Hesed House—Staying Steadfast in Challenging Times
The Hebrew word hesed is difficult to translate. It encompasses several concepts including loving kindness, mercy, and steadfast love. It’s a quality that moves someone to act for the benefit of someone else without considering “what’s in it for me?” Epitomizing these true hesed ideals, Ryan Dowd recently returned to the Aurora-based homeless shelter to reclaim his former role as executive director.
Dowd began volunteering at Hesed House when he was 13 years old. What started out as a church service event soon grew into a lifelong passion. “Even at 13, it just felt right being here,” said Dowd. He continued volunteering through high school and eventually landed a job there while completing his undergraduate work at North Central College and getting his masters in public administration and law degree from Northern Illinois University. Dowd served in various staff roles for 14 years including nine as executive director. Under Dowd’s leadership, Hesed House ministries tripled in scope, now housing more than 1,000 individuals annually.
After spending nearly half his life serving at Hesed House, Dowd left in 2013 to start his own nonprofit, the Center for Faith and Human Rights, in Washington D.C. “If you’re going to do human rights work, you pretty much need to move to D.C. or New York City,” Dowd explains. During his time out East, Dowd worked on human rights issues with churches and dictatorships in repressive countries. He also helped local immigrants with legal, social, and language services.
One day during his commute, Dowd was reflecting on what his dream organization would look like. “I had two epiphanies,” he explains. “The first was that there were probably only five organizations that look like the organization I was envisioning. And the second was that Hesed House was exactly that organization.” A few days later, he received a serendipitous call from Hesed House’s board chair asking if he would be interested in coming back. “The timing was impeccable,” said Dowd.
Focused on The Future
Now, back at the helm, Dowd is focused on the future. “My main goal is to survive the state budget crisis with as little damage to the organization and the homeless as possible,” he explains. “Unfortunately, just surviving is succeeding at this point for nonprofits in Illinois.”
Dowd is also focused on strengthening the organization. “Since the very beginning, Hesed House has been innovative in developing new models and trends in caring for the homeless. We don’t just do what everyone else is doing. If something isn’t working well, we find a way to do it better.” He also plans to help organizations throughout the country by sharing their successful models.
Despite the state budget crisis, Dowd finds inspiration in his clients’ success. “At the start of almost everyday I am greeted in the parking lot by someone telling me that they just got a job, or that they are moving out, or that they have been sober for 60 days. Starting each day with a gauntlet of success makes it much easier to get on the phone and deal with the funding challenges we face.”
Hesed House is Illinois’ second largest comprehensive homeless shelter and resource center. More than 6,000 volunteers assist Hesed House in its mission to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and give people the chance to hope again. In addition to providing meals and shelter to the homeless, Hesed House strives to provide the tools necessary to help individuals and families break free from the cycle of homelessness. For more information on volunteering and donating to Hesed House, visit hesedhouse.org.
Hesed House will host its 5th annual Kentucky Derby Gala at Embassy Suites in Naperville on May 7, 2016. For more info, visit www.hesedhouse.org.Photo by Robyn Sheldon