August 7, 2020

‘You hope to become more holy’

A desire to change the lives of people in poverty helps leader transform his own life

John Ryan takes a break from helping people in need at the client-choice food pantry of the Indianapolis council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a food pantry that serves about 3,000 people a week, making it one of the largest in the country. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

John Ryan takes a break from helping people in need at the client-choice food pantry of the Indianapolis council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a food pantry that serves about 3,000 people a week, making it one of the largest in the country. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The moment brought John Ryan to tears.

As the president of the Indianapolis council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Ryan tries to attend every graduation ceremony for people in the organization’s Changing Lives Forever program—an 18-week program that gives people the tools to help them leave a life of poverty.

“At the graduation, the people get up and talk about how their lives have changed,” Ryan notes. “It’s so humbling to listen to what they have encountered, where they’ve been and where they are today.

“One guy stood up. He was probably in his 50s or 60s. He said, ‘I have never graduated from anything. I haven’t graduated from grade school. I haven’t graduated from high school. This is the first time I’ve ever graduated from something.’

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”

Ryan paused as he became emotionally overwhelmed again in recalling that moment. Then he added, “You should have seen the face of this gentleman. He was just beaming. You could just tell his life has just completely changed.

“That’s one of many examples where people have been homeless or in utter poverty. They’re still in poverty, but now they see a way to get out. They’ve learned about finance and support groups and all the things in the community that are out there that they can rely on. It’s truly pretty neat.”

While the archdiocese’s council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society strives to transform the lives of people in poverty, Ryan’s past six years as president of the organization have also transformed his life.

“When I first came here, I was retired,” says Ryan, who’s now 73. “You can only read so many books. You can only go on so many tours and cruises. I came here because I wanted to give myself to helping people in poverty, to do charity work.

“But what I’ve learned is that the main purpose in being a Vincentian is that, through charity, you hope to become more holy, and you hope to lead others to holiness. And that has been monumental. So today when I pray, I pray to become more holy and I pray to lead others to holiness. Six years ago, I never would have dreamed of that.”

Ryan’s six years as president of the society’s Indianapolis council will end on Oct. 25. As the end of his tenure draws near, The Criterion met with him to hear his story of how the organization has changed dramatically in the past six years.

It’s the story of evolving from being an all-volunteer effort to now also having 34 paid employees, from providing more nutritional food to the 3,000 people a week it serves at one of the largest food pantries in the country to opening two thrift shops that help pay for a professional staff and programs to help people get out of poverty.

It’s also the story of how life has changed dramatically for Ryan, a retired attorney who has been a deputy mayor for Indianapolis, a partner in a large law firm, a vice president of an insurance company and director of Indiana’s Department of Child Services.

Here is an edited version of the conversation with Ryan.

Q. How would you describe your six years as the president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society?

A. “Extremely fulfilling. I’ve always been the type of person who has always enjoyed every job I’ve had in my career. At times, I’ve thought all of those other positions were preparing me for this. This is the pinnacle of my career. I love coming to the office every day.”

Q. Have these six years given you a different perspective on the world?

A. “You would think with all of my experiences that I would understand poverty. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m ashamed that I didn’t understand it. I did not comprehend the magnitude of poverty in the archdiocese. Whether you’re in rural Indiana or in a city, one in seven people in Indiana is in poverty. In Marion County, 35,000 of those folks are children. When I see folks going through the line, the one group that breaks my heart is the elderly. I think, ‘My goodness, this is the United States, how can we allow the elderly to show up at a food pantry line?’

“I wish people could come here and see the large crowds, the long lines at this food pantry. It takes two hours to shop for food here. I’m asked frequently, ‘Do people really need this food?’ Would you spend two hours in line if you didn’t? Some people come on a bus. And some people take two buses to get here.”

Q. Talk about the dignity that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul tries to give people who often aren’t treated with dignity.

A. “Maybe you could put me in that category before I came here. I had all these biases and prejudices that sadly were with me, ‘Why can’t people get a job?’ But I’ve learned through here that frequently people don’t have control of their lives. I don’t think anybody wants to stay in poverty. It’s hell. What we try to do is be welcoming here, to show them the respect that they absolutely deserve. We see the face of Jesus Christ in every one of them. They haven’t asked to be where they are. But because of generational poverty or situational poverty, they are.

“Before I became president, I used to have this job where I would let 10 people into the pantry at a time, so I’d have an opportunity to talk to them. I can’t tell you the number of people who have said, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I never thought in a million years I’d be at a food pantry.’ Situational poverty—they lost their job, some medical issue arose, and they find themselves at the food pantry. Those people deserve as much respect and dignity as you and I.”

Q. Has your experience here given you a different perspective on your faith?

A. “Oh my goodness, yes. It’s the direction of trying to be holy and lead others to holiness. Hopefully, it’s also led to a better appreciation, understanding. I would confess that I used to think, ‘Well anybody can get a job. All you have to do is go out there and work. Why in the world are people in poverty? This is America.’

