Staff Spotlight: Rich Nichols
Seafood lover, father of four, and Executive Director of United Advocacy Group
97, 73, 86…Scribbling in red ink, Rich shuffles through a stack of named (and misnamed) continents on his latest geography quiz. The warm Kentucky air blankets the room as he plops down on the couch after a long day of coaching cartography. Teaching—a noble profession, grounded in service. But he wanted to do more.
Growing up in New Jersey as the son of a pastor, Rich spent the bulk of his childhood in the church, where his parents modelled a life of service and humility. These values were cemented within him, and after teaching for a few years post-graduation from Asbury University, he took his commitment to service a step further and moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with his wife for ministry work.
“Faith has been important to me for as long as I can remember,” says Rich. “I have pretty strong convictions about what it means to help, serve, and value other people—to see their potential and what they’ve been created to be. Life can be hard and beat people down; and yet, I think I have personally felt blessed and privileged, and I want to pour that back into community. All people have a certain intrinsic value, and I feel like it’s my personal job to help the people I come in contact with be the best they can be.”
While in Brazil, Rich helped found The Esther Project, a center that aides homeless and marginalized women in areas such as housing, income, employment, parenting, and mental health. Over the course of his nine years in Rio de Janeiro, Rich helped serve 100 women through the Esther Project, and in 2013 he felt it was time to pass the torch and move back home to be closer to family. As luck would have it, he would no sooner find his place within the Hopeloft family as part of the Family Strengthening Network (FSN) team.
Around three months after FSN’s inception, Melissa Helmbrecht, Founder of Hopeloft and Rich’s cousin, reached out to him with a position as the Program Director of Family Strengthening Network, an organization that empowers families to achieve success through free, holistic advocacy. He jumped aboard, recognizing the similarities between his work in Brazil and FSN’s mission: to build healthy families through support and empowerment in employment, health and wellness, education, service-learning, finances, and positive relationships via one-on-one advocacy with a team of trained Family Advocates.
Since his first year with FSN, the project grew exponentially, from five Family Advocates serving roughly 40 families to, now, 15 advocates serving 300 families. This growth naturally welcomed the birth of the United Advocacy Group (UAG), just one short year after the creation of FSN, with a more expansive vision that would serve as the new lead agency for FSN and the collaborative partner for a host of new projects housed within Hopeloft that employ a model of case management.
“I like starting stuff. Not so much from a visionary standpoint, but from an implementation standpoint. I can see where were trying to get to and I like to see how the pieces need to work together,” says Rich. “That’s why Melissa and I have been a good team. We come up with a great idea and figure out how to make it happen.”
Similar to FSN, UAG’s mission is to empower individuals to achieve their self-determined goals and equip them to reach their full potential through consistent, credible, and holistic one-on-one advocacy—but on a larger scale. With a team of 25 trained Family Advocates, UAG currently serves roughly 650 families, and they are always welcoming in more.
“It’s fun to work somewhere with people who share the same mission,” Rich adds. “We have a lot of gifted, passionate, and entrepreneurial people working together, and there’s great value in diversity of project and population. It’s not easy to transform the reality of a region, but I think because of all the inspiration that comes out of Hopeloft collectively, you can begin to shift a town like Bridgeton. It is inspirational and people need inspiration to change.”
Now, while leading UAG to new digital frontiers to adapt to the pandemic and respond to the community’s diverse, emergent needs through virtual advocacy, Rich is also pursuing a Master’s in Theology and Public Policy, in hopes of fostering more intersections of faith and action in public service through outreach and faith-based funding opportunities. An explorer, Rich has travelled to over 20 countries, from Peru to Thailand, and enjoys spending time with his wife and children, who are what is most important to him.
Rich is a leader, a visionary, and an indispensable link in Hopeloft’s growing network. His dedication to serving others sets a glowing example of how we should all strive to give back in everything we do, and we are grateful to have him on our team.