June 2, 2017

Up to the challenge: Groundbreaking woman has planted seeds to stop growth of poverty across country

Sheila Gilbert is the first woman to serve as president of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul. As her six-year term heads into its final months, Gilbert makes a visit to the client-choice food pantry of the Indianapolis Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, where she talks with John Ryan, president of the Indianapolis council. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Sheila Gilbert is the first woman to serve as president of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul. As her six-year term heads into its final months, Gilbert makes a visit to the client-choice food pantry of the Indianapolis Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, where she talks with John Ryan, president of the Indianapolis council. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

After her groundbreaking tenure ends, Sheila Gilbert hopes to devote more attention to one of the great passions of her life—working in her garden.

She also plans to spend more time practicing the piano.

For the past six years, both activities have been severely limited as Gilbert has served as the president of the national council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul—the first woman ever elected to that position.

During that time, the 76-year-old Gilbert has been planting seeds of a different kind, nurturing efforts to remove a plight that has devastated too many lives across the landscape of the archdiocese and the United States—poverty.

She has changed the focus of the national lay organization that serves more than 14 million people each year—leading an initiative to not just provide food, clothing and furniture for people in need, but to help them change their lives so they can escape the cycle of poverty.

A member of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis, Gilbert has also worked to increase the scope of the society’s efforts to assist people affected by disasters.

And she has embraced innovative programs to help people start a new life after prison.

Then there are the programs that Gilbert wants to become involved in after her term as national president ends in September, including a service-focused program she wants to start in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to attract young adults back to the Church.

So the garden work and the piano practice may have to wait again. In fact, she plans to keep volunteering as long as her mother did, which was to the age of 85.

“I probably will be at least that old, maybe older,” she says with a smile. “I’m sure she’d be proud of me. That makes me feel good.”

Gilbert shared her insights, plans and thoughts about being the society’s first woman president during a recent interview with The Criterion. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Q. When you were elected president of the society’s national council six years ago by the 4,500 conference presidents across the country, you said, ‘To be the first woman, in some ways, feels like a heavy responsibility because if I blow it, it could be a long time before there’s another woman. But it’s also what other people have told me, ‘It’s time.’ ”

Talk about the experience of being the society’s first female president.

A. “I hope I’ve lived up to the challenge. Once I got into it, I didn’t see that it would be a difference whether I was a woman or a man, but there is a different way a man does something and a woman does something. I think it was refreshing in a lot of ways for people to have a woman lead the society.

“I have the approach of transformational leadership. You try to change the culture of the organization to move forward. I wanted to focus on how we think about things, how we act toward others, even how we pray, as a way to move forward.”

Q. Talk about the way you’ve tried to move the Society of St. Vincent de Paul forward in terms of helping people who live in poverty.

A. “We’ve helped our conferences and councils move toward a systemic change so they’ve continued to do direct aid, but they’re also looking at ways to get people out of poverty. In Indianapolis, that’s been the Changing Lives Forever program. We’re looking to help about 400 people a year.

It’s a parish-based program for people who want to find a way out of poverty. Part of the program helps them to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. In that process, they do two things. One is they make a plan for themselves so it’s their plan. It also helps them become aware of two different kinds of resources in the community. There are the ‘getting‑by’ resources, like food stamps. And then there are the ‘getting‑ahead’ resources—education resources, job‑finding resources, knowing where they can get child care so they truly can be job-ready.

“They also get a good look at the community where they live, and what are the things that can help them move forward—and what are the things that hold them back. And hopefully they can become active in getting some of those things changed.”

Q. What are you most proud of in your six years as president?

A. “Probably getting the systemic change started. That was my call originally. Knowing that this crushing poverty people have is not what God wanted for them.”

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

A. “We’re very active in providing help after disasters, such as tornadoes, floods and wildfires. Right now [that program is] working in 22 states. We’re not necessarily involved in the immediate response. We’re more involved in the long-term recovery, especially working with people who fall through the cracks.

“We have a program called House in a Box. If you’re home has been destroyed and you have nothing, once you get another home established, then you can literally pull a truck up to our warehouse in the city where the disaster has been and get everything you need to furnish your house. All your beds, your linens, your tableware, everything. What that does is help many people who would have gone from middle class to poverty because of that disaster. We’re actually keeping people out of poverty that way.”

Q. Talk about St. Vincent de Paul’s national efforts to help people after they’ve been in prison.

A. “The prison re-entry program is a five-year grant we have from the [Catholic] Campaign for Human Development. Right now, it’s a pilot program in five states to reduce recidivism for prisoners, and it seems to be working well. They’ve worked with 800 to 900 people in prison, and there have been almost no returns. It’s been absolutely amazing. It’s a community organizing model where the people coming out of these facilities are very involved in running it.

“One of the things they’re working hard on is making a change on job applications where you have to check a box if you’ve had a felony conviction. They’re trying to get that box removed. Because that usually gets the application tossed in the trash. Because no matter who the person really is or what they’ve learned through their experience, they’re not ever going to get a chance to say that in a job interview. So they’re working with city-county councils and states about it. They’ve had some success in getting that box removed by employers and by government.”

Q. Talk about a program starting at the society’s national level that you would like to see happen in Indianapolis?

A. “One of them is called Neighborhoods of Hope. It’s a new thing that national is rolling out. It’s really parish-based, and what it basically says is, ‘How can your parish become a neighborhood of hope for the people who live there—especially for the people who are disadvantaged?’

“It takes the whole parish to become involved. The parish has spiritual and temporal responsibilities for the whole person. So it means getting the parish involved and out in the community, and getting to know the other people in their parish boundaries who are also trying to serve people in need. And begin to learn and collaborate with them to see what are the real challenges for people living in poverty—and how can they help with that.

“Once the parish and the parishioners understand what the challenges and barriers are, they can be active in an advocacy way to change those things. It may be as simple as getting a bus route changed, or going to the city-county council or the state legislature, or it might be part of something that’s national. But it will help the parishioners understand the role they have in social justice.”

Q. What thoughts run through your mind in these last months for you as national president?

A. “I’m thinking of the whole issue of evangelization. Especially those who are in their 20s to maybe 40, 45—and how the Church is struggling to keep them, and how maybe we can regain them. We seem to have lost a couple of generations.

“I think St. Vincent de Paul can be very helpful with that. Right now, our society’s conferences are parish-based, and we’re not going to get people who have disenfranchised themselves from the Church in that way. They’re never going to join a parish conference. But they could join if we do something on a deanery basis or a city-wide basis to invite them to come and be associate members.

“There would be a strong formation component to that, a strong service component and an advocacy component that would help them at least begin to re-engage with the Church. So I’m hoping we can start a group like that in Indianapolis. It will likely have a strong social media component to it because we have to do it in a way that people in those age groups do things.”

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

A. “I think I’ve come to trust even more in God because I know absolutely and positively that this isn’t me doing any of this. God puts everything in place to make things happen, and he does it in his time frame and not necessarily mine. When I put forth this vision of ending poverty, I know that God might decide to do that in six months, six years or 600 years. But I also know that we have a definite role to play in that. All I was really called to do was what God was calling me to do right now, and leave the results to God.” †

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