The Freedom in Vulnerability

By Mary Ellen Ostrowski 

“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable/ It means to show up and be seen/ to ask for what you need/to talk about how you’re feeling/to have hard conversations.”- Brene Brown

Lately, I have been thinking about the idea of vulnerability frequently. In the VVC program, it is something we talk about often, particularly in the context of the formation of community. This program calls us to give of ourselves in many ways, not only to our neighbors in need but to each other.

One of the best and most challenging parts of my role at St. Vincent de Paul as a Patient Advocate is hearing stories from the patients I have the privilege of serving. I am continually overwhelmed by the honesty of the clients. We live in a society where it is considered rude to ask someone how much money they make, and where talking about personal or financial hardships can be uncomfortable. However, in my work, neighbors are so forthcoming with their stories, even when they could feel embarrassed or humiliated that they are in a place where they need to ask for assistance. I don’t know if I would have the strength to be as vulnerable as they are to me, most of them with a kind word to say, a smile on their face, and a grateful heart.

Vulnerability also extends way past finances. Many neighbors share stories of their struggles with family, with stable employment, and with being stuck in a cycle of poverty. I am amazed at my clients’ willingness to share their struggle with me, someone they just met. I am a very private and guarded person, and many times I like to put a smile on my face and act as if everything is fine, even if it’s not the reality. My clients challenge me to be more vulnerable with my hopes and dreams, as well as struggles with my family, friends, and community members this year through VVC as well as with neighbors.

Even the task of coming to St. Vincent de Paul requires an attitude of vulnerability, especially in our culture which glorifies autonomy. We live in a world in which it reciprocation of good deeds is expected. If I buy dinner for a friend, they will pick up the tab the next time we go out. If a neighbor shovels snow in my driveway, I will make them hot cocoa.  For most of us, myself included, it is difficult to admit that we are unable to return a favor for someone and to just smile and accept charity with a simple thank you, knowing that is all we have to give. When I am talking to a neighbor who is upset or frustrated, I try to think to myself, how would I be acting if I were unable to provide for my family? Or if I was ill because I haven’t been able to afford prescription medications? Can I really say that I would be jumping at the opportunity to receive assistance from someone? I don’t think so. I really do not like asking for help from family and friends, and like most of us, I don’t like admitting my own weaknesses.

However, there is a certain freedom in admitting you don’t have everything together. We are able to serve our neighbors in a more complete way when we understand and embrace our own weakness when we can stand in solidarity with our neighbors in their time of vulnerability. As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “…we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves.  We draw from all our experiences.  Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve.” We serve with our whole selves.  I am excited to be challenged this year in vulnerability, in opening myself to my community so we can truly know and truly love each other.

To learn more about VVC, visit

Grounded in her faith, Mary Ellen has an optimistic outlook on life. Through intentional decision making and dedication to personal prayer and reflection, Mary Ellen strives to grow as an individual on a daily basis.


A Year of Service Ruined Me

By Sarah Spech

When I made the decision to commit a year of my life to serving my neighbors in need through Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, I expected–hoped–that my life would be changed. That I would finish the year a different person from the one I started. That I would have a different outlook on life, form different habits, understand [some unnameable thing] better.

What I didn’t realize is how complete the change would be. “Transformative,” some could call it. “Life-changing,” others might say. And, my personal favorite, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: “Ruined for life.”

How true that is.

I can never forget all that I’ve learned here. I can’t forget the faces that walk through our doors, the stories they tell, the tears shed, or the ways a broken system has continued to fail so many members of our communities. I can’t look past the roles play within those systems and the responsibilities I forever hold to work for change.

After this year, I won’t be able to continue living my life just as before. I have found meaningful work and seen how it is never finished. I have learned how my daily choices affect those I don’t even know.

Having gone to social justice-minded schools up until this year, I had been exposed to injustice and poverty through theories and text books, class discussions and statistics. We had been taught the plight of those in poverty and problems with the many systems that maintain inequality and injustice throughout our cities, this country, and the world.

Learning about it is great. It’s important that we are made aware of the problems in our country and the communities that we are a part of. Without previous education, I would not have made the choices that got me here. However, there’s no replacement for experience when it comes to fully understanding the struggles of our neighbors in need.

