In order to carry out the Jesuit tradition of serving the poor while also helping the organizations that serve them, volunteers of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps serve throughout the Diocese of Buffalo. The organization is a recent addition to Western New York, having expanded here in February. Jesuit priests found the group, which pairs semi-retired men and women with service groups, in 1995.
The organization's local chapter is based at St. Michael Parish in downtown Buffalo with the assistance of both the Bishops' Council of the Laity and a $32,000 grant from the Oishei Foundation to help get off the ground. IVC targets people ages 50 and older willing to commit to 600 hours of service per year, generally two days a week, serving non-profits in various capacities based on their unique skills.
"Ignatian Volunteer Corps is a national organization with 17 regional districts throughout the United States," explained Minnie Wyse, the regional director for IVC in Buffalo. "They provide mature men and women who are semi-retired and retired to serve the poor, work on issues that revolve around social justice, and to reflect on their work through the gospel in the Ignatian tradition."
When one looks at growing needs of communities in need, such as Buffalo, and considers funding cuts to non-profit agencies, this creates a gap where these service groups will often need additional help. The volunteers IVC recruits and places are professionals with experience in the fields of medicine, teaching, social work, administrative fields and professional development, which helps to rectify this.
"IVC bridges the gap and really creates a good partnership for these agencies, and a solution for some of the growing concerns and needs," Wyse said. "We place skilled professionals in these agencies that work directly for the poor, providing just those services. For example, if an agency needed a medical professional, then we would place that professional there that can assist with supervision from the service site, and assist in meeting those needs. Many of the agencies around Western New York are volunteer driven."
When asked about placements, Wyse said IVC has a volunteer serving at NativityMiguel Middle School on the East Side of the city of Buffalo. "NativityMiguel takes the poorest of the poor kids, and they take a holistic approach to educating the students. Not only are they educated with academics, but they learn social skills, and they learn how to be advocates for themselves," Wyse commented.
IVC was formed in the diocese with the work of Kevin Merriman, a local attorney, who completed the 19 Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. When he was finished with the annotations, he saw a need to continue his missionary work and foster a partnership between the large Jesuit community at St. Michael's, and create partnerships within the community to address poverty in Western New York.
Merriman was also instrumental in recruiting eight core people to compile a feasibility study and work with the national IVC office, based in Baltimore, to see if there was a need in Western New York. Once that was agreed upon, they began fundraising. In addition to the bishops' committee and the Oishei Foundation, the donors included First Niagara and the Jesuits, which led to Wyse becoming regional director.
"St. Michael's is a Jesuit parish, and that's where he did the spiritual exercises. Father Benjamin Fiore, SJ, agreed to be chaplain and really spearheaded this," Wyse said. "The Jesuit community at St. Michael's, in particular, allows us to have an office in their parish - it's pro bono. He's really the guide between connecting the Jesuit community and providing the spiritual reflection pieces for our volunteers."
Father Fiore added of IVC's beginnings, "We're off to a good start. We've gotten some good interest from different agencies and institutions that could use the help. Where we're struggling a little bit is getting volunteers to come forward, but that's an ongoing process. My hope is that people who do retire, but still want to be active - and I think most retired people today do - and use their professional competencies, will come forward to help out some of the area agencies on a limited basis." Father Fiore noted it is not just community service, but also reflection to help the volunteers continue to grow in their spiritual life.
In addition to serving in the community, IVC volunteers are also asked to reflect on their spirituality and the meaning of their service by logging their activities and praying about what they are doing, through the Gospel and in the Ignatian tradition. Once a month, volunteers also meet to share their positive experiences with one another, which is an important aspect of coming together for the common goal. IVC has five memorandums of understanding with local organizations looking for volunteers to help them.
For those who are interested in joining IVC, Wyse asks individuals what causes they are specifically concerned about, as well as how their talents can make a difference in related organizations. IVC provides information on some of the service sites it has placements with in order to ensure there is a good match between the volunteer and the organization. Volunteers are also invited in for spiritual reflection.
"Oftentimes, the potential volunteers are a little concerned about the time commitment," Wyse added. "It's one or two days, but we really prefer two days, six hours each for 10 months, so it's a total of about 600 hours a year, and then to meet once a month as a community to share our faith and where we see God in all things, which is part of the Ignatian and Jesuit mission, and to meet one-on-one with the reflector, as well as journaling. That part of this model has been what's been the draw for the volunteers."