By Cindy Starr
Valley Interfaith Community Resource Center (VICRC), a small charity, is a gem so well hidden that when its board leadership asked John Keuffer whether he might be interested in becoming their executive director, he had to pause. “I hadn’t heard of them,” said Keuffer, who was then directing the Sheakley Center at Lighthouse Youth Services.
Intrigued, Keuffer learned that the Lockland agency had existed as a food and clothing pantry for more than 50 years, while annually serving 4,000 to 6,000 clients from Upper Mill Creek communities, including Arlington Heights, Carthage, Hartwell, Lincoln Heights, Lockland and Reading. Ready for a new challenge, Keuffer (pronounced KEEF-er), stepped into the leadership role in 2017.
Since then, he has transformed the pantry into an emerging resource center that helps connect clients with services related to addiction, mental health, violence and job-readiness. “I took over with the goal and directive to really try to end generational poverty cycles, or disrupt those cycles,” Keuffer said. “A food and clothing pantry was just not going to achieve that goal. If you want to transition people out of their circumstances, you need to address some deeper issues, not just the symptoms.”
Equally important, Keuffer has financially stabilized the agency, which once depended on an angel donor to meet year-end deficits. VICRC now has a Better Business Bureau accreditation and a 4½-month reserve fund. “I’m not a big fan of multi-million-dollar endowments that sit out there and never get touched,” Keuffer said, “but you have to build for the future or you’re not going to serve anybody.”
Keuffer began the agency’s service transition by using food and clothing as a way to engage clients. “The design was to start asking a simple question that had not been asked before, and that is, ‘What brought you here?’ Keuffer said. “There wasn’t much interaction previously. We learned that there’s a certain percentage of people who are unable to educate or employ themselves out of their circumstances”
These difficulties ran the gamut, from housing insecurity and homelessness, to joblessness or inability to find childcare. A notable portion were victims of crime, including domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and elder abuse. Some had been diagnosed with a mental illness but were not seeking treatment, in part because they did not want to leave their neighborhood. “With gentrification, more people in poverty are being pushed out to the suburbs, and the suburbs don’t have the services to deal with it,” Keuffer said. “Many of these people can’t get downtown for services, or they choose not to.”
Keuffer knew his small agency could not hope to meet so many significant human needs on its own. Keuffer is the only full-time staffer, and there are only six part-time staffers. “Our name is community resource center. So we began to act like one and looked for partners who could meet those needs.”
VICRC partners with the Addictions Services Council, Julia’s Hope (in Hamilton), the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. To assist youth with mental health issues, Keuffer also created a partnership with St. Joseph’s Orphanage. That partnership has since been absorbed by the Lockland School District.
Superintendent Bob Longworth said Keuffer and his staff are a blessing to the Lockland community. “VICRC has contributed to our efforts and abilities to support our students and families in a number of ways.” Those include acquiring and distributing school supplies, providing clothing and meals to families, and helping students develop financial literacy and life skills.
Case managers from Addiction Services work side by side with VICRC volunteers, handing out food, lending an ear, and offering immediate help to clients who self-disclose an addiction. They have offices in the building, keys and a pass code, as do police officers from Lockland and Reading.
According to Adam Webb, mobile engagement supervisor at Addiction Services,“VICRC has provided us with a platform to be a part of the community in which they serve,” he said. “This allows us to build rapport and trust with individuals who may need our services.”
The word “Interfaith” in VICRC’s name honors its history of support from area churches and synagogues. “But there’s no faith that we’re prescribing or preaching or teaching,” Keuffer said. “We serve everybody, no matter your faith. We don’t preach; but if somebody asked, ‘Would you pray for me?’ I have some people who will pray for them.”
Keuffer came to the nonprofit world by way of a criminal justice career. He has worked as a police officer in Lincoln Heights, Elmwood Place and Terrace Park. During that period he did volunteer work at the Bob Hope House, an agency located in Mount Healthy that no longer exists. “I loved the place; it inspired me to do more,” Keuffer said. “I had a case where I’d actually arrested a kid for burglary, and that kid was then sent to the Bob Hope House. It was an interesting paradigm, where my job was formerly to get him off the street and now my job was to get him back.
That particular youth was able to recover, Keuffer said. “He was wonderful kid. He made a bad decision trying to make a quick buck for the family, not for himself. Not to justify it, but there are a lot of people trying to make a decision, and the Rolodex in their brain for choices is limited. His choice was limited.”
At VICRC, Keuffer seeks to continue building that Rolodex for his clients. “Our goal is to become a true community resource center where we’re using our food pantry as the engagement tool and where we have several agencies operating out of the building,” he said. “We see them interacting and engaging with people who come for food and clothing and learning about their deeper issues. Being a community-based referral network is our goal.”
This content sponsored by Valley Interfaith Community Resource Center.