A woman in Indianapolis advocated for and worked in positions that supported the Haitian community. Now, she is one of the Indianapolis Mayor’s Neighborhood Advocates, who help residents navigate the city’s systems.
INDIANAPOLIS—Jenny Menelas spends every Tuesday morning on the East Side of the city where, on one such day in August, she helped translate Creole for a fellow Neighborhood Advocate. In this part of the city, where one of two Haitian communities has sprouted over the last 20 years, the city’s office is just a few minutes away from Maribou Lakay Restaurant and the Caribbean Meat Market and Bakery, among other Haitian businesses.
In the afternoons, Menelas, 25, heads over to her assigned Area 3. That August day, she met with residents and small business owners, listened to concerns she would later share with city officials and shared information with the businesses about zoning requirements.
“I was telling the people there about [additional] English classes,” said Menelas describing her work. “In addition to being the Haitian connection, I ensure the community is represented and taken care of.”
The city’s Neighborhood Advocates link residents and business owners to the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett to ensure officials are meeting their needs. During business openings, charitable functions or similar events, the advocates also stand in for the mayor if he can’t be there.
The city’s Haitian population has increased over the past 10 years, according to local immigration leaders. The 2020 Census reported 2,045, but they estimate there are now 20,000 Haitians in the Crossroads of America capital, ticking upward during the last two years. It’s unclear if the city’s overall population of 871,449, which makes it the 16th largest in America, has also increased or lost residents of other ethnicities.
Menelas’ career growth mirrors the trajectory of Indy’s Haitian population, which she has served through her different jobs over the past six years. The increase in the number of Haitian residents fueled her rise from Indiana University student to sole employee at the Haitian Association of Indianapolis (HAINDY) to key staff member at the Jaspen Group for temporary staffing. Then, six months ago, the mayor hired her as one of 10 Neighborhood Advocates.
“Life has been good,” said Menelas. “There’s been moments, but overall life has been really great. And I’m doing more than I thought I would at 25. We can only go up from here — so I’m excited.”
Right place, right time for Menelas
Menelas arrived in the U.S. at age 7, grew up speaking Creole and often participated in Haitian-flavored activities growing up. Moving to Indianapolis around age 12 to live with her sister, Menelas became involved with HAINDY as a youth dancer, performing at the annual Flag Day Festival.
Menelas intended to work for Campus Ministries International, which she had joined as an undergrad after she graduated with a degree in criminal justice. When the pandemic struck, she returned to living with her sister’s family in Pike Township, the northwest section of Indy.
“It honestly inspired me — how one person can aim to find such an excellent balance of being prominent and professional, but also just being really sweet and genuine — who she is as a person,” said Perry Smith, a friend and former Campus Ministries colleague.
HAINDY hired Menelas to administer pandemic relief funds, from a Central Indiana Community Foundation grant, to the Haitian community. When the money ran out, HAINDY’s leadership offered her the position of van coordinator in the Jaspen Group, a staffing agency that the association’s management team founded in 2008. She also continued working as HAINDY’s sole employee, putting together the 2022 Flag Day celebration.
During that period, Menelas also volunteered as a Natural Helper at the Indianapolis Immigrant Welcome Center. The role helps provide resources to immigrants and refugees settling in the area.
Menelas’ excellent communication skills helped her maintain and manage some of Jaspen’s bigger, more remote accounts, the group’s leader said. She trained and onboarded staff members, becoming an essential part of Jaspen’s planning process, Jaspen’s CEO Moise Dugé said.
“[Jenny] said to us very candidly, ‘I’m really interested in the serving — not the business part of this,’” recalls Leonce Jean-Baptiste, Jaspen’s vice president of sales and marketing and HAINDY’s chairman.
He and his colleagues recognized Menelas was saying, “‘Look, I’m gonna speak my mind, and I’m gonna do what I really want to do. Are you guys gonna be there for me,’” Jean-Baptiste said.
They could see Menelas had the potential to use what she learned from them effectively and they gave her their full support.
Six months later, Menelas is busy connecting with people all over the city, with an eye always on the new arrivals.
Menelas, who is single, lives on the West Side with her extended family. She still connects with friends at association events, coaches soccer and attends church regularly.
“I think my life really boils down to loving God, loving people, and figuring out how to do those two things,” said Menelas. “I’m very family-oriented and driven to make a difference [however] I can make the most of this life I’ve been given.”
Photojournalist Dieu-Nalio Chery contributed to this story.
—-This story is part of the Haitians in America series looking at Haitians and Haitian Americans across the United States. Financial support for this work is provided by the Ford Foundation.