February 27, 2015

Helping, not judging the poor

Faith and ‘chocolate ice cream understanding’ keep Sheila Gilbert focused on people in need

A personal commitment to helping people in need continues to guide Sheila Gilbert, an Indianapolis resident who is the first woman to ever be elected president of the national council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. (Submitted photo)

A personal commitment to helping people in need continues to guide Sheila Gilbert, an Indianapolis resident who is the first woman to ever be elected president of the national council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The story involving a gallon of chocolate ice cream tells a great deal about Sheila Gilbert’s sense of humor.

Yet, maybe even more, it reveals the sense of humanity of Gilbert—the first woman to ever be elected president of the national council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The story unfolded late last summer as Gilbert was nearing the halfway point of her six-year term as national president. She had returned to her hometown of Indianapolis to participate in a training retreat that reflected her nationwide initiative to not just provide food, clothing and furniture for people in need, but to help people change their lives so they can escape the cycle of poverty.

In the course of the retreat, one of the presenters shared his frustration that his “stop smoking” program had attracted people who signed up, but then they didn’t show up for the classes.

After listening to that lament, the 74-year-old Gilbert cautioned the presenter and the others at the retreat to not get discouraged.

Flashing a smile, Gilbert said, “Smoking is an addiction, and we all have addictions. Mine is chocolate ice cream. If you put me in a room with a gallon of chocolate ice cream, only one of us is coming out!”

Laughter roared through the previously-somber retreat.

“It really cracked everybody up,” recalls Pat Jerrell, a past president of the Indianapolis chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “It was a reminder that we all have weaknesses. We all have things we need to change. She said that when we’re trying to help people out of poverty, we can’t judge them. We just have to help.”

Jerrell adds, “She’s very faith-filled and a real visionary. She’s imaginative in getting to the root causes of poverty and trying to end poverty. And she’s always challenged us to work on our spirituality and to keep that as our focus.”

Those foundations of spirituality and humanity have guided Gilbert in her leadership of the national council of the Catholic lay organization that’s committed to helping the poor—an organization of 4,500 conferences nationwide that serves more than 14 million people in need each year.

The Criterion recently interviewed Gilbert about her efforts to change the society’s approach to helping people who live in poverty—a segment of the American population that numbers 45 million, including one in five children, according to recent U.S. Census statistics.

Here is an edited version of that conversation with Gilbert, a member of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis.

Q. You have a long, personal commitment to helping people who are poor. How has that personal commitment shaped your approach as the society’s national president?

A. “I’m taking the challenge of ending poverty in this nation as seriously as possible. I’ve seen what it can do to people. I’ve watched a very close friend slide down into poverty because of ill health. She worked her whole life. Then she had several medical conditions. The sicker she got, the more prescriptions she needed, and the harder it was to pay for them. She had so much stress, and now she’s had a stroke. It says to me that poverty can kill you.

“I did what I could, and the society did what it could, but her needs are so great. It just says to me that the system doesn’t work when a person who has worked their whole life can get into this situation.”

Q. When you were first elected, you said you wanted the society “to go places it has never gone and do things it has never done” to help change the systemic causes of poverty. One of your approaches is “Our Changing Lives Forever” program. What is the program about?

A. “It’s a program that started in our food pantry in Indianapolis. The participants are people who have decided they want more for their lives than the poverty they have. They’re willing to do what it takes to come out of that cycle of poverty. We try to help them build their spiritual strength, and we help them look at the people who should be role models in their lives. Then they make a plan about what they’re going to do this week, this month and in five years.

“Our goal is to have as many parishes as possible start this. If we just do it at the food pantry, we can help 10 people. If we can do it in the parishes, you can see we’re helping that many more people. We’re starting it at St. Lawrence Parish [in Indianapolis] as a model for how it can be done in every parish. We’re actively recruiting people who want to be in the program and those who can help.

“The partners who help are so crucial to provide the emotional support, and to help them find the resources they need to get ahead. They’ve been living in situations where they know how to survive, but not thrive. We want to help them get ahead.”

Q. What are some of the society’s other programs that are having a positive impact?

A. “One of the programs we have is called ‘House in a Box.’ It’s helped people who were affected by wild fires in west Texas, tornadoes in Oklahoma, floods in Illinois and Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast.

“The idea is that when someone’s home has been completely destroyed and they’ve lost everything, they can back up a pickup to a warehouse to get everything they need to refurnish their house—their bedding, their dishes, their furniture. And it’s all new stuff so they can begin their lives again. We’re helping in 22 states. Some of it is ‘House in a Box,’ and some of it is immediate relief.

“Another place where there is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work is the Circle of Protection [an alliance of Christian leaders and organizations concerned about poverty, an alliance that includes Gilbert and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.] The goal is to make poverty and solutions to poverty an issue in the next U.S. presidential election. We’re going to ask candidates to say what they’re going to do to end poverty—which is really a disgrace in our country.”

Q. What has been the reaction to you being the first woman to head the national council?

A. “Everybody says, ‘That’s really great,’ then they go on to doing what really counts. We were at a time in the council for it to happen. From my perspective, I don’t think it’s so much about being a woman. It’s about the Holy Spirit putting in my heart this desire to help the poor—and that resonated with Vincentians all over the country. That’s why I was elected.”

Q. Share a specific moment that stands out to you where the society has been able to make a difference in someone’s life.

A. “In Long Island, N.Y., I met a man who lost his son and his wife. He really became active in trying to raise money and awareness for people with special needs. He lost his house in Hurricane Sandy. Yet he was determined to rebuild. He did, with help from the society.

“I was just so amazed that someone who had so much happen to him still had his faith and still was going forward. The society stood next to him through a very long and difficult process.”

Q. Have your years of being the society’s president had an impact on your faith?

A. “It definitely has deepened my faith. I’m almost able to see the fingerprints of God as things move forward. Over and over, I see the faith of people in poverty—people who have nothing to depend on but God. And that really strengthens my faith.

“I’ve seen the progress we’ve made. And it makes me feel very good. But I know it’s God’s plan, and not mine. I wanted it all to happen yesterday, but God has a timetable. That’s the one we’re working with.”

Q. What are your hopes and ambitions for your remaining time as the society’s president?

A. “I want to see the society grow in its membership and its ability to help people out of poverty. I want to help people in poverty and Vincentians to use their voices together for the things that need to be changed to end poverty.

“I feel like we’ve had a good three years, and I’m looking forward to where we’ll be when my time ends. I’ve seen what happens when people get the resources they need. They can get back on their feet.

“I know that each day God is calling me to do what I can in the service of God’s plan.”

(Anyone seeking to volunteer or offer assistance to the Indianapolis chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul should visit the website, www.svdpindy.org. The local chapter can also be contacted at 317-924-5769, ext. 236.)

Local site Links: