Our Community

by Rene Betance

Where would I be without community?

Five of us. One from Nigeria, one from Cleveland, one from Wisconsin, one from New Jersey, and finally one from Mexico. A relatively strange group of people if you’re looking from the outside. We all have a very different way of engaging with the world. The five people that signed up for a year of service with St. Vincent de Paul all took very different paths to get here. Yet we have shared in that fulfillment, struggle, community, and passion that comes with being a VVC.

Given the craziness that has been my life the past year, I believe it is fair that I can’t peacefully say that this has been a great year. I’d be lying to you if living in community wasn’t one of my initial reservations about this year of service. You just never know who you’re going to live with. I was taking a chance with living with four strangers. But I can gladly say that these four friends of mine have helped me to overcome a year of political turmoil and change.

Regardless of where you stood during the election, the political climate in the United States is at a point of contention unlike any I’ve ever seen. That certainly made me feel a little hopeless about the direction of this country. Yet having the community I did, along with our ability to have productive political dialogues, made one of the most complicated political realities bearable.

The intensity of the work at St. Vincent de Paul can be daunting for people joining the workforce for the first time, then add in adjusting to a 8:00-4:30 schedule while trying to manage the emotions that come with seeing people who are experiencing levels of urban poverty we were not previously aware of. Despite all of the obvious challenges that a year of service brings, I don’t believe I speak alone in saying the benefits of a year of service, especially being in community, are invaluable.

After our midyear retreat for VVC, I had time to reflect on the progress that we’ve made as a community. Last time we were all on retreat, we were playing Uno and asking awkward questions about each other. Now we’re taking personality tests and saying how each of us fit our personality types. “Oh Fare, you’re such a 9!”

The important question is, how did we get here? I look at our progress as a result of vulnerability, intentional conversations, and challenge. Community hasn’t been easy; there were certainly moments that really frustrated me. I willingly take those frustrations with the joy community has brought me. The next five months are what get me excited. I can’t wait to see how we grow in the next months because, as of now, I don’t know where I’d be without community.


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.


The Importance of Retreat

Retreat. /rəˈtrēt/ (n.) an act of moving back or withdrawing.

By Sarah Spech

Retreat. /rəˈtrēt/ (n.) an act of moving back or withdrawing.

As part of our year with VVC, we are able to go on a mid-year retreat. Three days, almost exactly halfway through the program, with no work, (minimal) outside stress, and lots of community bonding. In the two weeks leading up to the retreat, there were many remarks of “I’m so ready for retreat” and the like from all of us.

Personally, it was needed even more as a renewal of enthusiasm for the work I do than anything else. While I thoroughly love the work I do, after so many months, it has become more of a “job” to get done than an act of service with a mission. Entering the retreat, I wanted to renew and refresh that sense of mission and the energy that I had. It’s so easy to grow away from the relational aspect of service and settle into the impersonal, transactional mentality of day-to-day tasks.


Warm weather, nature, time with community, and time to focus on the reason for the work we do were the necessary medicine.


(And fuzzy cows)


It makes me think about how in other years of my life, there was never the same time set aside for true retreat. While vacations can be relaxing, intentional time to reset and refocus while on retreat is rarely given priority (if ever). I have learned the necessity of leaving room for retreat in my future career. Even if that means vacation motivated and filled with my own intentionality to examine my life and goals.

It gives you a chance to refill your own cup. We were able to put intentional time into our individual and communal relationships, think deeply and critically about where we are in life and where we want to go, and center ourselves within ourselves in order to go out into the world, more solidly grounded within ourselves. And with a full cup, we are able to enter back into daily life, ready to give of ourselves to our neighbors in need.


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.

Living the Year of Mercy Beyond 2016

Through VVC, I am able to live the Corporal Works of Mercy and my faith in an active, tangible way.

By Mary Ellen Ostrowski

As I look back on 2016, I am struck with how blessed I was to be able to spend part of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy in such a meaningful way, through becoming a VVC and working as a Patient Advocate at St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati.

Through VVC, I am able to live the Corporal Works of Mercy and my faith in an active, tangible way. I am able to comfort the sick through my role as a patient advocate, assisting neighbors in receiving life-saving medication. I cloth the naked, by giving thrift store clothing vouchers to neighbors who sometimes only had the clothes on their backs. I help feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty by assisting in the Choice Food Pantry. I am able to (hopefully) be Christ to those that walked through the doors of our Outreach Center. I pray with people, listen to people, and give encouraging words to people. And even though looking back it seems like only a drop in the bucket, like it was a futile attempt to try and do something in a world so full of problems, I am reminded that even serving one soul makes it all worth it.

A quote attributed to Mother Teresa (a woman who exemplified living the works of mercy) sums it up perfectly, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” As I continue this VVC year of service in 2017, I am challenged to continue having an attitude of mercy with neighbors, with my community, and with myself.

