Peter got into the nonprofit world of serving the marginalized and those living in poverty “by accident.” From a young age he aspired to be a high school principal, like his role model Uncle John. Peter received his undergraduate degree in education and entered into his student teaching position with his eye on the prize—he was perfectly on track to achieve and make his occupational goals come to fruition.
Until a group of uninterested, struggling, low-income students caught his attention. “It was a group of students unlike anything that I had ever experienced before…I didn’t know how to reach them, how to engage.” Recognizing that not knowing how to relate to this specific population would prove to be detrimental to him not only in the context of teaching, but also throughout his career as he ascended to the coveted role of principal, Peter took action. Knowing that he needed to better understand students from diverse backgrounds and low socio-economic statuses, he decided to take a year-long position working for Father Flanagan’s Boys Town—a group home aimed at engaging and helping young men from adverse circumstances turn their lives around. “I knew it was going to be awful…that it would be hard…that I would not enjoy it,” Peter said. But he also knew that it was necessary.
But something strange happened. Peter didn’t hate it. It wasn’t awful. In fact, he asked to extend his contract for another year. And then another. And then another. And then he knew it was time to change his trajectory and his career path. “The work that I was doing and the clients I was serving were inspiring and interesting…my career path really just morphed from that point on.”
Peter Vogel has been the CEO of Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada (CCNN) for over 7 years. He has catalyzed the organization to tremendous growth and success, expanding the range of services and the diversity of programs offered to include everything from giving warm meals to the homeless to providing supportive housing to ex-convicts to doing rural outreach that spreads to 16 of Nevada’s 17 counties. I had the chance to sit down with Peter and speak with him regarding his thoughts on poverty, what our community needs, and how we can all be better and more engaged members of our community. The following are excerpts from my interview.
What are some ways that CCNN is making a difference in our community?
The way that we look to make a difference with the populations that we serve and in the community is really two-fold. When I first came here we were really an agency that focused on helping those who were homeless–a little bit of work with the folks on the fringe, but predominately work with folks who were homeless. I really came to the conclusion fairly quickly, that while the homeless population absolutely needs help it is fairly challenging in some cases to really improve their life situations dramatically. So we can assist and try to keep them fed, and meet their basic survival needs, but our primary focus needs to be more broad. It needs to really be about those folks who we can impact more significantly, the ones on the fringe of homelessness and stability. This approach is cost-effective, humane, and with every rationale that you can think of it makes sense to try to help people from falling into a homeless state…And we are talking about people, families and individuals, who generally can sustain themselves and then one crisis hits, one depression comes, a car blows up and they just don’t have the means to pay for another one and can’t find transportation to their job. It is those kinds of things where they are just teetering on the edge that can cause major havoc in their family situation–those are the situations that we are trying to impact a little bit more.
I think that the other way that we really need to look at this is as a community. We are here to help and there are lots of agencies that are really ultimately looking at the same population and trying to assist. I really see our role as being a gap filler where we look at the community and go where are those untapped needs, where are those areas that families and people really need help that there are no supportive services for and that should be the driving factor for us to sort of fill those gaps. Our role is not competition–it is to work with other organizations, to partner with them, support them, and to help them be better.
What can we, as average citizens in this community, do to help the poor?
Go get involved. Go! That can look a thousand different ways. I think what happens a lot is that people come up with perceptions of what a homeless person is like or the motivation behind them being homeless–they say things like “these people want to be homeless,” and I will say that I have worked in this field for almost 37 years and I have never met someone who truly wants to be homeless. They may make a statement like that as a type of defense mechanism–but that is not reality. All you need to do is come down to our Saint Vincent’s Dining Room and volunteer for a day–not every day, not even once a week, just come down and do it once. Figure out a way to get involved. What we really don’t want people to do is hand people on street corners money, that is really just amplifying the problem. Direct people to our Dining Room if they are hungry. Sit down and think through what you can do in your part of the world to help. It might look like sending $5 to a not for profit that is doing work that you like or it might look like going to volunteer. Go ask those folks who you really trust in your community, the ones who are working with challenging populations.
We have some significant gaps between the wealthy and the poorest in our country, gaps that this planet has never seen before. And we don’t seem to have enough empathy for those at the bottom who are really struggling. We just don’t have enough empathy. So, that is what I would suggest–get out there and give back and get engaged. Because if at the end of the day we begin engaging and get our community engaged we will be able to do so much more. We need to get government and nonprofits to collaborate. The more people who get involved, the more people who say this is unacceptable to have people living in these conditions in the United States–it is unacceptable for people to not have healthcare or dental care or housing–the closer we get. But it is easy to not see. Again, I would say what you can do is go, go and get involved.
So today, I echo Peter’s challenge. Go. Go get involved. Whatever that might look like, whatever that might be, do it. Go!