Once or twice a week, Nirvani Head meets up with a bus of refugees on their way to someplace better.
They are legal asylum-seekers who have been allowed by the U.S. government to travel to places such as Buffalo, New York, or Boston to stay with their sponsors.
Many have experienced harrowing journeys through jungles and deserts. Some have been traveling for months, others even years.
They are hungry, they are exhausted and, sometimes, they just need someone who can understand their needs – and their language.
In many ways, Head can identify with them. She grew up in Jamaica and moved to New York for college. She knows her path to the American dream was much easier than the refugees'.
And that's part of the reason she wants to help those who are less fortunate than she was. To make things a little bit easier. A little bit kinder, too.
“It is something that Nirvani believes in: providing direct service to vulnerable people in need simply because it’s the right thing to do," wrote Jane Portman when she nominated her friend for the recognition.
Head's philosophy is simple: If you care about your community and you want to make it better, you have to stand up for it.
“I am not a timid person,” she said. “I know that you have to show up and say, 'I'm here. How can I help?' ”
After growing up in Mandeville and Kingston, Jamaica, Head was admitted to Barnard College in New York City, where she studied economics and English literature and graduated in 1985. She wanted to go back to Jamaica once she was finished, but life had other plans.
She was smart. Very smart. She landed a job at Chemical Bank, where she worked on financing acquisitions, which were pretty popular in the 1980s.
Eventually she met Jeb Head, a native Cincinnatian. They married in 1988 and, after a move to Chicago and one more back to New York, they settled down in Cincinnati in 1991. They raised three children here, all of whom are grown. They all attended Seven Hills School, where Head first started what would turn out to be a lifetime of volunteer work – though eventually that work would become far more reaching and far more necessary.
"With little kids, I was just helping out in little ways," she said before paraphrasing one of her husband's favorite sayings from Mother Teresa: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
Head has given of her time to ProKids, the nonprofit where her husband serves as a board member and where she helps organize court-appointed special advocates for abused and neglected children.
She also works with the Cincinnati Public Schools tutoring program, Indian Hill Church, ArtWorks, Christ Hospital, Saturday HOOPS program in Over-the-Rhine and Women’s Health Center at UC Health West Chester and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where she served on a board to increase the playhouse's diversity and raised more than $700,000 to support performances.
While Head's volunteer work touches on a variety of causes, she said one of her primary concerns these days is food insecurity – something she witnessed growing up in Jamaica, where her community was often met with food shortages that led to long lines and, for many, no food at all.
Which is why her work at Inter Parish Ministry's food pantry in Newtown, which helps feed approximately 72,000 Ohio families each year, is something she's particularly passionate about.
Head recently joined the pantry’s Board of Trustees, helping people in Greater Cincinnati secure food, clothing or household items. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked with restaurants to help personally procure food items that were in short supply, including milk and eggs, often calling upon friends and family members to help her out with pick-ups and deliveries.
“I’ve never seen her seek even a moment of recognition for all that she does,” Portman said. “Nirvani applies herself tirelessly toward making the Greater Cincinnati community more artful and vibrant and a safer, kinder and healthier place to be.”
About Nirvani Head
Birthplace: Kingston, Jamaica
Current residence: Mariemont
Family: Husband, Jeb Head; children Louise, Helen and Henry Head
Education: Bachelor's degree from Barnard College, Columbia University
Occupation: Homemaker, community volunteer, "executive assistant to my kids"
What she says
What inspires you to give back? "The blessings of my family and friends, combined with the tenet of Christianity to love and treat one another as you would want them to love and treat you. These are what inspire me to give back. Too many in this world have to worry about food security, housing and personal safety. It is the duty of everyone with resources and security to give back, and to be gracious and forgiving to those who do not have the advantages they have. We should always remember that fortune is bestowed randomly, so treat everyone with dignity and compassion and give a helping hand."
What need in the community would you like to see addressed? "We need to think about our children and the world we hope for them to live in, with opportunities for education, food security, a healthy planet and equity (which includes race, gender, sex and economic equality). When we think about a vibrant community, it is when we bring less fortunate members into the economy and help them be successful that creates growth and prosperity for all."
Who most influenced or inspired you to care about others? "My husband Jeb has been my biggest inspiration. No matter how busy life is, he always carves out time to work for the vulnerable in our community. He has worked tirelessly to help foster children, improve inner-city education and health care.
"My mother, a person who worked hard and spent what little she had educating her children, is perhaps the most generous person I know. Despite having so little, she gave to everyone in need who crossed her path and did this with a loving heart.
"My daughter Helen has been a court-appointed special advocate for a foster child and volunteered over 700 hours in one year for nonprofits. My son Henry, who listens and notices the needs of a community and treats everyone with deference, kindness and dignity. And my daughter Louise, whose loving heart and warm ways are a comfort and balm to all in her presence. She shows me how much a smile and hug can do.
"My close friends who work hard to make our community and world a better place. Their wisdom, care and compassion through their words, stories and lives inspire me with every walk and every talk."