From Near and Far, SJU Grads Feed Boyle’s Mission

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

by Kevin Donahue

When Greg Boyle, S.J., talks Wednesday at the Chapel of Saint Joseph (7 p.m., livestreamed here), most of the attendees will know the Jesuit priest and his ministry Homeboy Industries, the largest rehabilitation and re-entry program for gang members in the world, from his TED Talk or a report on 60 Minutes.

Many members of the Saint Joseph’s community have been involved more deeply, and practically.  Here are two such stories. One recent graduate reached out to Homeboy and brokered a business deal that significantly increased Homeboy’s business reach and revenue. Another went there to serve for a year, found her calling, and stayed on as a case manager.

The Heart of the Deal

Madeline Mollahan poses holding Homeboy Salsa and Guacamole containers.
Mollahan holds packages of Homeboy guacamole and salsa at Stop & Shop headquarters in Massachusetts.

Service to others and business success are often separate. Madeline Mollahan ’18 found a way this year to bring them together.

Mollahan, who graduated this January from the food marketing co-op program, was hired by Stop & Shop, one of the largest grocers in the Northeast with 410 stores across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey, as a category analyst for specialty deli — hummus, salsa, guacamole, spreads, dips, and cheese products.

While looking for new products, she came upon Homeboy Industries, the Los Angeles-based rehabilitation and re-entry program founded by Boyle. She knew Homeboy from her time at Saint Joseph's, and because her younger sister (who attends the University of Scranton) had participated in a service trip to Homeboy that deeply impacted her.

Mollahan took Homeboy’s offerings to her manager, and she gave her the green light —and asked her to take point on the relationship.

"I take great pride in having Homeboy [in Stop & Shop], not only because it has a Jesuit background, but because it goes to such a good cause,” Mollahan says. "That is heart-warming to me.

“It’s also a great, healthy product — no preservatives — and we’re giving such a quality product to my customers. That, as a professional, makes me feel good.”

Mollahan, from Boonton, New Jersey, did more than merely place Homeboy products on a store shelf. She worked with the publisher of Boyle’s best-selling book, Tattoos on the Heart, to have the book and the Homeboy story adjacent to the food products so customers encounter more than just guac and salsa.

"They can read on the package and see the book right there and put it together to understand what the story behind Homeboy is,” she says.

It's worked. Since their introduction five weeks ago, Stop & Shop is selling a lot of Homeboy guacamole and salsa each week.

"I didn’t have to do any marketing. It almost sells itself,” she says, “which is pretty incredible to see.”

Thomas Vozzo, the CEO of Homeboy Industries, is appreciative. Homeboy earns more than 30 percent of its $20 million in annual revenue through its business operations (the rest comes through donations and government funding). The money supports the employment of about 250 Homeboys and Homegirls, former Los Angeles-area gang members who sign on for the 18-month program. Those employees, plus about another 1,000 people a month, receive services including job training, tattoo removal and anger-management therapy. And it works: While the average person incarcerated in California has a 2-in-3 chance of returning to jail, a UCLA study of people who participated in Homeboy's programs found the recidivism rate dropped in half, to about 1 in 3.

“The Stop & Shop deal brought us to the East Coast,” he said. "It is very significant for us. And it’s a testament to Madeline. We depend on good people like her who know our mission and help to expand our work and business."

Mollahan credits Saint Joseph’s generally, and the food co-op program specifically, for her ability to step into Stop & Shop and make an immediate impact.

"St Joe’s definitely gave me the resources for that,” she says. "I owe my career right now to the food marketing co-op program, because I would not be in my position today if I didn’t have that experience with the food marketing co-op program.”

A Sense of Vocation

Molly Verghese ’17 graduated last year and decided to take a year off before starting work toward a doctoral degree in theology.

Her experience in the Inside-Out program at Graterford State Prison, where the class was comprised of 15 Saint Joseph’s students and 15 incarcerated men, awakened something in her.

Simmons and Verghese stand in front of SJU's Mandeville Hall
Simmons and Verghese proudly sport their Homeboy attire on campus.
“Getting to know the men’s stories ... that just jolted me,” says Verghese, of Rochester, New York. "I still remember walking in the doors of the prison, and what overcame me was a sense of vocation — where your greatest gift meets the world’s greatest need."
 

That sense of call eventually led her to pick up and move to Los Angeles last August for a service year through the Saint Joseph's Worker Program. She started there as the manager for a diaper-distribution program. That provided an opportunity to get to know the community, and she became engaged and invested as she learned people’s stories.

She shared their challenges, too, and something shifted. One day, Verghese says, she was asked to drive a woman to the hospital who had been beaten with a baseball bat. It was difficult, but being there for another person in a time of need touched her. Later, when the woman needed help finding a place to live, she asked for Verghese to drive her. That drive was full of laughter, not pained silence.

“It was a powerful moment,” she says. “It said, 'What is here? What’s stirring?' ”

Verghese eventually was asked to stay on beyond her year and became a case manager at Homeboy. One of her clients, Sharnise Simmons, of South-Central LA, will be among the speakers Wednesday evening on the Saint Joseph’s campus.

“Molly is great, I can say anything to her and know it’s OK,” Simmons says. “Before this, I was very isolated. Now I can share my feelings."

Verghese reflected on her experience at Homeboy and what it has provided her.

"The gift of being able to name our gifts,” she says. "It takes a mix of humility and confidence. And I couldn’t have done this without my experience at Saint Joseph’s."

Editor’s note: The event, sponsored by the Faith-Justice Institute’s Joseph William and Madeline Eberle Klein Fund,  will be held at the Chapel of Saint Joseph – Michael J. Smith, S.J., Memorial. Book sales and signing will begin at 6:15 p.m. with the lecture to follow at 7 p.m. A livestream will be shared starting at 7 p.m., at sju.edu/live.




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