In 2018 you were elected Nijmegen Citizen of the Year. How did it feel to get this recognition?
When I received the phone call giving me the news that I had been nominated, my first response was to say “no, thanks,” because it is not in my nature to be in the limelight. But my treasurer made clear to me that I had to understand the nomination as a tribute to the work of all our volunteers, that it was not just about me but about everybody at Vincentius. Then I could slowly get used to the idea, and in the end I was sincerely happy with it.
The election turned my life upside down. Everyone wanted to interview me and people recognized me in the streets. A big disadvantage was that some people began to see me as public property, and did not hesitate to ring my doorbell in the weekend, or late in the evening, if they needed something. For us, and especially for our son, this became hard to bear, so that in the interest of our family we moved to Uden. I do think it is a pity I will never be able to be elected Nijmegen Citizen of the Year again, since I no longer live in this city.
You believe that every human being counts – a thought that inspires you to help fight poverty and loneliness among fellow citizens. You must really love people?
I do not like to call it fighting, for we cannot do that. I prefer to call it softening. Yes, I do really love people and in countless little ways I try to make the people around me feel that they are important. One example is our “soup moment”: if I do not invite people in person, perhaps four people will turn up for soup. But if I ring doorbells in the apartment building we visit, lots more show up. I am the kind of person that takes them by the hand. People are truly touched if they can voice their worries and sorrow to someone who genuinely listens, even if outdoors over a cup of soup and only for a short time.
Here in the Horstacker neighbourhood I move about a great deal and often speak to the people who have not been to visit for a while. Often people hesitate to come back and feel the threshold is high again. In such cases it is important to work on them and let them feel they are genuinely welcome. Human contact is central, always. I also try to convey this attitude to our volunteers. Our people each have their own task, but I teach them that giving people direct attention always comes first.
Have you ever been disappointed in people, and if so, how do you deal with this?
Yes, in my time as director of Vincentius I have more than once been disappointed in people, also in our volunteers. They might do things that do not fit into the Vincentius idea, and in such cases I might have to take my leave of these people. Sometimes this was seriously held against me, and more than once I have been vilified and called every name in the book. At first this hurt and upset me very much. But gradually I discovered, and accepted, that you cannot please everybody. Such people often have complicated problems, but these I need not see as my own. So in this respect I have learned a lot over time, and my inner self has grown much stronger.
Have you had to adapt your working methods on account of Covid-19? And how have people in your target group responded to this?
Because the building was closed, from one day to the next the number of our visitors dropped from 800 to zero. Most of our volunteers had to stay home and many found this very difficult. We continued our work with a small group of volunteers, with whom we carried on through the entire Corona-period. Because all restaurants in the vicinity all of a sudden had to close down, with lots of food remaining, I had much equipment brought over here. I also arranged for a large number of cooks to do the cooking here, among them two chefs from well-known restaurants in Nijmegen. Meals were delivered through Taxi van Driel, among others. The meals and groceries made people awfully glad, in particular families with small children who could no longer visit stores together. For the elderly (who had walking difficulties or were otherwise vulnerable) we also were an important point of contact.
Often as not the drivers were the only people they saw on a given day, and many people would pour out their hearts to them. We also brought back into visibility a lot of people who had been living in poverty, under the radar, who were commonly helped by a neighbour, a type of assistance which fell away because of Covid-19. It also happened that our driver delivered a meal, rang the doorbell but nobody opened. When he looked through the window, he saw someone lying on the floor and quickly arranged for help. Because of corona home health care was not functioning as usual. And so, in this Covid-19 period, we fulfilled a variety of roles. No sitting still, but working very hard, five days a week! Sometimes we felt a great shock. We work off lists of addresses for meal deliveries, but quite regularly people’s names had to be crossed off the list as they had died of Covid-19.
Regardless of whether or not people belong to our target group: I think very many people are lonely, and Covid-19 has absolutely aggravated loneliness. It takes time and effort to rebuild people’s former social life. Social distancing, and the fear of falling ill again now that we are on the eve of a second wave, does not help. So I think that many in our target group are having a hard time, and many are withering away in loneliness. So together with the bags of groceries we have been sending cards saying “we think of you, even if we cannot come together on the premises,” and once in a while we will bring a bunch of flowers. Our many volunteers who are not working now also have received little gifts from us, to express our appreciation and tell them we miss them.
