By Sara McAninch // Photography by Tony Vasquez
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Lydia Wales was taught by her mom that community involvement was just what you do. That lesson learned at a young age is why helping people is the most rewarding part of her job as Franklin Township trustee.
As a wife, mother and grandmother, the Franklin resident keeps busy with family activities, but she still finds time to unwind with her favorite hobbies. Wales spent more than 18 years participating in and teaching clogging, which is “like tap dancing but the taps on the shoes are different,” she says. Sometimes teaching out of her four-car garage, she led classes the night before her daughter, Alicia, was born up through her pregnancy with her son, Mark.
Wales eventually gave up clogging, but this 2019 Indiana Township Association “Trustee of the Year” winner eventually moved to a new hobby. “Right now, my hobby is ceramics. I love painting them,” she says.
Mark participates in the hobby, and together they create things like frogs and fish for the backyard koi pond. This summer she’s working on a fairy garden with her granddaughters. Having a full plate and creating ceramic ones are just part of Wales’ life; there’s also her work as the township trustee.
- What is your role as the township trustee? What’s most rewarding about your work?
My office works with individuals and families who need financial assistance for things like rent and utilities. We’re a governmental agency, so there’s a lot of paperwork that must be filled out. If a person qualifies, then we can provide aid. Whether someone qualifies or not, we will work with other agencies in the area to get that individual or family the full help it needs.
We’re meant to be a last resort when other organizations can’t help. We can also be a payee for someone who receives Social Security; we work with the Social Security office for that.
Financial aid is the biggest difference between the trustee’s office and the city or county, but we collaborate with them on a lot of issues. For example, the mayor called me several months ago because we had a guy living in a storage unit. We were able to reach out and help him.
The Franklin Police Department has the Joint Action Kare Initiative, which gives it 24/7 access to me if someone needs help. This program launched after I found out that cops were paying out of pocket for hotels when there were domestic calls and the parties involved had to be separated.
Right now, I’m looking for transitional housing to bring the program back. Being able to help families get on their feet is the kind of stuff that keeps me going.
I love this job; it’s the best one I’ve ever had. Some mornings I’m in the office at 5 or 6 a.m. I can’t sleep because I have something on my mind that I want to help with, so I’ll go in and start working.
- How did you end up being the township trustee? What’s your term length?
My husband, John, prompted me to run for the trustee position. He’s big into politics. He came home one day and said, “I think you’d be really good at this job.” At the time I was working for a local attorney. Soon after my husband said I should run, my boss told me he was retiring. I looked at the paperwork John had brought home and thought, “I can do this,” so that’s what I did.
This is a four-year elected position. In 2014 when I ran to take office [starting in 2015], I campaigned. During the 2018 election for the 2019 term start, I didn’t have to because nobody ran against me. My current term ends in December 2022.
- During the pandemic you partnered with the state to administer relief funds that helped thousands in the community and generated additional income for your office. How did you get involved with this? What are some examples of how the revenue was used?
The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, which oversees COVID-19 rental assistance funds, reached out to the Indiana Township Association, who then filtered the request down to the trustees. We were asked to partner with them to help process applications. We’re here to help people, so participating in this was another way to do that.
I agreed to process up to 20 applications per week for Johnson County. Part of that work required us to reach out to landlords and tenants, as well as directing people to the website to complete the submission process. Because I have three staff members, we were able to get through requests quickly, so we agreed to help other counties get caught up.
We were paid $40 for each approved application, which generated almost $41,000 because of the work. My favorite part of the whole process was sending the email telling people that they were approved so they could keep their housing.
Part of the money my office made was used to purchase a Safe Haven Baby Box [electronically monitored boxes installed in fire stations where parents can anonymously leave their infants]. I remember the kidnapping and murder of Baby Hope 20 years ago and hearing about a baby who was left in a baby box in Indianapolis last year. I can’t imagine a parent having to utilize it – the heartache in it – but kudos to that parent for using it.
I looked up the locations of current boxes and realized we didn’t have one in the community, so I reached out to the mayor and fire chief. I found out that a Safe Haven Baby Box was one of the projects earmarked by the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council, but they were missing the funding to do it. I talked to my board and got approval to allocate rental assistance application funds to pay for the box.
- You’re in the process of merging Johnson, Needham and Union township. This type of merger is a first for Indiana. Why the merger?
Johnson County has nine townships total; Johnson, Needham and Union are right in the middle. My office is dead center in the county, and the office building was purchased a few years ago, so there’s no rent or mortgage to pay. The merger will eliminate some duplication of expenses, such as phones and staffing, to name a few.
I met with the mayor, county council, city council and board of works to let them know what I was proposing. There was no negative feedback. The public hearing to merge the three townships is in March.
- What do you love about living and working on the southside?
I love Franklin. I love living here. I love the town, the people and the friends that I’ve made. When my husband and I used to take our kids to the fair [when they were younger], they said they hated walking around with us because we knew everybody. It’s a small town, but I really like that. Both of my kids chose to stay and live here.
To access services offered by the Franklin Township trustee, contact the office or to obtain general information, go to franklintownshiptrustee.org/.