Flagler County, FL – Like a lighthouse in the storm of life, Janet Nickels has quietly been helping residents of Flagler County navigate their most difficult times as program manager of Flagler County’s human services department.
On Tuesday, June 1st she led her last Resource Council meeting, announcing her upcoming retirement in August.
It was during this meeting where the keepers of society’s safety net gather to learn more about each other’s programs that former Sheltering Tree colleague Pam Andrews shared a letter of appreciation for Nickels’ work in the community.
“Together we put people in homes and I wanted to come and say good bye,” said Andrews.
“She’s a part of my heart, a big part of this community and it’s going to be a great loss without her. I wanted everybody to know and recognize, and send her off well because she needs that.”
From the beginning Nickels has never been one to seek out the limelight for helping others. It was simply just what she did.
Coming from Maryland with a criminal justice, parole and probation background in 1996 and starting with Flagler County in 2003, she was able to put her education to work, steadily climbing the ladder in her department, all while putting the most vulnerable first.
“My degree was in human services and education and when the position was offered to me I just thought, wow, this is a great opportunity to be able to use my degree and to be quite honest, even in criminal justice, education, social services, you always have the opportunity to use human services,” explained Nickels.
“It’s really been such a blessing to grow up professionally in this county. It’s been wonderful to be able to grow with the organization. A lot of people say ‘I want upward mobility and I want to get there as soon as possible’, but it was nice because I could grow with the county. The county was very small at the time and I could grow in my position as the county and our needs grew.”
Calling it a ‘practical’ approach, Nickels helped individuals as the community grappled with the effects of the Great Recession on the jobs, homes and families starting in 2007. Helping people who by textbook standards had done everything right overcome foreclosure and job loss, she was stability in a place that had been shaken to the core and says it’s the team as a whole that has made the greatest impact.
“I leave behind the most wonderful staff who are great problem solvers,” said Nickels.
“What I’ve always loved about our program is that we’re terribly practical. We try to maintain the dignity of the individual that we are with. We want them to be independent not dependent, on our agency or any agency. And we don’t stop with what they said their problem was when they came over the threshold. We really try to dig deep and figure out what else can we help you with.”
Behind the successful Access Flagler efforts which started in 2010, Nickels said 40 or so assistance agencies and organizations served 300-400 people each first Friday of the month at Cattleman’s Hall, and she strategically placed agencies during the event to learn more about each other, building a network of collaboration.
“When we had the Great Recession, a lot of our residents had never been through the loss of a job, of a home, a car, and so they really didn’t know how to respond to that crisis,” said Nickels.
“Access Flagler was a wonderful opportunity to be able to put a lot of people in touch, face-to-face, and see other agencies, and sit down and have a meaningful conversation and ask questions. It was also a wonderful opportunity, as is the Resource Council, for other agencies to get together and realize that agency can complement what we do, so you create that synergy.”
Many of those same agencies could be seen on Tuesday at the Resource Council meeting, the first in-person meeting in nearly a year, and the pride on her face at knowing she was part of shoring up and strengthening the council before her retirement was a look of determined peace.
“My belief is that together we’re just so much more capable of helping than apart,” she said.
While Nickels may be moving to Pennsylvania where family will help care for her aging mother with health issues, she’s not retiring from helping others, already planning to volunteer up north.
“I realize most people do the opposite – they go down south to retire, I’m going to be going up north. But you know it’s what’s in your heart. The memories, being with family and the people that you love,” she said.
It was as each council member gave an introduction that Joyce Bishop, director of human services for Flagler County stood up to use her time in recognition of Nickels’ contributions to Flagler County’s community and those across the region.
“She has just been phenomenal, brought all you people together and more,” said Bishop. “She pulls it all together, all the pieces of the puzzle together and she helps one person at a time.”