But I encourage anyone reading this to also continue living a year of mercy every year. Do something. Do something big, small, short term, long term, helping one neighbor or a whole community, just do something. Have an encounter of mercy with your own neighbors. Remember that even seemingly small acts of kindness like sharing food or clothing can have an immense effect on those you serve and on your own life as well. Don’t let the immensity of the world’s problems cause you to be complacent or indifferent.

Don’t be afraid to make ripples! You never know what effect they will have on the world.


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.

Soul Food Feeds St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati

By Tim Barr


As people, we share common needs for both physical and spiritual nourishment. Physical nourishment could be anything along the lines of eating, being active, or actually doing something. Spiritual nourishment would consist of self-reflection, prayer, and creating a space to allow God’s presence in.


St. Vincent De Paul has been a common area where both of these needs have been met in one way or another, whether it be serving our many neighbors with food through our pantry or sitting down for a meal together as a staff. Praying with a neighbor is a staple of the organization and a strong foundation of hope through adverse times. We all share the common experience of our souls and the need for them to be nurtured.


In February 2015, we hosted the inaugural Soul Food Session potluck, recognizing and celebrating Black History Month and the many souls that have helped and are continuing to help create it. We host the lunch in celebration of black history and to further perpetuate the love culture that exists in it and its home here at St. Vincent De Paul.

Soul food, in essence, comes from a place of love and nourishment for the soul. A lot of the recipes consist of everyday things that people would just have “around the house.” I use that term loosely because, for a lot of black families, it would be the very last of what they had or everything they could afford, which wasn’t much. The beauty in soul food is that it’s made from very basic ingredients, but made with enough love to feed families for generations.


As we grow as an organization, it’s important to remember what’s at the core of our mission and the work we do: love. A recent study from the University of Chicago (Woolley & Fishbach) has proven that sharing meals or eating the same foods builds trust and cooperation within groups of people. The goal of the Soul Food Session potluck was to increase awareness and spark conversation about all the physical contributions of black culture to American history and the spiritual contributions to who we are as people.


Tim Barr is a former VVC and current volunteer coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati. His succotash was a huge hit at the potluck, and his recipe was requested many times.

Dissatisfied and Ready

In this year of transition and discernment I feel as though I am standing at a vantage point. I see similarities between my new environment and my place of origin and cannot help to quench the urge to find my niche in our complex society.

By Fare Olagbaju

I smile when I reflect on my journey from Lagos, Nigeria, to the West End of Cincinnati. My upbringing laid the foundation for my personal growth and deliberately conscious way of life. From a young age, in spite of the rebukes I received from elders who believed children were to be seen and not heard, I realized that questions are more important than answers. I stood out among my peers because I actively sought to learn more about the socio-economic mechanisms behind fast-paced Lagos, and the close-knit communities it comprised of. I could not come to terms with what I saw as my compatriots’ apathy about the curious state of our nation. However, as I grew older and became more cognizant of my relative privilege in society, I began to realize that the average Nigerian’s top priorities were not insight and enlightenment, but survival and sustenance.

The apathy I once perceived at home has come back as I leave the collegiate bubble and immerse myself in the “real world.” I left Nigeria at the age of seventeen to broaden my perspective of the world, but in the U.S., I have come to observe that people have been stripped of a sense of human dignity; in the land of the free and the home of the brave, I have found that many people still struggle to survive and sustain. My curiosity pushes me to pose the question, “Why?” But in my four and a half years in the United States, I have found that the inequality is not hard to see, especially for someone who looks like I do.

It has been a struggle to discern for myself who I am, but this year there is a new identity that I have taken on: I am a Vincentian. I have been called to live a holy life, to be humble, and to be of service to the poor. With the injustice and lack of love in the world, I have found that it is easy to burn out, especially when one takes on such a calling at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Dissatisfaction is a good thing, to not be content with societal inequities and always strive to foster hope for those who live on the margins.

So far, this year of service has led me to appreciate the human condition much more. In this year of transition and discernment, I feel as though I am standing at a vantage point. I see similarities between my new environment and my place of origin and cannot help to quench the urge to find my niche in our complex society. Simplicity has taught me to not worry, but to embrace discomfort and search for avenues to continuously learn and grow.

Over the course of my lifetime, I would like to bring people together to help build frameworks that enable communities to learn, grow, and hold leaders accountable. I want to go beyond helping our neighbors in need. I would like to search for alternatives to the current mechanisms that keep my neighbors in need.


To learn more about VVC, visit http://bit.ly/learnVVC

Hailing from Lagos Nigeria, Fare is a contemplative and curious individual, especially in subjects of Economics, Politics, Science, Arts, and Poverty. Aside from his questions and books, Fare is also sustained by chicken, music, bagels, and a profound sense of chill.

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 http://bit.ly/learnVVC

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 http://bit.ly/learnVVC

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 http://bit.ly/VVCapplication.

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 SVDPcincinnati.org/vvc, call (513) 562-8841 ext. 239 or email vvc@SVDPcincinnati.org.