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Poor on purpose: What these young adults learned from year of service in the West End

'We each have our own type of poverty'
Posted: 5:00 AM, Jul 20, 2018
Updated: 2018-07-20 12:17:45Z

CINCINNATI -- You can have plenty of money but still be poor.

That’s one of the lessons that Westwood native Jack Delisio learned while working for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati and living in poverty alongside his neighbors in the West End.

“There’s economic poverty, but there’s also spiritual and social poverty,” Delisio said. “We each have our own type of poverty, and we can help fill in each other’s gaps.”

Delisio is one of eight young adults who devoted the past year to work as Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati . The VVCs, as they’re called, lived together in an old rectory on Bank Street that’s owned by St. Vincent de Paul and earned a small monthly stipend. They will be eligible for a $5,800 educational award at the end of their service. But during their time as VVCs, they have bought their groceries with food stamps and have gotten around by walking or using the bus.

The Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati live in this building in the West End during their year of service. (Terry Helmer | WCPO)

This marks the sixth year for the local program and has been the biggest group of participants yet. It also has been the most impactful, said Maura Carpinello, St. Vincent de Paul’s director of service learning and one of the people who created the VVC program.

“They really were committed to trying to better understand and really walk in solidarity with our neighbors in need in a way that was somehow deeper and stronger than I’ve experienced,” Carpinello said. “They really were people committed to doing it and doing it very well and doing it very intentionally.”

Today marks their last day at St. Vincent de Paul on Bank Street. They will spend a few days in religious retreat next week and will be finished July 25.

WCPO began following several of the VVCs in September of 2017 to chronicle their experiences.

RELATED: Poor on purpose

We caught up with three of them in their final days of the program, and each said the experience has changed their lives.

Missing the mountains

Ana Davila grew up near the Adirondack Mountains, and her year as a VVC marked the first time she had lived in an urban environment.

That change has been the biggest challenge for her, said Davila, who is 23.

“I love to run, and to know that I can’t run safely in my neighborhood has been a really difficult thing,” she said.

Even so, Davila said she never felt like anyone in the West End treated her differently because of her gender or anything else, and she learned a lot about how a city can be beautiful in its own way.

“I think it’s a blessing that I had this opportunity,” she said.

Davila said she felt unprepared for the world of work after she graduated from college. But being a VVC taught her that she is qualified for the kind of work she wants to do and that she can be a valuable contributor.

“I’ve just gained so much confidence,” she said.

Ana Davila talking with a client at St. Vincent de Paul earlier this year. (Emily Maxwell | WCPO)

She has accepted a full-time job with L’Arche USA to work in a community in Syracuse, New York, for adults with disabilities. Davila had the option of living outside the community or living within the community of people she will serve.

Thanks to her time as a VVC, she chose to live as part of the community, she said.

“That’s just something I’m so excited for,” she said.

Before she begins that job, though, she will be flying to Kenya for a month of service alongside the Daughters of Charity and will spend some time with family after she gets back. Her twin sister has spent the past year doing service in St. Louis, so she is looking forward to having the whole family back together.

“I know my mom misses having myself and my twin sister around,” Davila said. “We’re excited to give her some time.”

‘Completely different’

Carmen Lopez Agredano hasn’t seen her family at all over the past year, and that has been the hardest part of being a VVC for her, she said.

She grew up in southern Spain and applied to the program after finishing graduate school in Europe.

Her first order of business when she gets home: “I will hug my mom and dad for like two hours,” she said with a smile.

But as much as Lopez Agredano has missed her family, she said she is grateful for her time as a VVC.

“The Carmen that came here 12 months ago is completely different from the Carmen that’s leaving,” said Lopez Agredano, who is 26. “It’s like they plant the seed, and during this year you kind of work on that seed. At the end, I felt more confidence and like I’m a better person.”

Lopez Agredano said this past year has taught her the importance of asking questions and talking to people rather than making assumptions because of their appearance or because of the little bit of information you know about them.

Carmen Lopez Agredano working with a client at St. Vincent de Paul this past winter. (Emily Maxwell | WCPO)

“There’s no black and white," she said. "There’s always gray, so you have to work on that. It’s a human person with feelings, dreams and hopes. You have to value and respect that.”

Lopez Agredano will head home in mid-August and will volunteer in her hometown as she continues to look for a job with a non-governmental organization in Europe, she said.

And while she doesn’t know exactly what that work will look like, Lopez Agredano said she knows she will take the lessons and values she learned as a VVC with her for the rest of her life.

“I don’t want to stop. It’s not like -- period -- and then another paragraph,” she said. “It’s like OK, you have a period, but then you continue all the things that I’m learning.”

‘A new perspective’

Then there is Delisio, 23, one of the two young adults from Cincinnati who were VVCs this past year.

A graduate of St. Xavier High School and Xavier University, Delisio wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his degree in history and classics after he completed his college studies.

Being a VVC gave him a chance to stay here in town but challenge himself and get more involved with the community, he said.

He loved the work so much that he accepted a paid position with St. Vincent de Paul in the organization’s social service department. He will start his new job Aug. 6, he said.

“This experience … it’s really shown me the importance of living in a diverse community and working in a diverse community,” Delisio said. “I don’t see a whole lot of people who look like me in this neighborhood. And I’m able to see things from a new perspective.”

Jack Delisio (Emily Maxwell | WCPO)

Delisio said the most difficult part of the year for him has been the view that people outside of the West End have of the neighborhood.

“And it’s also challenging to handle these changes that are coming to the West End community,” he said. “It’s difficult to hear these residents who are not sure if they’re going to be able to stay in their neighborhood where they’ve lived their entire lives.”

As tough as that has been, Delisio said he would recommend the VVC program to other young adults.

“It has helped me to get to know myself better and my skills and talents,” he said. “We have truly gained so much more than we’ve given. I really, truly mean that, especially from the people that we’re serving and living with in the West End.”

End of a ‘fun journey’

Delisio will keep receiving wisdom and insights from his neighbors as he continues his work at St. Vincent de Paul.

And soon a new bunch of VVCs will begin their own year of service, filled with their own lessons and challenges.

St. Vincent de Paul hopes to have as many as 10 young adults in the program for the upcoming year, Carpinello said. The new group’s move-in date will be Aug. 26.

Staff will be counting on those VVCs to help St. Vincent de Paul as the organization works to open a new outreach center across the street from its current location in the autumn of 2019, Carpinello said.

“We’ll need some increased staffing, and VVC is a great way to leverage that for us,” she said.

That new group will have a tough act to follow when it comes to living up to the promise of the VVC program the way his year’s group has.

“This group was particularly thoughtful in terms of their interactions with our neighbors in need. They were very deeply committed to sitting and being a listening presence,” Carpinello said. “It’s been a really fun journey to walk with this group in particular. I look forward to seeing where they go from here.”

Several of the VVCs preparing a meal together earlier this year. (Emily Maxwell | WCPO)

More information about St. Vincent de Paul or the Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty .

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may . To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.