By Christine Eberle
Regional Advisory Board, IVC Philadelphia/South Jersey
Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations, but the constant cycle of recruiting, scheduling, and orienting newcomers can be a challenge to forward momentum. Similarly, for many individuals seeking to donate their talents, it’s not enough to fill a slot on a schedule; they long to contribute in meaningful ways. Fortunately, in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area and across the country—including nine USA East Province cities from Portland, Maine to Northern Virginia—the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) meets the needs of both agencies and volunteers—especially those with a Jesuit connection—while advancing the healing and rebuilding of local communities.
Joan Aspan teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor (A.D.R.O.P.) in South Philadelphia, where she began her IVC service just three weeks before COVID-19 eliminated in-person instruction. Although Joan had no experience with virtual classrooms–and her students often attended while taking care of their children or running shifts as Uber Eats drivers–she found a way to make it work. Her forty-year career as an “itinerant” elementary music teacher in dozens of schools across several states gave Joan an important transferrable skill: asking herself, “Now, how do I get this individual to learn this thing?”
Her ingenuity and perseverance paid off. Executive Director Lacie Michaelson Fischley observes, “Joan expertly plans fun and engaging classes for her students,” adding, “most importantly, she keeps coming back. The students have advanced tremendously because of Joan’s consistency, their shared relationship, and her commitment to social justice.” That combination of experience and consistency made the IVC model a perfect fit for A.D.R.O.P.’s needs.
Here’s how it works. The Ignatian Volunteer Corps matches individuals age fifty and over with service providers who need their expertise. Corps members volunteer one or two days each week for ten months a year; partner organizations pay a modest annual stipend, which supports IVC’s local and national operation. In addition to their service, corps members gather regularly for shared spiritual formation and reflection, enabling them to be true contemplatives in action.
In the IVC Philadelphia/South Jersey region, Director John Green explains, placements focus on five key areas: housing, food security, access to education, immigrant sanctuary, and support to those experiencing physical or mental health issues. Green considers his corps members to be leaders of change, offering vital resources to organizations, churches, and schools at the heart of struggling communities.
When John Kearney retired from his career as a trial lawyer, joining IVC was a way to reconnect with his Ignatian roots. A graduate of Regis High School and the College of the Holy Cross, Kearney put three sons through Philly’s St. Joe’s Prep (where two of them went on to teach), as well as Jesuit universities; his daughter also served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in San Francisco. Kearney is now in his fourth year of teaching at Esperanza College of Eastern University. This two-year college in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia serves the local Hispanic population, preparing young people for technical careers or transfer to a four-year institution.
Drawing on his decades in front of juries, Kearney teaches public speaking, which he describes as mainly an exercise in building students’ self-confidence. “No one ever said to them, ‘you can do this,’” he observed. In pandemic—lacking the technology many of us take for granted—his students might be trying to take four courses on an iPhone while working full time. His personal mission is clear: to help each student become a little bit better.
One of the exciting things about IVC is the way each Service Corps Member is encouraged to find a placement that is a good fit with their gifts and passions. Four years ago, Elizabeth Doherty discovered Chester Eastside, a small social service agency in Chester, Pennsylvania. Doherty had retired from a career teaching business and management and serving in administrative roles in higher education, including fourteen years at Saint Joseph’s University. Initially asked to develop outcome measures in an advisory capacity at Chester Eastside, Doherty quickly found herself introducing best practices and facilitating all the behind-the-scenes components of their “out of school time” programs.
When the pandemic hit, Doherty helped design and implement a virtual program in just two weeks. Thanks to her leadership, the agency—with a small staff but over a hundred volunteers—was able to keep faith with its mission. In a community where half the children fell below the poverty line before COVID-19, Chester Eastside ensured that the kids in their care stayed safe, engaged, and academically enriched.
IVC Members not only become the backbone of an agency’s volunteer pool; they also serve as a role model for younger paid staff. At North Philadelphia’s Sanctuary Farm, Executive Director Andrea Vettori says, “we employ members of the community who often have little, if any, work experience.” She deeply appreciates the contribution of second year IVC member Porter Bush of Elkins Park, who “helps to set an example and educate those new to the workforce about what is expected of them.”
Retired from a career in foodservice management, Bush appreciates seeing the joy on neighbors’ faces when they receive freshly picked produce at Sanctuary’s free bi-weekly farm stand. He also enjoys learning new things–like figuring out how to build a shade structure that keeps farm stand volunteers cool while supporting solar panels on its roof. Growing in Ignatian spirituality—with which he had little familiarity before joining IVC—Bush now hopes to walk the thirty-day Ignatian Camino across Spain next fall.
For all the Service Corps Members, finding new ways to use their seasoned gifts is incredibly rewarding. Yet they agree that the opportunity to gather with one another is the “value added” component of IVC. John Kearney describes his surprise at how much he appreciates being able to talk through the challenges and philosophical grounding of his service. Whether discussing systemic racism, intercultural differences, or the state of Catholicism in America, he says, the group doesn’t always agree, and he finds that encouraging. “It’s not just an echo chamber,” he says. Elizabeth Doherty concurs, noting that having a supportive community with rich content and opportunities for reflection leads to personal growth that is highly spirit-driven. And Joan Aspan adds that she really appreciates the Jesuit connection; IVC’s Ignatian charism is at the heart of her spirituality, as her husband Paul has taught theology at SJU for over thirty years.
Even as a work supervisor, Sanctuary Farm’s Andrea Vettori recognizes the value of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps commitment to ongoing formation and reflection. Despite the impressive array of skill sets Bush brings to the job, she says, “the most important asset of an IVC volunteer is the spiritual underpinning that is informed and challenged by their service experiences and processed and nourished by their volunteer colleagues.” She concluded by saying, “IVC has truly been a blessing to our organization and to the community we serve.
With over six hundred members working in more than three hundred partner agencies in twenty-one regional offices across the country, IVC is responding to the profound needs America faces in this time of pandemic, economic crisis, and social injustice. Recruitment of both corps members and partner agencies is underway now for the coming service year, which begins in September. To learn more about the Philly/South Jersey region, contact John Green, firstname.lastname@example.org. To see all the cities where IVC serves—or to explore the possibility of a virtual placement beyond their geographical footprint—visit their website and experience making a difference!