“I didn’t understand generational poverty. If three generations of a family are in poverty, they’re in generational poverty. And you can guess the likelihood of where that fourth generation is going to be. More than likely, they’re going to be in poverty, too. And why is that? Because back at the first generation, they didn’t have the skill set to get out of poverty. You and I were taught the basics of being in the middle class through our family, our friends, our support groups. These individuals weren’t taught that. That’s one of the reasons for Changing Lives Forever.”

Q. You’ve made some significant changes in the Changing Lives Forever program. Talk about that.

A. “When I came on board, we were doing one class a year in this conference room at the council level and that was it. It’s wonderful instruction. It’s a defined program on how to give folks the ability to get out of poverty. It doesn’t get them out of poverty, but it begins that progression.

“So we suggested let’s push that down to the parishes. So in each parish, there’s a St. Vincent de Paul conference. So let’s support the 57 conferences that we have, let’s teach them how to do the program, let’s pay for the program, and let’s do it where the people live. Transportation is such a major issue for people in poverty.

“Six years ago, they had one class of 12 people a year. We’re now up to about 12 classes a year in our various conferences, and our goal is to get to 20. We have over 300 graduates now. And what the graduates have told us is that not only have their lives been changed, but their family lives have been changed. The people in their families see how they have been changed and the families want some of that. It has rippled out into the community.”

Q. During your leadership, one of the success stories is the addition of two thrift shops called Mission 27. Talk about Mission 27 and how the proceeds from the shops have helped the organization expand its help to people.

A. “We have two stores now. One’s downtown [in Indianapolis] and the other one is about four blocks south of Fountain Square proper.

“When I looked at the organization—we didn’t have a professional development person then—I thought, ‘How can we raise funds to pay for all these Changing Lives Forever programs and increase our food budget so we can buy more nutritional food?’

“We did a strategic plan and we fell upon opening a thrift store. We put 23 collection bins in parish parking lots. The clothing just started to come in. So we knew we had the product. We have another 20 bins we’ve ordered, and we’re going to put them in about 12 more parishes that don’t have them and the six Catholic high schools in Indianapolis. We’re going to have about 45 bins out there.

“The stores have nice clothing, furniture, glasses, pots and pans, linens, blankets, just all household furnishings. The clothing comes from the clothing bins, and our trucks go out and pick up all the household furnishings and appliances. We have a group of men who fix appliances down at the distribution center. That all goes into the stores.”

Q. The Mission 27 stores are open to the public to shop. They’re also a place where people in need receive vouchers to choose what they need. Talk about that concept.

A. “An incredible amount of merchandise still goes out to people in need. Now, Tuesday through Saturday, people come with their vouchers. They come to the intake desk, and it is much more respectful to that family. They go into the store just like the shoppers out there. And you can’t tell the difference between the two. They’re picking out their clothing, their couch, etcetera. It’s just completely different. That’s just one of the examples of the respect we’re now giving to those individuals. How did that happen? I’m convinced it’s the Holy Spirit saying, ‘You folks can come up with a better way to serve these people in poverty with respect.’ ”

Q. You have paid employees now, right?

A. “The vast majority of this organization is still volunteers, and always will be. But in certain key functions and responsibilities, we were having difficulty. Four years ago, we didn’t have any paid employees. Today, we have 34. A lot of those are part time. We have made a concerted effort at Mission 27 to hire Changing Lives Forever graduates. We give them some retail skills that they can hopefully use out in the workplace.

“We now have a full-time executive director that is incredible. We likewise now have a professional chief financial officer. We have a full-time development director, who has raised us more money that I could have imagined and has brought us a consistency and professionalism to our fundraising that we never had before. To stabilize those major functions has brought stability to the organization.”

Q. Talk about your fellow volunteers.

A. “The organization could not exist without volunteers. They’re the ones who keep everything moving. I have never met a group of more talented individuals as relates to volunteers. We have folks out there who had important positions in other institutions, and they’re out there volunteering and bringing that talent to the organization. Most importantly, these are the kindest, most thoughtful individuals that I have ever met.

“I heard a story early on that some people will take two buses to come here and they’ll pass other food pantries along the way. And why is that? It’s because they feel so welcome here. And why is that? It’s because of our volunteers. They’re a welcoming group of individuals. It’s really neat to be around them, and it’s really humbling to be around them.”

Q. Are you going to miss this?

A. “Oh, my goodness, yes! I will miss the people, both the volunteers and the clients. I’m thinking of taking a break, to give the next president a little room. Then I may come back. I volunteered here about a year before I became president. Some of the clients became friends, the regulars. Hopefully, I can get reconnected with the clients again.”

(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,, or call 317-924-5769.)

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