You believe in the idea of “pay it forward”: by disinterested service to another person, you can inspire that other person to help someone in turn. This works, you feel, like an oil spill, and thus helps to make a better world. Can you elaborate on this view?
I once saw the film “Pay It Forward,” a fun film about a boy who wants to do good and takes a homeless person into his home. In this way he tries to make the world a more beautiful place. I never ask for a “thank you” from someone who comes here and receives help. Instead, I ask: “Should you ever be in a position to help someone, I hope you will do so, within your capabilities!”
And it works! For example, people who have been helped by us will make themselves available as volunteers. Or think of someone who is ten cents short at the check-out counter in the supermarket and whom you can help. So I always try to inspire people this way: if I was able to help you, please look around in your own circle to see if you can help three people, even if only with a hug or a cup of coffee – as long as you pass it on. And if these three people do the same, you have an oil spill of goodness. Other good examples are the “suspended coffee” or “suspended meal” you can buy at a restaurant for someone else: a homeless person or someone who has less to spend than you have. This has become a familiar concept in the restaurant business.
We are fortunate to have many sponsors, and I invite them, for example, to “embrace a family.” That means they would donate € 20 a week, so that a family can get fresh fruit and vegetables through us, complementing what they receive from the Food Bank. If everyone who has enough to eat would do this, many living below the poverty line would be able to live a better and healthier life, and children would perform better at school.
Your volunteers and you derive much joy from your work, and the people who have been helped by you are very grateful. In fact, together you are one big family. Correct?
That’s right. I always tell new volunteers: “You are about to step into a very warm bath. You will be part of a very fine family and you will truly belong!” We support each other through thick and thin, and sometimes this is not easy. Occasionally there will be someone in the living room who announces he wants to end his life. That hits you very hard, because you know you may be able to talk to that person, but without truly helping him. If someone really wants to, he will do so anyway. In these situations we find a lot of support with each other. I teach people to work from the heart, and not because they need to do volunteer work in order to keep their allowance. If you cannot work from the heart you will not last here. You have to be capable of service to another human being. That sounds very idealistic and fine, but at times we are completely drained. Sometimes it is just very heavy and there is nothing you can do about people’s lives. Sometimes you see a person self-destruct, or self-destruct again, and you are just incapable of helping, no matter how much you want to. Listening to sheer misery all day long can be very exhausting. But if we manage to send them all home with a smile on their faces, we have done a great job that day.
Your way of working and the concept from which you operate, namely “every human being counts,” would seem to be the recipe for realizing a bit of heaven on earth. Is that also how you see it?
Yes, that’s right. Sometimes the volunteers and the people we take care of call me an angel. In this harsh society we can often do a small thing, which helps to make people feel differently. Independent of our work, in this Covid-19 period lots of beautiful initiatives are taken, such as painting rocks or boulders. All sorts of people paint stones with images of mandalas or little guardian angels, and then deposit them in the streets or in the forest. They offer consolation and inspiration, and a feeling of interconnectedness, to whoever finds them. The finder may keep the stone or pass it on. One of our volunteers paints rocks on behalf of Vincentius. It is something spiritual and it connects people with each other. Like sharing a little bit of happiness.
What are your plans for the future at Vincentius?
We are indeed far from finished. We would like to realize a low-threshold walk-in house where people can appeal for help. We have taken the first step in this direction, for we will soon establish a house in the Dukenburg section of town. There we will shortly open a branch of Vincentius, and we will cooperate with many interested parties in Dukenburg.
In conclusion: what message or life’s lesson would you like to pass on to the readers of this interview?
To all people in our target group I’d like to say: “Do not feel ashamed any longer for the problems you face, but try to accept the help available. Because there is a lot of help waiting for you, and you do not have to do it all by yourself.”
To those who do not belong to our target group, I’d like to say: delve into the “pay it forward” principle and consider if you yourself would not be able to help people in your immediate vicinity, even if only two. And in case there are any moneyed folks among your readers, I’d like to ask them to think of embracing a family, in the way described above.
And finally: every human being has the right to a respectful existence without poverty. What is important is that after a difficult period people can regain their strength and begin to rebuild their self-respect.
Source: Nijmegen, City of Compassion, Newsletter October 2020
Translation: Hans Bak, Em. Professor of American Literature and American Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands