July 31, 2015

‘This place is such a blessing’

St. Vincent de Paul Society president committed to changing the lives of people in poverty

In the midst of another busy day at the Indianapolis food pantry of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, John Ryan leads the all-volunteer group’s efforts to help people escape the cycle of poverty. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

In the midst of another busy day at the Indianapolis food pantry of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, John Ryan leads the all-volunteer group’s efforts to help people escape the cycle of poverty. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The scene has always touched John Ryan, ever since the former senior deputy mayor of Indianapolis began as a volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry, sweeping and mopping the floors.

In the scene that came alive again on a recent Thursday morning, Ryan watched as 93-year-old Carl Henn of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis requested a favor of the hundreds of people in need who were lined up early inside the food pantry.

In minutes, they would start choosing meat, bread, canned goods and fresh produce from the shelves and tables of the Indianapolis pantry, but in this moment Henn was asking them to join him in singing “Amazing Grace” and praying an “Our Father” to begin the day.

As Henn offered a soulful start to the song, the voices of men, women and children of different ages and races blended with his, rising together in prayerful unison.

“It’s so powerful,” says Ryan, the new president of the Indianapolis Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “It’s brought tears to my eyes.”

While that moment has led Ryan to wipe away tears, his interaction with the clients of the food pantry has also made him see the poor—and poverty in Indiana—in a different light.

“All the prejudices and stereotypes I had have been thrown out the window,” he says. “You develop friendships with the people who come here. These are the nicest people, so genuine and thankful for what we are doing. And I discovered they really need the food. It breaks your heart.”

Ryan pauses before adding, “I didn’t know how extensive poverty is in this community. We have to do something about it.”

That goal guides Ryan as he leads the Indianapolis council in creating new, expanded and ambitious plans to help change the lives of people in poverty.

That goal has also changed Ryan, giving an even deeper meaning to the life of the man who has been a business executive, a partner in a prestigious law firm, and the director of Indiana’s Department of Child Services.

‘This place is such a blessing’

On this Thursday morning, rain has poured since dawn, but it hasn’t stopped people in need from flooding into the food pantry. Some have even waited outside in the rain before the pantry opened.

“We get about 3,000 people here every week, and the food they take home to their families ends up benefitting over 10,000 people a week,” says Ryan, a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis. “People will show up here at five or six in the morning so they can be the first in line to get food. We open at 7:30 and begin serving food at eight.”

There’s a similar desperation at the St. Vincent de Paul Society distribution center in Indianapolis, a center that provides used appliances, mattresses and furniture to about 5,000 people a year.

“We see clients arriving at the distribution center on Friday evening to be one of the first in line for Saturday morning distribution,” Ryan notes. “They know we only have so many appliances that day, and they want to be the first to get them.”

Even with their great need, the people show deep appreciation for the help they receive. On this morning, a grandmother stops to chat with Ryan, telling him that the ground beef, potatoes and fresh corn in her basket will make her a big hit with her grandchildren. Seconds later, another woman tells him, “This place is such a blessing.”

While Ryan appreciates the praise, he also says, “We do charity very well, but what can we do on top of the charity to change people’s lives?”

Visions and plans of how to change people’s lives have been surging through Ryan’s mind ever since he became president of the local council in October. Working closely with the council’s executive director Jim Vento and past president Pat Jerrell, Ryan is creating a strategic plan designed to change and expand the all-volunteer organization’s ability to help people and even lead them out of poverty.

Consider some of the plans and proposals, starting with funding an expansion of the “Changing Lives Forever” program to help people escape the cycle of poverty.

Creating a plan for people in need

Thirteen people participated in the most recent 17-week program, and Ryan hopes to increase that number to 200 in the near future by involving at least 20 parishes.

He has also established a connection with the United Way of Central Indiana so that graduates of “Changing Lives Forever” can then continue in the United Way’s two-year program for helping people find a way out of poverty.

“A skeptic would say you’d only be helping 200 people a year,” Ryan says. “But those 200 individuals have children and extended family members. We’ll have 200 extended families that benefit from this.

“We also want to educate the Catholic business community about poverty. Can they help us with jobs for our graduates? What would happen if our graduates would be connected to jobs as they were learning their skills?”

Ryan also is negotiating with hauling companies to help pick up donations of appliances and furniture on a more timely basis. He’s making that move because St. Vincent de Paul often loses those donations when people are told they will have to wait a few weeks for volunteers to pick up a donated item.

“Today, we spend $140,000 annually on used appliances and $35,000 on mattresses because we don’t have enough donated,” he says. “We also spend $270,000 a year on food. The food here is good, but we still need to buy more nutritional food. And that costs money, too.”

To help pay for these potential plans, Ryan has been exploring an approach that has proved beneficial for St. Vincent de Paul Society councils across the country—thrift stores similar to Goodwill.

“Down in Cincinnati, they have seven thrift stores, and they gross $18 to $19 million a year, and they net around $2.3 million, and they use that money for various programs to help the poor.”

Other possibilities include expanding a program that provides bikes to homeless people so they can get to work, and establishing bins in parish parking lots where clothes could be donated for the poor.

“That’s the vision,” Ryan says. “It’s not my vision. It’s the vision of St. Vincent de Paul, our 300 core volunteers and the other 3,000 volunteers who help us out once a year. I truly believe the Holy Spirit is working through this Society. So many people have stepped up with ideas and a passion for those ideas, and we’re trying to implement them. The folks who are here are great people. It just strengthens your faith.”

‘I love every day here’

Ryan acknowledges that serving the poor wasn’t initially a part of his plans when he retired in May of 2013.

“I bought a fishing boat,” he says with a laugh. “But you can only go fishing and read books for so long. I went stir-crazy. I needed to do something that mattered, that made a difference. A friend of a friend said, ‘What about St. Vincent de Paul?’ I showed up in October of 2013 at the food pantry, and did whatever needed to be done. At the end of the day, I would sweep the floors to try to keep the place clean.”

As the president during that time, Pat Jerrell noticed Ryan’s humble attitude and down-to-earth interaction with the food pantry’s clients. And when he learned about Ryan’s leadership skills, Jerrell approached Ryan about replacing him as president.

“He said ‘yes’—thank God,” says Jerrell, a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis. “He’s such a blessing. The biggest thing is he’s a man of faith. He loves his Catholic faith. He lives it. He’s a team player, and he’s committed to the Society. I think he has a deep understanding of poverty and what it does to children. He saw that effect when he was the head of the Department of Child Services for the state.”

Another influence must have also been at work when Ryan became council president, says Domoni Rouse, the coordinator of the “Changing Lives Forever” program.

“I wondered how we were going to get someone to replace Pat Jerrell as president. He was amazing,” says Rouse, a member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis. “The Holy Spirit had to be involved in this, because we couldn’t have gotten a better person with John. Leaders have to be people who listen. When you talk to him, he obviously listens. If you need some additional guidance or inspiration, he’s there for you.”

That quality shows as Ryan roams through the food pantry—talking with his fellow volunteers and taking the time to greet and chat with the people who need some extra help in life.

“I wish a lot of our Catholic community could see this and understand the magnitude of poverty in our community,” he says. “I’ve become so passionate about this organization. I wouldn’t be so passionate if these people weren’t so genuine. I love every day here.”

(If anyone needs help from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul—or wants to make a donation or become a volunteer—check the website, www.svdpindy.org, or call 317-924-5769.)

Local site Links: