Tom Eblen

He wanted to fight Kentucky poverty. What he started in 1968 has created 25,000 jobs.

Inspired by attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, Robert Shaffer went back to New Jersey and began working to improve the lives of poor people.

His efforts drew the attention of Johnson administration officials organizing the War on Poverty, and they offered him a job. Inspired again by reading Harry Caudill’s book, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” Shaffer said: “I’ll take the job if you send me to Kentucky.”

He came to Eastern Kentucky in 1968 and within months helped create Job Start, a non-profit corporation that helped form small companies owned, run and staffed by low-income residents.

“As I traveled through the mountains, I asked people what they needed most,” said Shaffer, now 88 and living in Berea. “In every case, in every county, they said jobs and income.”

Within a few years, those companies were producing upholstered furniture for Sears and fancy dresses for Laura Ashley.

Job Start long ago changed its name to Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. This month, it celebrates 50 years as one of the most successful War on Poverty programs. At an Oct. 22 dinner in Somerset, Kentucky Highlands will honor Shaffer and several homegrown companies it helped create and grow.

In the past half-century, Kentucky Highlands has helped create or maintain 25,000 jobs in its 22-county service area of Southeastern and Southern Kentucky. About 15,500 of those jobs still exist. The organization has assisted more than 800 businesses and helped them secure nearly $423 million in financing.

“We work with entrepreneurs, so we have to be quite entrepreneurial,”said Jerry Rickett, who has led the organization since 1989. “We have always preferred manufacturing, but the market’s changing. We’re doing more and more service companies.”

Kentucky Highlands’ largest partners include Outdoor Venture, a manufacturer of military tents and outdoors products it helped create in 1972, to SourceHOV in Mt. Vernon, where 650 people work digitizing government records.

But much of its work is with small startups, individual entrepreneurs and farmers, offering technical assistance and training and administering small loans, through both government and private sources.

Kentucky Highlands was instrumental in coordinating a Clinton administration Empowerment Zone in 1994, which over 10 years brought in$300 million in investments and created more than 3,800 jobs. During the Obama administration, the organization also oversaw a Promise Zone, which brought $542 million in funding to the region in its first five years.

Kentucky Highlands is working with the University of Kentucky’s College of Design to design and build energy-efficient, affordable housing in a region where Rickett says about 12,000 families live in outdated mobile homes.

Since the Nixon administration ended most War on Poverty programs in the 1970s, the whole effort has often been unfairly labeled as a failure. While poverty wasn’t eliminated, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that without those programs modern poverty rates would be much higher.

“What we were doing wasn’t welfare,” Shaffer said. “We were using social services for economic development and ownership.”

Shaffer said his biggest challenge in the 1960s was fighting Appalachian power brokers who didn’t want new economic development they couldn’t control.

Sometimes, he said, anti-poverty workers feared for their lives. He remembers moving his mattress to the bathroom in one motel room because he feared someone might shoot through the windows. He said a colleague always left a toothpick on the hood of his parked car to make sure someone didn’t try to rig it with a bomb.

Rickett now faces different challenges: Drug abuse and credit repair issues with low-income people overwhelmed by debt from medical bills and loans. People often have trouble keeping jobs because of issues such as child care and transportation.

“We work a lot with job-retention,” he said. “Turnover isn’t good for the employer or the employee. Everybody has a problem with turnover(on jobs) that pay less than 15 bucks an hour.”

Why has Kentucky Highlands been so successful? Shaffer thinks one reason is that, from the beginning, the low-income people it was trying to help were involved as full partners.

Shaffer recalled that half his board members when he chartered Job Start were poor people. Rickett said that remains a part of Kentucky Highlands’ culture: The 17-member board always has two or three low-income members.

“That’s part of what makes us work,” he said. “They help us stay relevant to the folk we’re trying to serve.”