Humble, hands-on servant to those in need
– By Julie Kemble Borths
Two weeks before James “Jim” Dodd retired from Fifth Third Bank, he had a lunch that changed his life.
The director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati was following up on a contribution Dodd had made and suggested that he take a tour. Dodd, who had been a senior vice president of institutional trusts, was no stranger to nonprofits, but for the first time he felt “called.”
“That’s the only way I can describe it,” Dodd said. “I had never felt anything like that.”
So his first week of retirement, he was working at the food pantry at St. Vincent de Paul on Bank Street. Soon after, he served on its first advisory board. He expanded his work as president of the regional St. Vincent de Paul, organized through the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. And now, 10 years after that first lunch, he is becoming treasurer of the national St. Vincent de Paul organization.
For all these reasons, he was named Volunteer of the Year by the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and will be honored at the National Philanthropy Day luncheon on Nov. 9. Tickets are $65, available until Oct. 30 at tinyurl.com/2017NPD
Claire Luby, development manager of St. Vincent de Paul, said Dodd embodies the spirit of the organization in his “humility, simplicity and service to the poor.”
“Jim’s volunteer work is his life,” Luby said. “It isn’t a separate thing.”
Dodd doesn’t just do the big stuff. He continues to work at the food pantry and joined Christ the King parish in Mount Lookout, serving as a member of its St. Vincent de Paul committee. Its work includes visiting families in need as well as gathering leftover goods at a local bakery to take to the food bank.
St. Vincent de Paul in Cincinnati encompasses 57 conferences. Based almost entirely in Catholic parishes, they respond to calls by sending out two “Vincentians” to visit with the family and assess its needs. Dodd said the visits are powerful. “Sometimes we are the first people who have really listened to their story,” he said. “And the issue might be that they are out of food – and we can help them with that – but maybe they also have a health concern, or need a bed, or are going to have a problem paying the utility bill. We make referrals, make connections and do what we can.”
On one visit, an elderly couple needed help with a rent payment. But by listening to their story around the kitchen table, Dodd and a fellow Vincentian learned the couple desperately needed eye exams and eyeglasses. St. Vincent de Paul assisted with vouchers so the couple could go to an eye doctor.
“It’s a different experience than what many of these people in poverty are used to,” Dodd said. “They tell us they really appreciate us returning their phone call or coming to visit.”
Dodd has learned that three things – affordable housing, reliable transportation and dependable child care – need to be stabilized for families to emerge from poverty: “We’re kidding ourselves if we think just job training is going to do it,” Dodd said.
The Cincinnati program goes beyond emergency assistance for the poor. It also includes medical clinics; a free prescription drug program; educational events for the community to learn about poverty; and services for people getting out of prison. Community members make all of this possible when they drop off goods or make purchases at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shops; give financial gifts; or donate used vehicles.
“What makes us strong is the more than 1,000 Vincentians volunteering on the ground,” Dodd said. “And we are blessed here in Cincinnati because of our thrift stores,” which bring in revenue as well as provide clothing and household goods to those in need.
Developing a stable revenue stream is something Dodd understood after a career in banking. So he put his experience to work early on, setting up a Legacy Society. “I think I can add value when I do these things,” he said. “Otherwise, it would require paid staff.”
Luby said others at the organization are “so drawn to his spirit” that they are energized by Dodd.
“And what is really powerful is that he still learns from whom he is serving. He inspires me in my work to do even more.”
Dodd said being a part of St. Vincent de Paul has impacted his life in ways beyond his expectations, particularly spiritually. “Being involved here really changed me,” he said.
The families he serves have touched him deeply, he said. A mom of three, for example, was connected to job training and other services and now supports her children with a full-time job. The children are stable, in school and now have a mother who shows them every day how to get beyond poverty.
In another encounter, a solemn-looking Muslim woman smiled broadly when he produced a large container of hummus from the food pantry, instead of making excuses for not having much for a vegetarian to eat.
And one day, he recalled, two preschool boys shyly approached him at the food bank after he helped their mother select some groceries. “You’re nice,” the one said. “You don’t yell at us,” said the other.
Moments like that warm Dodd’s heart, but they remind him how cruel poverty can be.
“What we really are about is charity and justice,” Dodd said. “This work drives home the need to change things.”