Hyatt takes over leadership of Shepherd’s Hand

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Jennifer Hyatt is the new Executive Director of Shepherd's Hand, a free health clinic serving the Flathead Valley. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Within Shepherd’s Hand, Jennifer Hyatt has nearly done it all.

Starting as a volunteer in 2004, Hyatt has worked her way through a number of roles in the volunteer-led clinic, serving as a staff member, Director of Operations and now, Executive Director of the nonprofit.

“I originally came on just like five hours a week to help get the clinic set up, and then that evolved into helping with the bookkeeping, then help manage the clinic oversight and it just kept evolving until I became the director of operations,” she says. “I have a comprehensive understanding of our organization. So that’s going to allow me to hit the ground running with what we need to do.”

Shepherd’s Hand recently announced Hyatt’s new role, which became vacant after previous director Shan Kingston left the post after a year and a half.

Prior to that, two of the organization’s three founders, Meg and Jay Erikson, have led the organization since its start in 1995.

Shepherd’s Hand is a free clinic serving those who cannot access health care, who are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and who do not qualify for other services. The nonprofit is 100 percent supported by private funds.

Right now the organization has four full-time staff members. Along with Hyatt, Jessica Tubbs serves as Volunteer Director, Katy Krezowski is Clinic Coordinator and Benita Noble coordinates the dental program.

Similar to how Hyatt’s role within Shepherd’s Hand has evolved through the years, so too has the organization itself, Hyatt said.

Since its inception, the clinic has grown in every way. Two original health providers became four medical providers and two dentists, one nurse grew to five, and a handful of volunteers have ballooned to more than 200 from throughout the Flathead Valley.

The clinic also added a community meal program in 2010 and a wellness program in 2012.

Both Hyatt and Board President Shawn Watts recall watching the organization grow out of its roots as a temporary nonprofit to help those who couldn’t afford primary care to a cornerstone of the community.

Watts has volunteered with the organization for nearly two decades and has served two terms as board president since the board’s formation in 2012.

As the clinic has added more services and grown its patient base, Watts notes how the organization has moved from what he called reactive to preventative care.

“That’s another change in the organization over time. We have found ourselves in the position of being primary care for a certain population,” he said.

Finding stability with Hyatt in the executive role allows the clinic to pick back up on its long-term strategic planning, which began in 2016 but came to a halt when Meg Erikson announced her retirement in 2017.

While the planning process has just restarted, Watts said one focus is furthering the network of services in the Valley that Shepherd’s Hand exists within.

“We don’t want to be redundant. One of the things we see often in the clinic is the patchwork connection people have, if at all, to a full set of resources that they might need. We offer very specific programming services here, medical, dental, meal, etc. Most of the people that come to the clinic have other needs that aren’t being met. So one of the areas we intend to focus on is using our established position in the community to help drive a conversation around fleshing out and making more explicit that broader network of resources that people need access to beyond medical,” he says.

A challenge in looking ahead is accounting for factors outside of their control, Hyatt notes.

In many cases, the organization’s focus for a given year is determined in Helena.

“One challenge is the ever-shifting healthcare landscape,” she says. “Medicaid expansion has been a positive thing for so many people in our community, but we don’t know what that’s going to look like six months from now. The beauty of Shepherd’s Hand is that we have so many years and so much history behind us that we can easily adapt to whatever those changes might bring.”

“We don’t want to get too far out over our skis, so to speak,” Watts added. “You’re trying to read the tea leaves, as much is possible. On one hand you don’t want to sit, afraid to move, because of uncertainty or ambiguity. On the other hand, you can’t move too far, too fast out. So striking that balance will be a challenge for us, it always has been.”

Since joining the organization 15 years back, Hyatt said she’s learned a lot and met so many people through Shepherd’s Hand.

Along the way, giving and getting back from the people the organization helps has been her favorite aspect of working with the clinic.

“Just getting to know a whole bunch of people I’ve gotten to know through my years with the organization — they’ve brought me joy in a way that you wouldn’t think,” she said. “You feel like you’re here to help them, and what you get out of working alongside them and being with them and hearing their stories, I get potentially more out of the process than they do just coming here trying to meet their needs. It’s a really rewarding place to be.”

For more information on Shepherd’s Hand, visit www.shepherdshand.com.

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