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By Rachel Amiri

Christi Franko-Torack works in the kitchen at Our Lady’s Inn.

When she retired early from a successful career at Deloitte in 2021, Christi Franko-Torack didn’t know exactly what her future would hold. But she did know that her next chapter would focus on living out her mother’s lifelong motto: “Faith, family, friends and fun—in that order.” As a service member with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) in St. Louis, Ms. Franko-Torack has discovered that her service has taught her to be more present to others and to what God is doing in the world.

“Faith had always been a big part of my life, but I didn’t know how to listen. I didn’t know how to pause,” she said. “My involvement with IVC and Ignatian spirituality has really been a key piece in that journey to be more present and able to pause enough to feel God’s presence,” she added, reflecting on her one-and-a-half years of service.

The IVC is a national organization with chapters in regions throughout the country, including three in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province: Denver, New Orleans and St. Louis. Ignatian Volunteer Corps service members are retired or semi-retired adults who commit to 10 months of service, eight to 16 hours per week, in one of several partner agencies serving those on the margins and experiencing poverty, according to Sr. Amy Diesen, OSF, director of IVC St. Louis. In St. Louis, there are currently 30 IVC service members at 20 partner agencies.

Peggy Porter, an IVC service member for ten years, has served in several different partner agencies. She was inspired to join after her son’s positive experience with the Alum Service Corps. “It was a great program for him, so I thought, ‘Do this for a year and see what happens.’” Over time, she’s found that being around others doing good inspires and reaffirms her commitment to do the same.

Our Lady’s Inn

Peggy Porter prepares food at Our Lady’s Inn.

Ms. Franko-Torack and Ms. Porter serve at Our Lady’s Inn, a maternity home providing housing and support for pregnant women, and work with the office manager and volunteer coordinator to support daily operations.

“Essentially, I do whatever needs to be done,” said Ms. Franko-Torack. Ms. Porter agreed, and both described responsibilities such as answering the phone and the door, driving residents to doctor’s appointments and sorting donations. These interactions with the residents have brought a greater understanding of the lived experiences of the unhoused, and what it takes to move forward.

“It was eye-opening to me,” said Porter. “They need help, but it’s not just, ‘Here’s some help.’ It needs to be followed-through help.”

The case managers at Our Lady’s Inn support women in their efforts to find work, complete their education and transition to stable housing, even after they move out. And the environment of encouragement and support helps the women grow in self-esteem and pride in their accomplishments, according to Ms. Porter.

“One observation is just how hard it is to do something different,” Ms. Franko-Torack said. “There are so many assumptions we may make without understanding or trying to listen.”

Describing the challenges one of the residents faced in getting her older child to school, Ms. Franko-Torack contrasted them with her own experiences. “She had to take two buses, pregnant, very pregnant, with a child in a pumpkin seat to get her grade-schooler to school. And the next day it was raining, so she didn’t do it. How many of us had to take multiple city buses every day, through snow and rain to get our kids to school? I think sometimes there’s this assumption, ‘Well, just work harder and get yourself out of whatever situation you’re in.’ But it’s really hard.”

They also get to spend precious moments with the children who live at Our Lady’s Inn. “I will greet the kids,” said Ms. Porter. “I learn their names and say them to make them feel welcome. I ask, ‘What did you do at school today?’”

A highlight? The sleeping babies. “Those sleeping babies, I hold them, and it lowers my blood pressure,” said Ms. Porter. “You’re getting that [comfort] out of it, but you’re giving individual interaction to the children. I’m learning that the little things you do, even though they’re just little things, make that person have a better day.”

Service members hear a presentation from Fr. Ed Kinerk, SJ, at a community gathering of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.

Ignatian Spiritual Formation a Key Element of IVC

Integrating a spiritual formation component makes the IVC “Ignatian.” Service members receive personal accompaniment from a spiritual reflector and attend monthly meetings with the IVC community in the region.

“It’s a time for them to share their service experiences and how they are finding God in that. Sometimes a peer can point out something, and they can take it a little bit deeper,” said Sr. Amy.

These opportunities to share stories and engage more deeply with Ignatian spirituality with one another and through speakers and book studies, such as Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart, are deeply impactful for the service members. During a recent trip to California, Ms. Porter visited Homeboy Industries to see Fr. Boyle’s work with former gang members in action.

“Monthly meetings are great to be with good people who share their time,” said Ms. Porter, who points to the camaraderie of the IVC service member community as one of the main reasons she’s continued with the program for ten years.

Her regular meetings with a spiritual reflector through the IVC have helped Ms. Franko-Torack notice the sense of peace and calm gradually growing in her through her service.

“I think one of the biggest things for me has been the spiritual advisor, being able to meet with someone to help me discern and giving me what I’ll call ‘baby steps’ in Ignatian spirituality,” she said. She described the reflector as a kind of advisor or “coach,” who prompts her to ask, “How do I incorporate Ignatian spirituality where I am?”

Both Ms. Porter and Ms. Franko-Torack report incorporating the Examen into their IVC experiences as a way to remain grounded and present in their service and see God’s presence around them.

Ms. Porter uses the Examen to review her day of service in her journal when she returns from her site. She finds that reflecting on the “little things,” more than the accomplishments, helps her see the good in her day. “I sit down, and I think about it, not so that the day is just done, but to remember I did this or that; I made that person smile, laughed with somebody. It’s not miraculous—but little things.”

IVC service members gather for Mass.

Ministry of Presence

It’s been quite a change for Ms. Franko-Torack, who described having to “detox” from a fast-paced career that involved long working hours and a drive to achieve results, and who still can grapple with the feeling that she needs to do more.

Coming together at a monthly IVC member meeting, she shared her concerns with Ms. Porter, who reminded her of the importance and impact of simply being present.

“You know, sometimes it’s just a smile and greeting the women when they walk in the door with a smile and kindness,” Ms. Porter told her.

“I really reflected on that and took that to heart,” said Ms. Franko-Torack, who recalled a day she spent time with a school-aged child who lives at Our Lady’s Inn while her mom was busy.  “All I did was hold her hand, and we walked a loop around the office, and at the end, she gave me this big hug, and said, ‘That was the best day ever!’ That was from two to three minutes of holding her hand and being present with her.”

These slow, tiny moments have left a lasting impression.

“I really feel that God was showing me that it’s not about all these things you accomplish. It’s about being there and being truly present and literally walking with somebody.”

Or, as Sr. Amy added, “Sometimes it’s not a question of, you know, what you can do. But, ‘Here’s the needs. How can you serve?’”

While the IVC year runs from September through June, the program accepts new service members for placement at any time. Visit the IVC website for more information and to find an upcoming information session near you.

Learn more about the IVC from President and CEO, Mary McGinnity, in this episode of the AMDG Podcast.

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