How IU Northwest alumna Jennifer Webber leveraged her love of life-long learning, partnership building and animal advocacy to strengthen her community
A few things about IU Northwest alumna, wife, person parent, pet parent and Humane Society of Hobart Executive Director Jennifer Webber become apparent when you meet her. She loves learning, is passionate about animal advocacy and is devoted to Lake County (Indiana), the community where she was born and raised. This foundation, combined with her IU Northwest education, has led her on a life-changing, “incredible journey.”
Webber says her commitment to service, to community and to animal welfare started when she was a kid.
Growing up, she recalls both her parents had a strong affinity for animals and nature, often bringing her to the local animal shelter (now known as Humane Indiana) where she idolized the employees and their work. Years later, she would return to that same shelter as an employee, becoming part of something she admired so fondly as a kid. It was the beginning of her animal welfare career and, perhaps, fate.
Roaring back to school
Webber first started at IU Northwest in 1990 and eventually landed at IU Bloomington, but life happened. She left college, had a family and went to work. Her career began in government and, in 2018, she took on her current role at the Humane Society of Hobart.
But the call to learn was too hard to resist.
“After putting my education on hold for a while, I finally decided to go back and wrap it up,” Webber said. “All I knew was what I wanted to do as a career — I didn’t know how to connect that to a specific program.”
Webber says although she wanted to continue advocating for animals and combine that with a passion for community service, she needed help forming a vision. Enter Dr. Ellen Szarleta, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA).
“Dr. Szarleta talked to me about the accelerated bachelor’s to MPA (Master of Public Affairs), which seemed to be just the right fit,” Webber said, referring to the accelerated program that’s designed to prepare graduates to lead and solve often complex and challenging societal problems.
“SPEA was the perfect home for her because when planning an academic journey, many students choose to focus on one area of subject matter interest,” Szarleta said. “But I recognized that Jennifer doesn’t see the world that way — she has multiple interests, a background in public service that touches multiple areas and she has this gift of seeing the complexity of problems.
“The accelerated program would allow her to explore multiple subject matter areas, like sustainability, community engagement and the intersection of environment and economics while providing her what she needed to become a better leader.”
Work, class and a worldwide pandemic
In 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak, 19 of the 20 Lake County animal shelters shut down completely. Only the one Webber was leading remained open.
Despite all this — being a mom and wife, working on completing her degree and putting in some significant overtime running a nonprofit during an international public health crisis — Webber also earned a certificate in executive leadership from Southern Utah University and Best Friends Animal Society.
All these experiences gave her the sure-footedness to make the critical decisions she’s forced to make every day. The curriculum at IU Northwest gave her the foundational knowledge of functions necessary for successful nonprofit management, like budgeting, economics and statistics while the certificate program gave her a deeper understanding of the specific issues animal welfare leaders face.
“I’m making important, often life-saving decisions affecting people, animals, and my community, and there’s no doubt I would not know how or have the confidence to navigate the complexity of some of these decisions had it not been for my time at IU Northwest,” she said.
Wearing many hats, helping people in need
Nonprofits are notoriously underfunded and short-staffed, and the Humane Society of Hobart is no different. The no-kill shelter has an annual budget of about $800,000, 15 full- and part-time staff and takes in about 2,500 dogs and cats while adopting out around the same.
“I have to wear many hats from fundraising and development to human resources, marketing, partnerships, finance and operations,” Webber said.
She attributes her why — helping pets through people and helping people through pets — as key to giving her strength each day to manage the many demands on her and her shelter.
“It’s more than finding homes for homeless pets and improving people's mental and physical well-being,” Webber said. “It’s also elevating and breathing life into entire communities by providing resources to families in need — passing out bags of food and providing free vaccines and supplies for pets and, while we’re doing that, providing information on other community resources, such as utility and medical care assistance.”
The result, beyond impacting the shelter’s intake numbers, is the formation of close relationships and a more tight-knit community.
“In the end, I found what I was in search of,” Webber said of her IU Northwest experience. “I got the tools, strength and structure I needed to continue my work in animal welfare, community problem solving and saving lives.”
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