Judy Coswell believes the call to join the Ignatian Volunteer Corps was “put in front of her.” In 2014, as she was considering retirement after a long career in horticulture, an announcement in the local church bulletin caught her attention: an invitation to attend an information session on the IVC program in Chicago, Illinois. She accepted that invitation and is now completing her first year of service volunteering at the Howard Area Community Center in Chicago.
“I knew I was going to retire, but I didn’t want to really retire,” says Judy with a laugh. “I still had lots of energy and knew I didn’t want to sit around the house. I had volunteered some in the past, but the emphasis IVC put on the spiritual component of the program is what really drew me in.”
While Judy was sure about wanting the IVC experience, she was unsure about which agency and placement to choose for her initial year. With the help of Christine Curran, IVC’s regional director in Chicago, they chose the Howard Area Community Center, a site easily accessible for her and which had openings on the days that worked well for her schedule.
For the past 40 years, the Howard Area Community Center has served the changing needs of a diverse population on the far north side of the city. Their clients include immigrants, the working poor, and the homeless. The Center provides case workers and domestic violence assistance, along with ESL and GED classes. The Center’s mainstay is the food pantry where Judy works twice a week.
Like many Ignatian volunteers, Judy does a few different jobs at her placement site. “Sometimes, I’m in the back packing food boxes for distribution, but I also work in the intake area. We are required to screen clients, and I assist with the data entry and bookkeeping necessary to report to the government and grant agencies that support the Center.”
Judy enjoys her volunteer work, but it is the spiritual and relational side of the experience she treasures the most. “IVC provides a structure and a family atmosphere,” she says, “and supports you in ways other organizations can’t.” She enumerates the many avenues volunteers have for spiritual growth: the monthly meetings where volunteers can share the “highs and lows” of their placement experiences, spiritual reflectors available for individual discussions, retreats and days of reflection, book discussions and group Masses, and social events with other volunteers and staff from both IVC and the placement sites.
She also is excited to explore other options for service, another aspect of IVC she appreciates. “You may find yourself led in other directions, to different service sites until you find where God is calling you. You can do that and still stay within the same IVC community.”
She is looking forward to the upcoming retreat at the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House outside Chicago. She will spend time reflecting on the past year and discerning her placement for next year. She describes the IVC experience as “being in the vineyard,” a place where she can serve others and dig deeper into her relationship with God. “The total experience is a process of discerning God’s will, and this first year is just the initial step.”
So … Judy hasn’t really retired from her work in horticulture, tending gardens and growing healthy plants. She has instead just moved to God’s vineyard, tending to her own growth and in turn, helping others to thrive as well.