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.

To apply for VVC, visit

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.

A year of service for a lifetime of change

Written by Patricia Huelseman

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in leadership, Mary struggled with the question: “What next? Grad school? Apply for jobs?”

A friend suggested that she join him in the Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati (VVC) year of service program. She told him she didn’t think it would be a good fit for her, but she applied nonetheless.

“I loved every bit of the experience,” she said. Mary’s year of service, from 2013-2014, gave her an experience she’ll value for the rest of her life.

“It was a challenging year,” she said. “It was everything I needed to grow and learn more about myself professionally, learn more about where I saw myself in my faith, and to make some really great resolutions. I’m really grateful to VVC for that.”

The Vincentian Volunteers live in community for 11 months in a home in the West End where they make new discoveries about themselves, their faith, and their relationships with others. Embracing this great opportunity to broaden their horizons, Vincentian Volunteers benefit from a mentor and gain valuable professional experience working side by side with St. Vincent de Paul staff.

Mary worked in the Social Services department and had a direct impact on our neighbors in need, helping them find ways to pay their rent, keep the electric on, and find a bed to sleep on at night.

It was emotionally tolling; Mary struggled with the stories she heard on a daily basis. But it was also incredibly rewarding. “To honor their humanity and just provide some dignity that maybe some of these folks aren’t used to getting on a daily basis because of their situation, that was definitely rewarding.”

Mary’s year of service provided her with the skills necessary to move on to become a youth development coach and a program coordinator at University of Michigan. Mary will now start her graduate studies in higher education with a focus on diversity and social justice. Her experience as a Vincentian Volunteer of Cincinnati has prepared her for a career and life as an advocate for social justice.

To learn more about Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, visit, call (513) 562-8841 ext. 239 or email

Meet the VVCs

Meet Our New Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati

Rooted in St. Vincent de Paul’s mission and tradition, Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati is a faith-based, year-long, residential service program. The program provides young professionals in their twenties an opportunity to grow in faith, friendship and service by giving deeply of themselves to neighbors in need. Join us in welcoming the 2015-2016 Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati!

rene René Betance, originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, has long called Ohio home, attending high school in central Ohio and graduating from Xavier University with a degree in finance and minors in theology and peace studies. René will put his degree and service experience to work in our Ozanam Center for Service Learning during his year with VVC.

“I have experience with people vastly different than myself, but the question is what do I do with that experience? Solidarity means wanting to take that empathy and that experience and choose to stand with and for others. Though no easy task, it is our way of truly embodying the idea that we belong to each other.
molly Molly Gibbons joins us from Margate, New Jersey, having spent some time living and serving in Kampala, Uganda, doing customer service work and teaching yoga. Molly’s adventurous spirit, commitment to reflection, and love of connecting with others will serve her well in her role working with volunteers and neighbors in need in the Choice Pantry.

“I have always had a passion for helping others and doing so through a faith-based program is ideal. I would like to show others that faith is able to get you through even the most difficult of times. I look forward to being able to work with others and build strong and lasting relationships throughout this journey.”
fare Olafare “Fare” Olagbaju comes to VVC from Xavier University, where he studied Liberal Arts, with minors in business and political science, although Lekki, Nigeria, is home for Fare.  You will find Fare putting his passion for social justice and systemic change to work in SVDP’s Social Services department, walking alongside our neighbors in need.

“When I think of community the word that jumps out to me is ‘shared.’ My motivation for living in an intentional community is the ability to learn from people of different backgrounds while learning of their understanding of the world and how their religious, academic, and life experiences have drawn them to the VVC program and the work it entails.”
mellen Mary Ellen Ostrowski hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but has spent the past two years living and working in Patient Care in Iowa and Wisconsin. Her recent work experience and degree in biology from Benedictine College (Kansas) has prepared her well for her VVC placement working in our Charitable Pharmacy.

“The program’s spiritual component shapes the way the service is performed. People are seen as children of God regardless of their creed, race, or socioeconomic status. There is so much brokenness in this world, and we are called to be Christ to others and meet them where they are and walk with them.”
spech Sarah Spech comes to VVC with Ohio roots, graduating from University of Dayton with a degree in English, and calling Willoughby Hills, Ohio, home. Wanting to write for a nonprofit, Sarah will put her education and experience to work, splitting her time with SVDP working with our Community Relations and Social Services departments.

“Living simply will help me to more fully enter into solidarity with those whose situations I am trying to help and understand. I want to make the commitment and push myself out of my comfort zone in order to better both myself and my relationships with others, as well as to gain experiences that will benefit me throughout my life.”

The Origins of Orientation

By René Betance, written 9/16/2016


If you have ever been new to any program or group, orientation is a frequent part of that experience. In my life, it has seemed like a burden. Just another monotonous task before I finally get to the fun stuff. I am someone who likes to jump right in, no need for instructions. I can figure it out on-the-job! As the second full week of my Vincentian Volunteer of Cincinnati year of service comes to a close, I am beginning to reassess my feelings on the word “orientation.”

The origins of the word orientation have a very evident root: orient. I am reminded of the Orient Express when I hear that. More importantly however, orient refers to direction. I graduated from Xavier University with a sense of purpose and identity. I knew that I wanted to pursue an intentional life where my decisions take many dimensions into account: the earth, the community, my family. I wanted to work in justice, taking my talents to pursue equity and equality in this world.

All of this was, unfortunately, without direction. One might say that I needed to be oriented. VVC orientation to the ways of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has served not just to orient my next year, but to orient my purpose and identity. I do not yet know where this will take me, but I can already see that I’m headed in the right direction.

Today also marks the end of my first retreat in my primary role as the Ozanam Center Coordinator. This means that I will be leading a significant amount of retreats throughout the year. I found myself absorbing an immense amount of information over the past few days. Nothing can be more humbling than seeing, not just how unprepared you are, but how amazingly prepared your co-workers are. Megan is a pro, a true veteran of the retreats.

This is one of the many ways that God has very evidently taught me a lesson in humility. In this lesson of humility, I am reminded that I still have so much to learn. In this lesson, I can hear the words of my mother, “Patience is a virtue!”

As this retreat ended, the high school retreatants and I are called to trust the process. This is my challenge and my orientation. The origins of orientation, my orientation, will be lessons I will reflect on all year. It’s only just begun.

Courage to Stay

“Grant Me”

by Jeanette Lesenko, written 11/13/15


Grant me the courage to stay

To be with those in pain

And to lean on others for support

When I can no longer support myself


Grant me the patience to be.




To listen with my whole heart

And accept that growth and change take time

When I become frustrated with myself or others


Grant me the honesty to give

To be true to myself and others

And stand up against the world’s injustices

As the rights of others are wrongly stripped


Grant me expressions of love

To show others my true colors

And feelings that can be filtered through

When the familiar logic of my mind conveys outer apathy


Finally, grant me your love

To fuel a well-intentioned spirit unconditionally

And accept me for all my shortcomings

Especially when I fall short of my best self


Jeanette-SelfieThis is a prayer-poem that I wrote in November of this past year with VVC. I wanted to encompass what I was feeling at that point in the year with all of the changes and adjustments that come with a new position, new insights on local injustices, a new community and dynamics, etc. It was the time of year for change, both inside and out, as the leaves changed and so did I. I wanted to start the poem off with a mantra that I had recently identified around this time- “Grant me the courage to stay”- one that I have cycled back to time and time again that has given me the strength and courage to continue on as I attempt to walk through my fears and insecurities this year rather than walk around or ignore them. Enjoy! – Jeanette Lesenko (in photo ,front and center)

“Charity begins at home…”

Photos of the place where charity begins.

Take a virtual tour of the VVC House with Amy…

“Charity begins at home and justice begins next door.” – Charles Dickens

Starting Small…

Tree with hands.jpg

I wanted to share a quote that I found recently while reading one of the e-mails that I receive through Dynamic Catholic; it reads:

“We cannot do everything, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We cannot save everyone, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t save some. Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. And what we can do, all of us, is make small sacrifices, and simplify our lives in some small ways so that others may simply live.”

Throughout my time with VVC, I have struggled with the amount of hardship I have seen our neighbors face, the social justice issues I have come to learn more about and sometimes the hopelessness and immense weight from all of this that I feel. I may not be the person directly facing these issues, but this feeling drives me to want some larger societal change. However, there are times where it all seems like so much that I don’t know where to start or how I could even make any sort of difference.

Now, that’s where this quote comes in…

I’m starting to learn that no matter what big changes I want to see in society or be a part of, I need to start small. I need to focus on the individuals I meet and finding some way to help them that may only work once, but I also need to think about finding avenues through which it could potentially influence their everyday life.

If there are ways I can help individuals or families, then that is better than if I never worked to serve my neighbors and their needs at all. Seeing the smile on someone’s face after talking with them or the joy I hear in their voice when saying “Amen” at the end of a prayer together reminds me that I am doing what I can do. It is in those brief moments that I know I am not allowing what I cannot do interfere with being present to the people and experiences right before me.

Starting small means I am present to my neighbors in need who I encounter every day. I know I can work to directly serve someone through home visits or walk with them through the Choice Food Pantry. I can listen to and share their stories.

Starting small includes educating myself about a particular issue and then sharing that knowledge with my friends, family, coworkers, etc. so that they are able to do the same. The more people who know about an issue, the more they are able to make informed decisions for promoting change in their own lives and others. It’s those small changes that can make a whole world of difference for another who is struggling.

Finding a place to start could be as simple as determining the issue I am most passionate about.

At this point, I cannot confidently say that there is one issue that stands out for me from the rest when it comes to advocating for change, but my mind has been focused most recently on food insecurities for families. After having a discussion about food injustice with my VVC community and Maura, I find myself looking at where my food comes from, the nutritional value it holds, and the cost of getting all the ingredients used to the dinner table. I have the opportunity to think about these things and make choices as to what I do eat, but not everyone has that chance. For many of the neighbors that I have encountered, there are times where they are simply grateful to know they will have food on the table for their next meal after visiting our Choice Food Pantry.

There is a little girl named Gracie that I have had the pleasure of seeing a couple times, and being able to sing and dance with her as she waits for her mother to go through our pantry intake process always brightens my day. But it also saddens me to think about how this little girl that is so full of joy and life may not have food to eat next week. I wonder what can be done to give her family the peace of mind to know they will always have food for their next meal. And not only that they have food, but filling, healthy food that will support their minds and bodies as they go about their day.

I know food pantries can act as something to fall back on when families are in need, but my constant question is: what can I do or what can others do to prevent families from getting tangled in that safety net? What can be done to provide them with some sort of food security?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I know I need to get to the root of a situation, explore it and then work to expose and transform that root. Then as the root influences the different branches it connects to, it results in some sort of change instead of continuing to support the injustice. Keeping the big picture in mind is important when it comes to wanting to make a change, but I also can’t let it discourage me.

And in the midst of it, I can’t forget to just be present to the people right in front of me. To put a face and a name to these issues and the impact these systems have on them.

After all, “we cannot do everything, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing.”

Amy bio photoNoser splits her time between our Ozanam Center for Service Learning and working with group and individual Volunteers to come to SVDP. In the midst of it all, Amy takes in all that she is experiencing – from her encounters with our neighbors who come to us looking for assistance to the conversations we have during weekly reflection. We know Amy has been paying attention, as her eating habits have shifted after our conversation on food justice…she sometimes eats her vegetables in the middle of her meals now, and not just before to get it over with!