For the first time in more than 30 years, I had free time on my hands.
As 2011 drew to a close, I left my job at NBCUniversal after Comcast purchased the media company from GE. I had been the executive vice president of Media Production, running an operating group with 1,000-plus employees and a $400 million budget. And I was connected to a CEO who was moving on. It wasn’t hard to see it coming.
Although leaving a job that I loved along with cherished colleagues and a great paycheck was not easy, I knew I had it much better than most people. I still had time on my contract. I had a cushion. I’d take a financial hit, but I could manage.
I decided to take some time. Time to devote to my children. Time to travel. Time to finally learn that beautiful guitar arpeggio opening on the Rolling Stones’ version of “Love in Vain.” Any remaining time, I’d devote to helping others. I’d take some time for myself and then get back to work. That was the plan.
That plan was flawed.
I immediately missed the pressure and challenge of my job. I missed my friends. My time off was anything but a break — anything but comfortable. I decided to take a more active role in my volunteer work.
After Super Storm Sandy hit the east coast in October 2012, I worked with the Notre Dame Club of New York City and AmeriCorps to lead cleanup teams in the Rockaways in Queens, New York, and at the Jersey Shore. I helped produce a series of small benefit concerts for charity using local musicians. I did pro bono consulting to several small businesses and startups, and then began discussions with some venture capitalists, consulting firms and media companies about full-time work.
All these things helped. But nothing completely filled the void.
Looking for some relief while I searched for something meaningful and challenging to occupy my time, I decided to volunteer at Eva’s Village, a local charity based in Paterson, New Jersey.
At the time, I thought that Eva’s was just a soup kitchen, but I quickly learned it was much more. The organization actually has 20 different programs to help people who are struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction and/or mental health issues get back on their feet. (See related article.)
Like a well-run business, Eva’s Village takes a comprehensive approach to providing services and always keeps the focus on the customers (or clients, as Eva’s calls the people in its programs). It all comes down to what you can do to help the clients. You may get a benefit as a volunteer, but that’s not the point. I experienced this first hand as my role with the organization grew.
I began my volunteer work in Eva’s Community Kitchen, where the clients are seated at tables and are served restaurant-style by the volunteers. From there, based on my skills and experience, I was asked by the Eva’s team to get more involved. I moved to the workforce development program where I helped clients in the substance abuse program create résumés and polish their interviewing skills.
I certainly had my share of difficult, high-pressure assignments throughout my schooling and career, but nothing could have truly prepared me for the challenges I faced when I first started volunteering in workforce development.
While some of Eva’s clients come from safe home environments and steady employment, many others have had very traumatic pasts with no stability, and have never been able to hold down a job. Many of the people I’ve worked with had completed prison sentences just days before I met them. They usually seemed defeated; some were skeptical about the program, some were confused and angry.
These were individuals at a major crossroads in their lives, and I had only a few hours a week to help guide them onto a path toward employment and success.
Since many have criminal records and have been incarcerated, helping the client effectively address their past mistakes during the job search process is very important. It’s heartbreaking to
know the difficulties these hurdles create in their path to recovery, but it is inspiring to see the workforce development program. It’s also
encouraging to see global businesses such as Aramark and Chili’s partnering with Eva’s Village by conducting mock job fairs and offering guidance and support to Eva’s clients.
A few years ago, when an Eva’s board member heard about my efforts in workforce development, he told me about plans to open a culinary school — a popular career choice with many nearby jobs and potential partners — and asked me to join the advisory board. At that time, my only real experience in food services was working atthe South Dining Hall at Notre Dame to help pay my tuition. But they still wanted me to get involved.
Working with Eva’s staff and the board, we hired an executive chef and opened The Culinary School at Eva’s Village in 2014. The school has now graduated six classes of students with 86 percent securing permanent positions in the food service industry.
To launch the school and place such a high percentage of graduates in jobs has taken a coordinated effort across all of Eva’s Village programs.
One of Eva’s many success stories is a woman named Wanda, who first came to Eva’s a few years ago through the Community Kitchen and emergency shelter. She had been struggling with addiction for more than 20 years, had no stable living situation and no real job training. With the support of the staff and volunteers at Eva’s, she was able to get clean and begin to think about her future. At the time Eva’s was opening the culinary school, and Wanda enrolled in the very first class. She graduated in September 2014, and is now employed full time — and has a stable home in Eva’s Village Apartments.
More recently, when I mentioned to another board member that for a long time I had thought Eva’s was simply a soup kitchen, he asked me to use my media training to help change that perception by joining the marketing committee, producing videos and telling stories like this one.
While producing these videos, I often have difficulty concentrating on the routine, technical issues of a video production (lighting, audio, camera focus and so on) as former clients tell me about their struggles.
One client — Eric — who is now vice president of Eva’s Alumni Association and has been working and clean since 2009, recounted being led in shackles by two court officers through Eva’s Village front door. As an Eva’s staff member was completing the transfer paperwork, Eric recalled how receptionist Josephine (Miss Jo) DeWitt politely, but firmly, told the officers, you can take those cuffs off him; he’s with Eva’s Village now. Miss Jo’s simple act of kindness changed his life and set him off on his path to recovery.
The thing that has impressed me most about Eva’s Village over the years is the way the staff combines a compassionate and respectful approach to helping others with a great “business plan” and terrific execution.
This combination of heart and mind has always reminded me of my time at Notre Dame and the education I received at the College of Business Administration. To be successful, you need to know your customers/clients, know your market, develop a smart plan, work hard, execute flawlessly, get the word out and be flexible. This is exactly the approach Eva’s takes in its business of helping people.
In the end, that hole that was left when I stopped working — that yearning for something challenging and goal-oriented — ended up being fulfilled at Eva’s Village.
I thought I would fill up some hours in my day by volunteering while I looked for meaningful and exciting work. After all, I had experienced a lot of highs in my career so far, from watching Usain Bolt break the 200-meter world record in Beijing in 2008, to standing on the steps of the Capitol Building in January 2009 for President Obama’s inauguration.
But as it has turned out, the time I spend as a volunteer at Eva’s helping people turn their lives around has been some of the most challenging and inspiring work of my life. The pay’s not great (meant facetiously since I’m a volunteer), but the rewards are immeasurable.
Many in the Notre Dame family are doing remarkable things to help people all over the world. But like some, before I volunteered at Eva’s, my efforts were limited to volunteer days through my workplace or writing a check.
Don’t be like me. Don’t wait.
Start today. Use your skills and expertise and some of the money you’ve earned from your Notre Dame degree to help. Find and support a well-run local charity. If you can’t find one, start one. If you really are too busy, send a check to a charity, or follow the examples of organizations such as Aramark, Chili’s and the New York Giants whose players and families help out at Eva’s and ask your company or team to lend its expertise and support.
If you’re very well-off or connected to a foundation, think about making a large contribution to a well-run, innovative charity such as Eva’s Village. Although Eva’s receives some government support, many of its programs receive little or no public aid and therefore depend on individuals, businesses and foundations for funding.
At a time of great fear when some national figures, for their own political gain, fan the flames of class divisions by blaming the poor and needy, ignore the nonsense. Think clearly and help solve these tough problems.
Ultimately, my contribution to Eva’s Village is limited. I’m just a utility player on a championship team. So many of Eva’s staff and board members, former clients, volunteers and donors have done so much more. That’s not false humility; that’s the simple truth.
But I do know that the little I have done has made a difference to a few people. In the end, that’s all that matters.