Amidst the bustling streets of New York City, 5-year-old Jessica Elliott, on her father’s shoulders, noticed a man sitting on the side of the street. She questioned her father, who told her the man didn’t have a home.
“That’s not fair,” Elliott said. “Why doesn’t he have a place to live?”
Eight years later, she decided to do something about it.
Volunteering was a monthly routine for Elliott. At a soup kitchen one month, she was supposed to mingle with the people she served, but she was shy and walked by a man sitting alone at a table.
“The worst part about being homeless is that nobody cares to know how you got there,” the man said to her.
Though the man had been successful at one point, the loss of his wife caused him to turn to alcohol. Struck by his story, Elliott said she realized in that moment she wanted to do nonprofit work and help the less fortunate population.
Elliott knew from a young age what she wanted to do and worked hard to turn her dream into a reality, becoming executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley. She said she was raised to not make assumptions about people and to be compassionate.
Through her work at the Bethlehem Morning Star Rotary Club, Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering program, Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Habitat for Humanity, she dedicates her time to give back to the community.
Elliott said she enjoys speaking to students because she wants them to know it’s never too early to plan their futures.
“It’s not about what I can give to other people, but really going and saying, ‘How can we build this relationship to better understand one another?’” Elliott said. “It’s the only way to get rid of those assumptions that we all make about each other.”
As a 32-year-old mother, she has been told that she is young in her line of work.
Janet Kolepp, the previous president of the Rotary Club, said Elliot’s age is important in both of her roles in Rotary Club and Habitat for Humanity because people in similar positions are older.
However, Elliott started building her career at 13. She interned her junior year of college for Street Sense, a newspaper written by homeless people in Washington, D.C. to be sold as income rather than panhandling. Elliott said she remains in contact with someone she met named Gregory, and he ended up getting a security job for the Washington Nationals.
Elliott ran a program at Safe Harbor Homeless Shelter in Easton, where she discovered someone she went to high school with.
“It means a lot to me for people to share those stories with me because a lot of times they’re personal, but also it’s just a constant reminder that this is where I want to be, and this is the field I want to be in, and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Elliott said.
Her mother was her biggest influence, bringing her to volunteer for Special Olympics and the soup kitchen. Elliott said she understood early on how fortunate she was.
She said she thinks about how she would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.
“Jess has been around the Rotary world for a lot longer than she has been a member,” Kolepp said. “The Rotary world, I think, gives you a sense of how to be in your community with a group of people, and I think she’s had that from a young age because her mom was involved in it.”
Kolepp said she admires Elliott and her different perspective. Elliott coordinated a project at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, which involved a playground clean-up, repainting, a grant for new computers and wall art.
“I think that she truly cares about helping people and…how can she make a difference, and there’s never a commitment that’s too great for her,” said Elise Smolinski, the director of financial services at Habitat for Humanity.
At the nonprofit, Smolinski said Elliott improved morale for the organization when personnel challenges arose. She oversees all operations and construction, including their ReStore in Whitehall.
Smolinski said she believes Elliott’s engagement will continue to help Habitat solve the low income housing crisis in the Lehigh Valley. Elliott created a contingency program to assist people struggling to qualify for a home.
“(Elliott) is an amazing woman who will help people who would want to help themselves,” said Jasmine Lozada, the first person in the program. “She listens to a person’s needs.”
Elliott devised this plan for Lozada, giving her a year to meet all requirements.
She said Elliott provided her and her daughter financial stability, and they were able to move into their new home in Bethlehem.
“Jessica Elliott has really helped make my dreams come true, for myself and my daughter,” Lozada said.