Hesed House director still believes in miracles

By on December 25, 2009

by Susan O’Neill
SUGAR GROVE—Sugar Grove resident Ryan Dowd makes no small plans. Ask the director of the Aurora-based Hesed House what his goals are for the organization, and his answer is simple.

“We’re trying to save the world,” he said with a smile.

Dowd began his first paid work for Hesed House 10 years ago this month, as a part-time employee in the emergency shelter.

The shelter, the second largest of its kind in Illinois, provides an overnight place to stay, take a shower, do laundry and receive a meal.

In addition to providing a person’s basic emergency needs, however, Hesed House also provides a myriad of services that help to identify and break through the person’s individual barriers that prevent them from escaping the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

Whether it is mental illness, alcoholism or substance abuse, a medical or legal issue or something else, a case manager will work with the individual and other professionals to help the person create a plan.

“The idea is to help the person develop a plan to get out of here,” Dowd said.

A less tangible goal for both Dowd and the agency as a whole is to allow people keep their dignity throughout the process.

“Poverty doesn’t have to be undignified,” he said. “It’s just a lot harder. And with extreme poverty, it’s almost impossible.”

He said that the ways through which he attempts to treat the individuals who come to Hesed House with dignity are, on the surface, all the little things.

“You don’t have to say yes to everything people ask for,” he said. “But you can say no in a way that preserves an individual’s sense of self-worth and self-value.”

Remembering people’s names and using them, trying to shake as many hands as he can, and trying to remember people’s birthdays are just a few of the ways he tries to do this.

Allowing someone to do something for him is another. His favorite time of the day is the morning, when the person who empties his waste basket comes to his office.

People who spend the night are expected to do chores and take on some responsibilities. It may seem like a little thing, he said, but it’s an opportunity for that individual to give him something.

“I am thankful that every morning he and I have the opportunity to trade places where he has what I need, and the only payment I can offer is my gratitude,” he said.

As for saving the world, he said the fact that there are 16 new people who show up at Hesed House each week motivates him to help 17 people to move on.

“If we just did that, we would end homelessness in five years,” he said.

If that seems naive, Dowd would say that in the 10 years he has been with Hesed House, he continues to see miracles. There is the person that seems like he will never get it right, who all of a sudden does.

He also feels that God looks out for Hesed House in a myriad of ways.

For example, although the food pantry has run out of food for a period of time, they have never had to turn anyone away. Just when things look bleak, someone will show up with a truckload of food. A man with size 14 feet needs a pair of shoes, and in the next clothing donation is a pair of size 14s.

Dowd marked his 10-year anniversary with Hesed House on Dec. 1. He celebrated by recalling the beliefs that originally brought him to Hesed House and that, 10 years later, keep him coming back.

• One person really can change the world.
• Every person is of equal value, even if their bank accounts aren’t.
• The average person can, and will, save another’s life if given the opportunity.
• Good triumphs over evil, eventually, if good has the courage to persist and suffer through persecution.

Hesed House, located in the old incinerator building on River Street in Aurora, is a one-stop shopping mall of nonprofits serving poor and homeless persons. Located within Hesed House
is Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry, Inc., one of the largest food pantries in Illinois; Aurora Soup Kitchen, Inc., which serves nutritious meals to families and individuals in need; and Public Action
to Deliver Shelter, Inc., which has multiple residential and non-residential programs for homeless families and individuals.