July 15, 2022

Ryves director offered youths 40 years of ‘support, positive memories’ and love

Jim Edwards smiles with his wife Diana after receiving an award from Catholic Charities Terre Haute for his 40 years as director of Ryves Youth Center in Terre Haute. Edwards, who retired on May 31, met Diana when she started volunteering at Ryves in 1983. (Submitted photo)

Jim Edwards smiles with his wife Diana after receiving an award from Catholic Charities Terre Haute for his 40 years as director of Ryves Youth Center in Terre Haute. Edwards, who retired on May 31, met Diana when she started volunteering at Ryves in 1983. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

TERRE HAUTE—Through the course of an interview, Jim Edwards says the word 18 times: love.

It’s the word he uses for his ministerial job of the last 40 years. It’s the word he uses for what so many young people are hungry for. And it’s the word he uses to describe his feelings for the poverty-level children of Ryves Youth Center in Terre Haute he has served for four decades.

“I’m a big proponent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” said Edwards, 66. “We need to give [children] safety and shelter, and we do that when they walk through our doors.

“And then you need to give them some direction and some love and acceptance so they grow into children that feel a sense of self efficacy.

“That’s why I’ve been here for 40 years.”

Edwards, who has been the only director of the Catholic Charities ministry in Terre Haute since it was founded in 1982, retired on May 31.

They were 40 years of managing, labor, long hours and, of course, love—including meeting his wife of almost 38 years.

Edwards “has been an anchor of Ryves,” said John C. Etling, agency director of Catholic Charities Terre Haute, which offers the youth center as one of its many services. “He’s certainly made it a great place for a lot of kids with very little options in life. I think that’s an extension of his heart and soul.”

That extension began with resistance when young Edwards told an exploratory committee on three separate occasions that he had no spare time to help.

‘I’ve already got a job’

In 1982, Edwards was a police officer at Indiana State University (ISU) in Terre Haute who also “spent a lot of time volunteering in the community.”

He recalled being approached one day by a group hoping to start a program to help runaway youths and teens. He told them he worked full time and was too busy to help.

“They came back,” said Edwards. “I said, ‘Look, I’m tellin’ ya, I’m tired and too busy.’

“The third time they came back, I said, ‘I’ll go to a meeting. But I’m not going to say anything, I’m just going to show up.’ ”

Something was said at the meeting that caught Edwards’ attention, a comment that the kids to be served “wouldn’t have head lice.”

“I said, ‘Hold on. If you don’t have kids with head lice, you’re not going to be serving the right kids,’ ” he recalled.

And just like that, he joined the group that would go on to create Ryves Youth Center.

He helped prepare the building owned by Catholic Charities in an area he calls “the epicenter of poverty in Terre Haute.” The center was set to open that September.

As September drew near, John E. Etling, father of John C. Etling and then-director of Catholic Charities Terre Haute, approached Edwards about serving as program director. Once again, Edwards resisted, saying, “No. I’ve already got a job, and there’s no money here.”

Etling persisted, asking him how much money he wanted. Edwards softened a little, telling Etling he would volunteer as a part-time director “until you get someone full time, then I’m outta here.”

By June the following year, Edwards was still working at ISU while being paid as the full-time director of Ryves Youth Center.

“I was taking care of things [for Ryves] at all hours of the day and night,” he recalled.

Eventually his work schedule at ISU included Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, and by working double shifts he was able to get one Saturday off a month.

“I did that for eight years,” said Edwards. “I look back when I said I was too busy, and I didn’t know what busy was.”

He retired from the ISU police force in 1990 to work full time as the youth center’s director.

“I felt God really wanted me there,” he said.

‘They feel included and loved’

Ryves serves as a place for children to go after school until evening time. Completely free of charge, the youths—currently about 1,000—are fed a meal. There are games, crafts, sports, a computer lab, tutoring and more.

“We have a big emphasis on education,” said Edwards. Ryves also offers trauma-informed mentors and a homeless preschool program.

But he noted that “those are things. What’s more important is [the children] walk in and they feel included and loved, and they need to feel those things.”

