass Ave. Our primary focus is providing literacy and workforce skills for adults. One in six adults in Indiana reads at or below a 5th grade level. We serve a vulnerable population who not only struggle with reading, but who right now are struggling to understand what’s going on with COVID-19 because of the inability to read and comprehend the news that’s coming out about the crisis.

Prior to the coronavirus, we had 108 students in our Community Classrooms. We immediately had 70 who wanted to continue their education and had access to the technology to do so. We are working especially hard to accommodate the other students so they can continue learning during this time.

As for our customers, we’re finding ways to serve their needs such as doing direct ship to home book orders and virtual programming like a weekly literary society while the bookstore is closed. Starting today, May 6, from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., we will be offering curbside pickup on select inventory. We’ll be adding more selections regularly as we continue to ramp up our operations. Customers can order and pay online at www.indyreadsbooks.org and books will be available for pick up at our store. We have book bundles by genre and mystery grab bags for a true literary adventure for all ages!

Q.  Have you added, changed, or deleted any services because of COVID-19?

A.  We have had to completely re-engineer our programs and find ways to meet our students where they are with the resources they have so they can continue to work on their education. Literacy is the #1 predictor of quality of health and our students need literacy skills to compete in the job market. We are calling and connecting with our students more than before, providing a lot of our content online, hosting Zoom classes and programs, and we’ve added current events into our classroom to help them better understand the complexities of the pandemic. We’ve had to cancel our major fundraising events for 2020.

On the bookstore side, we had to close the store and cancel several special events. Our staff has gotten very creative with virtual programs in an effort to stay engaged with customers and provide a source of entertainment. We now have a virtual book club that meets every Friday at 5:30 p.m., we moved our collaboration with Indy Actors Playground which is every third Monday of the month to online, and we’ve also hosted authors’ book launch events online.

We currently provide direct shipping to customers and look forward to getting back to the store soon, and then eventually finally returning to “normal” so customers can shop in the store. We’re still on Mass Ave., but on track to move to Fountain Square at the end of August.

Our team is already looking ahead and working on what the next phase will look like for us, our students, and our customers. We started to curate books for people in a mystery grab bag offer and we hope to continue that. We’re talking about a virtual sidewalk sale and creating ways to make it easy for people to shop Indy Reads. We’re also planning on what our classrooms and curriculum will look like moving forward.

Q.  What are your biggest concerns right now?

A.  First and foremost, I’m concerned about the health and progress of our students and the safety of our staff. Like other nonprofits, I’m concerned about fundraising efforts and revenue loss. People have been generous and kind, but we have definitely experienced a dip in fiscal funding. We’ve lost a large percent of sales in the store, which translates to less students we can help.

Q.  How are you taking care of yourself, your staff, and your clients?

A.  We are definitely checking in with our students more to find out how they’re doing, suggesting services and offering resources. Our staff (14 staff members) are keeping their regular hours and working from home. I’m glad that we’re able to keep them employed. I believe the whole person needs to show up at work, so we’re looking out for our staff’s emotional and mental well-being. As for me, there are highs and lows and I’m just taking it day by day. I’m being open with my feelings and have no shame in how I’m dealing with everything. I’m making sure I’m active through Orangetheory Fitness online workouts and making a conscious decision to disconnect at the end of the day.

Q.  What is your biggest need right now and how can people support your organization?

A.  Financial support is the biggest need. Unfortunately, we can’t accept book donations yet, but when we can, we’ll need book donations as well. We will update social media when we can accept them again. And of course, once our bookstore reopens, we want people to come shop. I would encourage people to follow us on social media. In fact, we have a cool campaign called “One Story Many Authors” that I would invite people to get involved with. Everyone in Indianapolis has a story, so we’re inviting people to tell us theirs. We’re sharing in a Humans of New York storytelling type of way.

The other need is just to be aware of the issue and be nonjudgmental. There’s a lot of shame , embarrassment, and guilt that adults who don’t know how to read experience. I just ask for people to be open, supportive, and kind.

Q.  What are you reading, watching, listening to, or doing to get through this?

A.  I’ve been reading Nib + Ink to teach myself fun fonts and calligraphy. Before we were quarantined, I picked up a ton of books, so I’ve been reading a lot. I’m currently reading Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter, which is just a fun book to read. I’ve done a few home improvement projects, including painting all of my trim, baseboards and a few rooms. I also rescued a puppy from Sketchy Mutts and Underdogs, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to saving the lives of dogs who are at high risk of euthanasia in area shelters. Now I have two rescue dogs, Boyd and Maizey, to keep me entertained during the stay-at-home order.