Michael Dippy, the executive director of IDignity, Inc., recognized a unique need in the community and started the process of giving people without the means a way to get an ID. Whether it was lack of documentation, money or transportation, Dippy kept meeting people without identification, and was deeply troubled by the effect that had on them as people. He, along with around 20 other church members from five different downtown churches, started what would become IDignity a decade ago. Now, they have helped 20,000 Central Floridians gain an identification, opening doors for employment, housing and shelter they didn’t have before.
You majored in architecture. Talk about your change in career and that personal journey.
I started seeing writing on the wall for an upcoming recession. Architecture is so far ahead of any development. Developers will come to them years before a project is going to break ground, and if it starts to dry up for the architects, that means the developers know it’s going to be drying up in the future. So it appeared we were in for some heavy weather.
Thankfully, I pivoted at that time to a friend of mine that owned a commercial appraisal company here in town and was able to start working for him. Shortly thereafter is when I came across the guy in my church without ID. I was just trying to help homeless people that came to my church. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be a career changer.
As executive director now, what do you do on a day-to-day basis with IDignity?
A lot of planning, and not just long-term planning. Planning on new intel I received yesterday. I have to act on that intel across multiple aspects, whether it’s the functioning of the institution or the board. And also looking down the line and going, “What’s going to happen in a year, or three years, or five years? How are we going to get there?”
And reaching out, making connections to the community – strategic connections, particularly. Sharing the mission with those people. It’s a weird, weird space because I don’t know of anyone I’ve come across that knew that identification was a barrier for U.S. citizens until they heard about IDignity. And even then, it’s hard for them to get their heads wrapped around not just, “How could this be a problem?” but, “How the heck would you solve such a problem?”
So, a lot of my effort, including this [interview] is an opportunity to share this mission. To share this plight of your fellow U.S. citizens and the hope that it can be relieved and the grandeur of what can happen when it does – not just individuals, but to a community as a whole.
After a long day of planning, making connections and talking to the press, how do you unwind?
I like surfing if I can get to the beach. That doesn’t happen as much as it used to by far. I still get the occasional escape. You pretty much have to do something in the water during the summer.
I’ve been playing tennis all my life, so I enjoy that. I rarely can find the time for that, so now I resort to just going for a run around our downtown parks. There’s some relief that happens and thoughts that can happen during that time. Just the quiet solitude.
And my network of friends. That network has grown significantly since starting IDignity. My rooted friends, especially. Leaning on them, talking to them, sharing stories. And my mom. I spend a little time with her and that always puts things back in the right perspective.
I’m sure you’ve heard hundreds of stories of people whose lives have changed because of IDignity. Is there a certain person who inspires you or sticks out to you?
Yeah, there’s several. If I was to look at the one that inspires me, and focusing on that key word, it’s probably a client named Brad Sefter. He’s about my age, a little bit younger. He reminds me of my friends, of someone I would hang out with. He just got off track in his life and ended up on the streets of Orlando, homeless. He never experienced anything like it and I can imagine how scared he was. I think the story was, he found his way to the rescue mission downtown, and that’s where we were holding the IDignity events.
He did need some help getting some identification, but he was assigned by the rescue mission to help set up and break down IDignity, and he really took ownership of it. He was what’s called a disciple there, so it’s long-term housing for him, and so I got to know him. He was probably my first homeless friend, so to speak, because I had to do a lot of coordinating with him and all that.
And when we were developing the board of directors, we felt it was important to have representation from the clients that we serve on the board. So, we tapped him for our board and he’s been serving ever since the first board meeting nine years now on our board of directors. He has the perspective that no one else on the board has of the trauma of homelessness, the trauma of identification or the impact of not being able to prove who you are.
You’ve mentioned expanding IDignity to similar markets. Tampa and Jacksonville have been mentioned specifically. What’s the progress of those plans?
There’s a lot of moving pieces to it. The first is to make sure we are stable here, and we’re working on that now. Because if we are not stable in our operations in Orlando, we really should not be investing or replicating in other communities. A lot of things can happen that could rock this organization, so we’re building up systems to lessen the likelihood of that ever happening.
Once we get those systems in place, we’ll have the stability to reach out and help other communities better. Once you get that foundation, then you can reach out as far as you can go because you know the mothership is stable.
We have four affiliates that are in operation now. Sanford has been in operation for nine years, so we’ve proven we can scale and replicate, but the next step is a little bit more intense and deliberate.