March 23, 2018

Changing Lives Forever offers ‘hand up, not hand out’

Connie Wright, a graduate of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Changing Lives Forever program, restocks clothes on March 17 as part of her job at the charitable organization’s Mission 27 Resale shop in Indianapolis. Funds raised by the store benefit the Changing Lives Forever program—which helps individuals learn how to pull themselves out of poverty—as well as the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Connie Wright, a graduate of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Changing Lives Forever program, restocks clothes on March 17 as part of her job at the charitable organization’s Mission 27 Resale shop in Indianapolis. Funds raised by the store benefit the Changing Lives Forever program—which helps individuals learn how to pull themselves out of poverty—as well as the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Two years ago, Connie Wright could not imagine a joyful future.

“My life got off track, and I went through a deep depression,” she admits.

Now she has a fiancé she adores, and “the best job anyone could ever have” working for an organization she feels “blessed to be a part of.”

Wright will soon have another joy she could never have imagined. Ten days after her April 8 wedding, the 44-year‑old newlywed will strut down a runway modeling her wedding gown in a fashion show.

No elitist affair, the event is a fundraiser benefiting the program that made possible all the positive changes in Wright’s life: the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Changing Lives Forever (CLF) program.

“It changed my whole world,” says Wright. “It not only brought me out of depression and brought my life on track—I’m happy.”

‘You build yourself up’

In Indianapolis, the St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVdP) is known for helping those in need through its food pantry, distribution center and homeless ministry.

“But those are principally works of charity,” says Indianapolis council president John Ryan, 71 and a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis. “What the Changing Lives Forever program does is to teach and educate individuals in poverty how to break that cycle of poverty so they no longer need that charity, and they become self-sufficient. ... They now have self- worth and respect for themselves, which is in my opinion more important than the financial component.”

That self-sufficiency can be physical, emotional or spiritual, says CLF program director Domoni Rouse.

“Most of our [participants] are ... tired of living in public housing, or not having enough to live on, or tired of coming to St. Vincent de Paul asking for help.

“They just want to move forward, and that moving forward doesn’t always mean getting a job. It [sometimes] means feeling some kind of purpose in life they may not feel right now.”

To provide the help to move forward, the Indianapolis SVdP council began the CLF program in 2011. It is based on a national program known as Getting Ahead, but it’s modified to add a spiritual component. Participants—called “investigators”—meet for three hours a week for 18 weeks. Through facilitator‑led modules, participants learn the basics of handling finances, managing time, researching community resources and other life-changing skills and strategies.

Wright, who graduated from CLF in the fall of 2016, describes the sessions as a pyramid, where the investigators “apply what you learn in the first week to your life for a whole week, every day. Then the next week you apply that [new] topic for the week, adding on to what you learned the week prior.

“You practice. You build yourself up—you don’t even realize you’re doing it.”

Along with building themselves up, says Rouse, the participants “look at their community, what are [its] strengths and weaknesses, what part they play and what they can do to strengthen the environment the live in. They stop to consider maybe they can help.”

‘Not a hand out, but a hand up’

By the end of the program, each participant has “written what their goals are, what they want their future story to look like,” Rouse explains. “Not only that, but they have created the steps to get there.”

The investigators are not left on their own after graduation. Quarterly follow-up meetings are held to encourage and stay connected with alumni and to provide a support network.

Additionally, CLF has teamed up with Trusted Mentors, Inc., to offer each graduate a mentor for a year who “will be their cheerleader and who won’t judge them,” says Rouse. “That’s important when you’re trying to change your life, that you have someone who will walk with you and encourage you.”

Ryan says the participants “talk about the transformation from when they started the class and when they graduate.

“But they also tell us the people around them—their family, neighbors, friends—not only see the difference, but are themselves positively affected by the change that took place in that grad.”

The program “is work and dedication,” Wright admits. “But it’s not a hand out—it’s a hand up.”

‘We appreciate what they bring’

The “hand up” program has greatly expanded in recent years. From 2011-14, it was offered just once a year and was only held at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in Indianapolis.

“2015 is when we branched out into the different neighborhoods through the parishes,” says Rouse, 67, who is a member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis.

Two classes were offered in 2015, and four in 2016. In 2017, the classes were offered in nine locations.

“We had 94 grads in 2017,” says Rouse, noting that each class initially consists of 14-16 people, with a few unable to complete the course for various reasons. “For all of the years prior [the combined number of graduates] was less than what we had in 2017.”

In 2018, 11 classes will be offered by either a parish or grouping of parishes in Brazil, Brownsburg, Indianapolis and Plainfield.

Each CLF class costs about $7,500, says Rouse. The cost covers not only materials, but also a weekly stipend for each participant. The stipend helps with travel expenses and lets the participants “know we appreciate what they bring to the table,” she explains.

One of the main sources of funding for the CLF program is SVdP’s Mission 27 Resale store in Indianapolis. The shop opened in the fall of 2016 to benefit CLF and the SVdP Food Pantry. It also serves as a possible source of employment for CLF graduates to help establish a job record, Rouse says, adding that six or seven alumni are currently employed at Mission 27.

One of those employees is Wright.

‘This was God’s plan’

Wright, a mother and grandmother, interviewed with Mission 27 two days before it opened in October 2016. She has been a full-time employee with the store from the start.

Wright’s job is full of variety.

“Some days, I’m on the dock” where donations are accepted, she says. “Some days, I’m sorting. Some days, I’m lifting furniture like He-Man. Some days, I open and close the store.”

But the one consistent component, she says, is that “I get to help people, and that’s the best job anyone could ever have. I try to do anything extra I can for anyone.”

Wright says she “can’t say enough good things about the [CLF] program.

“It brought me closer to God, even though they’re not there to make you religious. I started going back to church because of all the wonderful things I saw” being done through the program and St. Vincent de Paul.

“It changed my whole world and everybody that was in my class. … I love that I get to advocate for it now” by working at Mission 27 and occasionally helping with CLF orientation.

The program might have changed Wright’s life just a bit more than most graduates. The day she interviewed for the Mission 27 job, she met William “Bob” Potts, one of the construction workers preparing the Mission 27 store for its opening. The two will marry on April 8.

Both purchased their wedding attire at Mission 27. On April 18, the couple will sport their wedding wear in a fashion show fundraiser for the resale shop, donating the clothes back to be sold again.

“I’m excited about the opportunity not just to [model in the show], but to do it for St. Vincent de Paul,” Wright says. “Anything I can do to help them, to help promote Mission 27 or St. Vincent de Paul, is just a joy for me.”

Participating in CLF, working at Mission 27, meeting her fiancé—“This was God’s plan, and I couldn’t have done it any better myself,” says Wright. “I wholeheartedly believe it was his plan and his time. I just feel so blessed.”
 

(For more information on the Changing Lives Forever program, how to get involved or how to donate, go to goo.gl/MgxJ79. For information on the Mission 27 fashion show fundraiser, go to goo.gl/rq47ux.)

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