Motivated to Create Change
Whatever the need, the Vincentians have been there to provide guidance, support, and inspiration. One program, Inn Dwelling, is making a communal impact by addressing what it takes to bring about systemic change to students, families, and the community.
INN DWELLING: THE EARLY DAYS
It was the early 1980s in Germantown, Philadelphia. People who have lived in the area for decades remember the struggles the city encountered. They also remember an unassuming Vincentian who seemed to be everywhere at once, working diligently to help the large number of people in need of services. Br. Alfred Smith, CM—fondly known as Br. Al—was working closely with the needs of the elderly and shut-ins. His home base was St. Vincent’s Catholic church, where he, the parishioners, and many volunteers served five hundred elderly men and women who lived alone in nursing and boarding homes. Whatever their needs were, the team at St. Vincent’s Parish did whatever they could to help.
Then things took an interesting turn. A local boarding home owner asked the parish if they would manage their residence, and Br. Al was asked to spearhead the effort. His first task: gathering a team that would make the home safer and more livable for its sixty-five elderly residents.
The first year of the program was a huge learning experience for everyone; expansion came sooner than expected. When an elderly community member passed away, he left the parish another home to manage. Br. Al and his band of helpers took this as a sign from God that they should continue the mission of rehabbing local homes to better serve families in the area. Soon, they developed a nonprofit program, Inn Dwelling, referring to the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believers in Christ. Inn Dwelling’s mission was providing transitional housing for low-income families, while also giving them the tools and assistance needed for home ownership. Their three- to five-year program taught participants financial management skills. Monthly volunteers visited them to provide budget, mortgage, savings, and credit counseling. Believing that homeowners have more pride for their neighborhood and, as a result, take better care of their property, Inn Dwelling directed participants to open their own savings account and deposit money monthly, with the goal of saving enough for the down payment of the home they were renting.
At a time when Germantown was left with abandoned homes on every corner, Inn Dwelling started revitalizing the community. And after thirty-two years, Br. Al and his team successfully established a housing program that rehabbed multiple blocks in Germantown.
Michael Stevens, a recipient of Inn Dwelling’s housing program lived in Germantown. One day, he came home from work to find his house on fire. Losing everything in that fire and with nowhere to go, he walked to St. Vincent’s Parish seeking help. There he met Br. Al, who helped him get housing and also invited him to do housekeeping at the parish and at some of the homes Inn Dwelling was rehabbing. Slowly, with Inn Dwelling and Br. Al’s support, Stevens rebuilt his life. “Br. Al and the Inn Dwelling program are my guardian angels. I never would have made it back on my feet without Br. Al,” he says.
INN DWELLING: TODAY
In the mid-1990s, Inn Dwelling began looking strategically at their mission. The Board of Directors believed that the greatest opponent to poverty is education, so they phased out the housing component of the program and focused all of their efforts on providing academic enrichment programs for high-school students. From helping students with their SAT scores to assisting them in their studies, their ultimate goal is providing more opportunities for college scholarships. To date, every single student who has completed Inn Dwelling’s academic enrichment program has been accepted into college—with a scholarship.
Charles Arroyave participated in the very first Inn Dwelling pilot program. “Inn Dwelling helped me find a sense of direction; knowing that there were people who really cared about me, growing up in a difficult environment and neighborhood. It felt good to have people who were looking after me.”
Arroyave attended West Catholic High School and was accepted into La Salle University. Transferring from La Salle to Chestnut Hill University, he received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and is currently the principal at St. Rose of Lima school in West Philadelphia. Looking back he says, “I never struggled in school, but I didn’t perform up to my ability until I started going to Inn Dwelling.”
After their immense success with their academic enrichment program, Inn Dwelling expanded to reach out to elementary-school students. That program is aptly called the Sophia Program, an advanced tutoring initiative that assists sixth- through eighth-grade students.
“I taught math for ten years and then I taught at Holy Cross, where they initiated the Sophia Program,” says Arroyave. “I directed that program for five to six years. We were very successful in taking bright, but underexposed students, and preparing them for rigorous preparatory high schools—and eventually helping them transition into some of the best colleges in the area. Inn Dwelling shaped my career path. It opened my eyes to see what every student is capable of regardless of their financial conditions. Greatness is really inside of everyone if given the proper tools and expectations.” That’s what Inn Dwelling and the Sophia Program do best: they connect young people to cultural experiences they might not normally have. Both programs provide opportunities for students to reach their potential by supporting them emotionally, financially, and academically. With such outstanding success rates, they hope that other cities will replicate these programs in other communities.
When asked why Inn Dwelling is so successful, Arroyave explains, “Inn Dwelling is making an impact in ways that other organizations haven’t. They are changing the landscape of Philadelphia, one student—one person—at a time. They are changing the trajectory, not only for each student but for generations that follow. Now my children will go to college and get a degree. That would not have been possible had someone not advocated for me like Inn Dwelling did.”
Arroyave stresses the importance of being an advocate for youth, especially youth who may not have access to the same academic resources as others. “I was held to high expectations. I was supported emotionally and aided financially by the Inn Dwelling program. They were an advocate for me and for other students who needed someone in their corner to navigate through the education system.”