The children Ryves serves come from poverty-level homes. Edwards said about 10% of the current youths who come to Ryves are children of alcoholics, drug addicts or some other situation that puts them at high risk.

Edwards said he’s learned a lot about poverty and its effect on children in the last 40 years.

“The one thing I wish I could change is people’s understanding about poverty,” he said. “Of course, there are those who want to push their kids off. But most of our families love their children.

“Some fall short on what they can offer their children because they never grew up with proper parenting in the first place. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love their children.

“The big thing for [Ryves] is to offer enough support that our children can grow and hopefully get out of poverty one day, or at least learn skills that will benefit them to have a better life, to do better parenting.”

Among the youths who spent time at Ryves, there have been a few great success stories—a chef on the presidential plane Air Force One, a regional union training director, a woman who earned a Ph.D.

But it’s the ones who simply went on to have a good life that especially warm Edwards’ heart.

He recalled running into a man who had been a “Ryves child,” the son of an alcoholic single mother.

“He said he was married, has two sons almost ready to go to college,” Edwards recalled. “He worked at the same factory job for the last 15 years and his family went to church.

“He invited me to dinner and said, ‘I want to show you I got out.’ Now that’s the type of story that touches my heart.”

‘I feel really blessed when I help people’

The children are not the only ones who have benefited from Ryves. Edwards said the youth center “has blessed me as much as I’ve helped them.”

Perhaps the most life-impacting blessing was meeting his wife Diana.

In 1983, a year after the ministry opened, a student at ISU started volunteering at the center.

“The kids came to me and said, ‘We like Diana.’ I said, ‘Me too,’ ” Edwards recalled.

But he said the children persisted, saying, “No, we really like her! You need to ask her out on a date!”

So he did.

The couple dated for a while before Edwards said the kids approached him again, saying, “We love Diana! You need to ask her to marry you!”

Edwards agreed. He and Diana were married in August of 1984.

“We got married in a park so all the kids could come,” he said.

The additional blessings of his 40 years as director of Ryves run deep, said Edwards. But before he could name them, some children walked by his office.

He paused the interview to greet them, saying, “Hi, kids. Go on back and have some pizza. I love you.”

“That’s it right there,” he said of the children he greeted. “I walk in and kids come and let me know that I’m important in their life, and I’m able to share in their life.

“I’ve worked hard to create a sense of family here so it’s not just a place for kids to come to, not just a place to work or anything else. Everybody that comes here is part of the Ryves family.

“I benefit from helping others. I feel really blessed when I help people. It feels good.”

‘I truly feel that God put me here’

It’s that good feeling that shaped Edwards’ plans for the next chapter in his life.

“I’m not going to slow down yet,” he said. “I still think that there’s a way I can help our community, so that’s what I want to do.”

Edwards made good on his words. After retiring from Ryves, he took a vacation—for one day. The next day, he started his new job as executive director of Wabash Valley Habitat for Humanity in Terre Haute, a non-profit organization that helps those in need revitalize their home or work to build and purchase a new home.

The foundation for Edwards’ plans began not long ago when he took a week of vacation to help the organization.

“The more I did, the more it spoke to me that I could make a difference in a different way with the same type of people that I’ve been working with all along,” he said.

Edwards still plans to volunteer as a tutor at Ryves.

“I made sure everyone knows I’m not planning on running away,” he said. “I’ll be looking at ways for Habitat [for Humanity] to collaborate with Catholic Charities.”

John C. Etling said Edwards has made himself “a student of the role that poverty plays in our community and has been dedicated to finding better evidence-based strategies for helping people find a path out of that situation or status.”

Reflecting on Edwards’ impact at Ryves, he noted that “some people leave their mark on the world, and when they’re gone, they leave a void.

“I think Jim’s definitely left his mark on our agency and community. But there’s no void here. It’s all been filled with love, hope, kindness, and that’s what Jim was here for.

“He’ll certainly be missed, but not forgotten.”

Reflecting on his four decades at Ryves, Edwards said he’s most proud of being “able to provide support and positive memories, even for children that have not been successful by another’s standards.

“I’ve just got a lot of kids that have fond memories and look at Ryves as a place of safety and love, a place that helped them.

“I truly feel that God put me here.” †

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