It is through personal encounter that I have changed, that my outlook has changed. It is the people, their stories, and my attempt to live in solidarity that have ultimately changed who I am and how I will live for the rest of my life.


To learn more about VVC, visit

Sarah Spech hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Dayton with an English degree. She enjoys music, talking about feminism, a hot cup of fair trade coffee, and dreaming about one day living beyond the borders of the Buckeye State.

Connection through Service

By Molly Gibbons

Connection is defined as a relationship in which a person, thing or idea is linked or associated with something else. The best part of VVC so far has been the many opportunities I’ve found to make connections on a daily basis. Stepping outside of myself to make a connection with another human being is something that fuels my spirits. Moving to Cincinnati has offered me the connection to a city filled with new faces and ways of being.

My position as Food Pantry Coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati allows me to put my faith into action every single day. With each new connection I make, I am introduced to a new perspective. I have always made perspective a priority in my personal life, and through VVC I have learned that awareness is what can truly shift one’s perspective.

I have been able to step outside of myself and get at least an idea of what “living simply” really means. The gift I have received from living simply is a reminder of the importance to be present in life as much as possible. Human connection is truly priceless and each encounter that I have had so far, whether considered “good” or “bad,” is what makes up who I am and what I stand for.

The main source of connection offered to me this year is with my fellow community members. These four individuals, all from different places with different passions, have grown to shape my personal experience in a number of ways. The intentional aspect of the VVC community is what creates the platform for our entire year.  Living intentionally is something that takes time and constant consideration. Doing this alongside Mary Ellen, Rene, Sarah, and Fare brings some lightness to the process. This living environment is created for each of us to thrive personally through group reflection and discussion. Sharing a space with four other twenty something’s all on seemingly different paths, but driven by the same ultimate purpose is inspiring.


Molly Gibbons is a Margate City, NJ native who brings good vibes to this year’s VVC cohort. She enjoys meditation, burning incense to soothe the soul, and has found that everything tends to fall in place when a person approaches life with an open heart.

Discerning a Year of Service

As someone who constantly battles an inherent disposition to view things in black and white, a year of service helps me see the grey in the world. Sometimes in that constant pursuit of an ideal–in my case, justice–we can really forget to slow down and reassess.

By Rene Betance

Looking back, it now seems funny that I thought I was never going to do a year of service. In my time at Xavier University, I was part of the “social justice crowd.” This group of people included a number of folks who were pursuing a year of service after graduation. I thought of myself as the exception to that rule. While I wholeheartedly believed in spending a year in intentional community, pursuing conversations about our faith, morals, and the social justice, I viewed a year of service like a parenthesis, a pause in my life. Instead of heading off directly into the workforce or grad school, it would serve as more procrastination from the “real world.” I am restless. I can’t pause! There’s always work to do and we need to get going. I don’t have time to pause, grab a shovel, and get digging.

Yet, I sit here writing this blog post from a desk at St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati, in month 4 of my year of service. What happened between then and now is my discernment; perhaps without that discernment, I wouldn’t have truly learned the lesson of contemplation and the value of a year of service. As someone who constantly battles an inherent disposition to view things in black and white, a year of service helps me see the gray in the world. Sometimes in that constant pursuit of an ideal–in my case, justice–we can really forget to slow down and reassess. Maybe the best example of this is the parable of Babies in the River. In that moment of relentless pursuit, we can forget to look around and discern where our gifts are best utilized, what the world needs and where God is inviting us.

In college, I was ready to dive into that river to get the babies. A year of service, specifically the Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, helps to calm me and truly discern. Do I want to be someone who is taking the babies out of the river or do I want to go up the river and find the source of the problem? Taking the time to consider this question is essential to my life. The answer will dictate my future.

I believe that we all need to answer big questions in our lives. Our best selves demand that we carefully consider our future. We must be intentional about who we want to be in the world. I loved going to college; Xavier helped challenge and empower me in inexplicable ways. But as an undergraduate student with so much going on at once (social life, school, involvement, future plans, family, parties, etc.), it is hard to say that college students have appropriate time to fully discern. For us to be able to make the best decision possible, we need time and space. A year of service really provides that time and space. In other words, consider a year of service.

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Rene Betance spent his first few years in Chihuahua, Mexico, before bouncing around Texas and Ohio. The Xavier grad has a knack for conversation, will tell it like it is, and has never been sarcastic in his life.