In a freshman sociology class at Ball State University, the groundwork for a life’s mission was being laid.
David Sever was sitting in the class during his first year of college. His professor was discussing the crippling effects of poverty on individuals, families and the community in general.
He illustrated a point that Sever had never considered before — the cycle of poverty.
“He told us that the only way out was to break that cycle. If you’re in poverty and you live poverty and experience it as a child, it’s tough to break out of that as an adult,” he said. “Breaking that cycle has been something I’ve believed in most of my life.”
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That lesson has stuck with him throughout his teaching career and time as a school administrator, emerging as his primary focus in retirement. Sever has dedicated himself to poverty in Johnson County. He is president of the board of Kids in Crisis Intervention Team, or KIC-IT. He has also been an instrumental player in the county’s first comprehensive homelessness program, No Place to Call Home.
Sever is quick to deflect credit for the work being done to decrease poverty in the community.
“It’s God’s work. That’s the calling, that’s my motivation. There have been so many amazing people in this community that I have had the opportunity and privilege to get to know and collaborate with,” Sever said.
But those who work side-by-side with him leave no doubts about what he brings to these efforts.
“He brings the love of trying to help the homeless individuals in our community and really puts a leadership role to it,” said Nancy Lohr Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County.
Sever taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Triton Elementary School in Fairland before taking over as principal at Union Elementary School in Franklin.
He moved up to positions as the district’s director of elementary curriculum before becoming assistant superintendent in 1991. After a stint with the testing company NWEA, he returned to Franklin Community School Corp. to oversee teacher evaluations and student assessment.
When Sever retired in 2014, he started looking for his next challenge and project. Fortuitously, he was introduced to KIC-IT’s mission.
Two teen members of Tabernacle Christian Church, which the Severs attended at the time, had made a documentary about homelessness and KIC-IT’s efforts to aid homeless youths. He and his wife, Cheryl, attended a screening of the film and were immediately moved by it.
“It caught my attention, and I wanted to find out more about it. Eventually, they asked me to be on the board, and I accepted,” he said.
Both decided to volunteer at KIC-IT to help increase its impact in the community. The couple often work as a team, with Cheryl Sever as the “light bulb” or idea side of issues, Dave Sever said.
Teena Findley first met Sever when her children were students at Union in the 1980s. What she remembers most about him was his personable and caring nature.
But she started working more closely with him when she started volunteering at KIC-IT in 2014. Since that time, she has seen first-hand how he approaches the homelessness and poverty problems.
“He really has a heart to help others,” she said. “He is a fixer. He won’t just stand by and put a Band-Aid on the problem. He wants to get down to the root of the issue and really fix it.”
The first step to addressing the enormous and complicated issue of poverty has come through the No Place to Call Home effort.
The United Way of Johnson County initiated the effort by commissioning an in-depth report on poverty, local employment and wages, cost of living and other factors to more clearly grasp the extent of homelessness in the county.
“There are so many different factors that can cause homelessness. You have the chronic homeless, families who are homeless, people with mental illness who are homeless, people with drug or alcohol problems who are homeless,” Plake said. “We have to pick one group to start with. We don’t have the unlimited resources to do them all.”
In addition to the report, organizers hosted a series of stakeholder meetings to find out what the community impact of homelessness in Johnson County is. Nearly 100 people from faith-based groups, schools, service agencies and law enforcement attended the meetings, offering their observations and possible solutions.
Those efforts have come together as No Place to Call Home is starting a coordinated pilot program identifying individuals in need, assigning them a case manager and developing a plan of assistance.
“Dave comes from a very strategic approach to solving problems,” Plake said. “He has brought enthusiasm, he has brought passion and he has brought a lot of people to the table in addressing this issue.”
As an offshoot of his work with KIC-IT and No Place to Call Home, Sever is also involved in Bridges Out of Poverty. The workshop and educational series digs into the sources and impact of poverty, including the hidden rules and norms that dictate social class.
He was particularly attracted to the work of Ruby Payne, a researcher who founded aha! Process Inc. to provide resources to communities throughout the country to help improve job retention rates, build a safety net infrastructure and support residents struggling in poverty.
Much of Payne’s research focuses on unspoken “rules” that make breaking the cycle of poverty difficult. For example, middle-class individuals have been taught to save money for future costs, such as rent, utility payments and other bills.
Those struggling with poverty are more concerned with immediacy. When they have money, whether a tax return or payday, it’s overwhelming to spend it right then, since they never know when they’ll have that money again, Sever said.
“What’s interesting is the research that she’s done on the hidden rules of poverty,” he said. “In our schools and in the community, we in the middle class try to make our rules fit those who are in poverty. Then we get frustrated working with those folks, and we get frustrated because those rules are so ingrained.”
A big focus in his educational career has been on getting people to change. That might have been students, graduate students, teachers or the community.
He’s found that people routinely fall back to what’s comfortable for them.
“They might like an idea, but it’s tough to do, it takes more time, so they revert back,” he said.
Even after a long career encountering poverty peripherally, and his nonprofit work recently tackling it directly, Sever is still learning.
As he staffs the drop-in center at KIC-IT, he has to be careful not to be judgmental about the young people who walk in the door.
“Every kid who comes in has a different story and a different issue. We stereotype people,” he said. “Too many times, I hear people say, ‘They just have to get a job’ or ‘If they wouldn’t spend so much money on cigarettes and tattoos, they’d have money.’ That’s not the case.”
In his experience, the best way forward out of poverty is to support those who are struggling, providing them with the resources to improve their own lives, such as job training and case management. Emergency aid for rent, utilities and other immediate needs are available but cannot be just given out, Sever said.
“People in poverty can’t get out of it by themselves,” Sever said. “They need help. But they also need to be working as hard or harder at self-sufficiency as we are. When we’re working with people in poverty, it’s not a handout.”
Name: Dave Sever
Occupation: Retired teacher, principal and assistant superintendent
Years in education: 33, with 18 of those in Franklin
Family: Wife, Cheryl; two sons
- Board president of Kids in Crisis Intervention Team
- Committee member of No Place to Call Home
- Active in Bridges Out of Poverty