Never Too Late

Ignatian Lay Volunteers

by Carol Schuck Scheiber

Dickerson In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal, playing someone in a middle-aged slump, sums up life's stages. In his depression he cannot see much point to life at any age, but the latter years seem particularly dull. "At 50 you'll have a minor surgery, but you won't call it that. You'll call it a 'procedure,' but it's still a surgery. Sixties, you'll have a major surgery. The music is still too loud, but it doesn't matter because you can't hear it anyway. In your 70s, you and your wife retire to Fort Lauderdale. You start eating dinner around two in the afternoon, eat lunch at ten, breakfast the night before. You start spending all of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate soft yogurt, muttering, 'How come the kids don't call? How come the kids don't call?' "

But two Jesuits, Frs. James Conroy and Charles Costello, are betting that plenty of retired men and women are more interested in serving the poor than in finding the ultimate soft yogurt. With a belief in the prayerful good will of older Americans, the two are starting and codirecting the Ignatian Lay Volunteer Corps (ILVC), officially under way this September.

That is when about fifteen volunteers, five in each of the pilot cities of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, will form the first groups of ILVC volunteers. They will be doing everything from working at an AIDS hospice to developing a public-relations program at a community service center.

ILVC follows the tradition of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC): both organizations seek those willing to commit to a year or more of voluntary work, helping the poor and taking time to reflect on their experiences.

But there is a special twist to ILVC. While the JVC is designed for people in their 20s, ILVC is geared toward those 50 or older. And, unlike the JVC, whose members live with fellow volunteers in a community, ILVC volunteers will normally live at home while working about 20 to 30 hours per week.

One such volunteer is Frank Keevers, 59, a Georgetown grad ('57) and a semiretired urban planner and community organizer from New Orleans. He was looking for spiritual development tied to service when he learned about ILVC, and he has signed on to work from September to December this year as an urban planner with North Capitol Neighborhood Development in Washington, D.C. Keevers is one of ILVC's exceptions to the live-at-home rule; he will live and work for those months in D.C., with the blessing of his wife, Suzanne, also a Georgetown grad ('59), who will stay in New Orleans to run her law practice.

Keevers's forthcoming volunteer effort is a prime example of how ILVC hopes to channel expert talent into needy communities. In return for only a modest living stipend for his four-month D.C. stay, North Capitol will benefit from the expertise Keevers honed during the 25 years he spent in public planning and development. North Capitol, like most community development groups--nonprofits that breathe economic life into depressed areas-- cannot afford the luxury of a full-time urban planner.

"Most organizations don't develop a plan as much as they react to opportunities for development," says Paul McElligott, executive director of North Capitol Neighborhood Development. "Frank will develop a framework for the physical improvement of the neighborhoods," says McElligott. "It will include commercial, retail, residential, and light industrial improvements in view of the city's plans and zoning, which are more general. It will be very helpful to us. No plan exists now."

Another ILVC volunteer is Margaret Dickerson, the first person to sign on as an ILVC volunteer (her affiliation began in spring 1995). She brings her own brand of expertise to her setting. The mother of five grown children and a widow in her 60s, she shares her decades of child-rearing experience with homeless families at Philadelphia's Mercy Hospice, working about fifteen hours a week with the children there.

"I'd worked with the young people of the JVC, and I thought it would be good to have a group like that for people my age," says Dickerson. "Many of them, widows and widowers alike, are lonely. ILVC is a good way for them to get involved; there's so much out there to do."

Indeed, there is plenty to be done. ILVC's founders hope to channel the energy, wisdom, and skill of retired and semiretired Americans toward addressing some of the nation's thorniest social problems. "All across the country there are enormous numbers of lower-income people in the cities. Federal programs are getting cut, so groups addressing the problems are strapped for financial and human resources," says Conroy. At the same time, he continues, there are older adults with polished skills "who want to do service, who want to be helping other people."

Conroy first ran into older Americans with the same desire to serve that Keevers and Dickerson have when he was novice director for the Jesuits' Maryland Province. He used to give talks to parents and friends of novices about the Jesuit vocation. "I would speak about the things the Society did, and people would say, 'That's what I want to do.' They were talking about a desire to take seriously the experience of God in their lives and to manifest it through some kind of service."

Costello, with 30 years' experience in educational administration, has been impressed by the number of lay people working in Jesuit schools who are committed to Ignatian ideals of service and justice. "I've run into remarkable people who have an Ignatian sense of the world," he says.

Keevers's and Dickerson's interests melded so well with the ILVC program in particular because both are eager for the spiritual nourishment the program offers with its emphasis on prayerful reflection as much as the "doing" side of service.

"It's extremely important," Dickerson says about reflection. At the shelter she deals daily with families and individuals torn apart by drugs, violence, and poverty; "I bring so many mixed emotions from work," she says. "I need to be close to the Lord." Dickerson already meets regularly with Costello to discuss and pray over her experiences.

"I felt a need for more spiritual formation, both for my sake and for those I work with," says Keevers, a father, grandfather, and longtime community leader. "You can't give what you haven't got. And when you come down to different issues, people need a deeper motivation to persist in the search for solutions than you get from being a good citizen. That's where spirituality becomes indispensable. For me, the motivation has to be a spiritual one."

Conroy likes to quote T. S. Eliot's poem "The Four Quartets" when talking about the reflection side of the ILVC: "I had the experience but missed the meaning." Conroy and Costello don't want volunteers to miss the meaning.

"It's on the level of reflection that our greatest hope lies because that's where the human heart is transformed," says Conroy. He sees the transformation of each volunteer--through prayer and reflection--as tied to social transformation. "When volunteers begin to see things differently, by the work they do and by the communion they enter into with other people, that's a spiritual communion. God is deeply immersed in the human experience. The more we get people to reflect on that, the richer it's going to be."

Although Dickerson and Keevers will expend great skill and energy in this new program, they are not concerned about being among the first guinea pigs. Dickerson had already decided years before ILVC to dedicate her remaining years to helping the poor "in gratitude for my many blessings." And Keevers, who is leaving a community-organizing job for his Washington position, says, "ILVC is an adventure. That's what this point in my life ought to be like. I'm not a flaming nonconformist, but I don't mind breaking new ground, either."

Costello points out that ILVC's birth flows from the Jesuits' renewed commitment to cooperating with the laity, voiced at last spring's general congregation. "When lay and Jesuit incarnations of Ignatian spirituality come together, a whole new dynamism is created," he says. "ILVC has great potential. What we've already experienced with the first volunteers is wonderful."

Within America's retired population lies tremendous untapped energy for serving the poor and growing spiritually. Most of the more than 200 church-based volunteer groups are designed for young, single people or younger married couples without kids. While many lay mission and religious volunteer programs accept people over age 55, no other such program is organized exclusively for older adults.

"There are tremendous reserves of skill, talent, energy, and money out there," Keevers says about the retired population, whose ranks are growing larger as baby boomers age. "There is a great desire for fulfilling activity."

Jim Conroy and Charlie Costello are betting on that.

Carol Schuck Scheiber is a writer and editor based in Toledo and a previous contributor to Company magazine.