John and Anita Gleason didn’t anticipate they’d be selling shoes, purses and jewelry in their retirement. But somehow, they have — and the experience has helped them to better connect with God through others they’ve encountered in their volunteer work.
At 9 a.m. sharp on a recent Friday morning, a stream of people filed into the St. Augustine Wellston Center. It was thrift store day, when shoppers could find clothing, shoes, accessories and small household items for pennies on the dollar. The main draw, though, is the New Balance shoe counter, where customers buy new and gently used sneakers well below retail price.
John Gleason quickly became a seasoned shoe salesman since he and his wife began volunteering at the Wellston Center in 2022 as part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. The program, which is rooted in Ignatian spirituality, gives semi-retired and retired people an opportunity to serve others, pray and reflect together as a small community and to grow spiritually.
Calling for the next person in line, Gleason assisted a man interested in some slip-on sneakers on a shelf behind the counter. “Those are my favorites, too,” he said to the customer as he loosened the laces on a second pair of shoes for the man to try. “How do those feel?”
Proceeds from the shoe sales support the Wellston Center’s food pantry, where the Gleasons, members of Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin, also volunteer one other day a week. The pantry provides supplemental assistance with food and personal care items monthly to clients in three zip codes surrounding the center.
The Ignatian Volunteer Corps has 47 volunteers who contribute 8-16 hours of service per week at 21 partner sites, including Catholic schools, social service agencies and other nonprofit organizations. Volunteers meet monthly (except for the summer months) for prayer, conversation and reflection in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality. Each volunteer also meets with a spiritual reflector to talk about their service experiences in light of their faith.
“The value of Ignatian Volunteer Corps is that there is more purposeful volunteering and a support system for volunteering,” John Gleason said.
The one-on-one meetings with spiritual reflectors also allow volunteers to reflect on their volunteer work through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, Anita Gleason said. “I will talk about things that happen at the center, and she asks: Where do you see God in all of this? How did this make you feel?”
On the food pantry side, Anita assists with checking in clients on the computer. “They’re mostly elderly clients and I often hear them say, ‘I feel blessed today. I woke up and God gave me this day,’” she said. “I am often amazed at the reflections they share and where they can see God in all of this. It’s uplifting to see the way that they are praying for the day.”
Monthly meetings bring together all of the volunteers for reflection and discussion. The group is currently reading “Cannonball Moments,” by Eric Clayton, and is learning to apply Ignatian principles of inner work and self-reflection to become more attentive to themselves and others in pursuing the common good. Having a small faith community also allows volunteers to grow while assisting with the needs of others through their hands-on work, whether with students, food pantry clients or individuals with disabilities.
John Gleason remembers the bagged coffee that the food pantry had received. It was unusual for the pantry to receive a donation of coffee, and a client’s eyes lit up when he offered her some. “She said, ‘Yes, yes. Can I give you a hug?’” John recalled.
By growing in his faith, John said he realized there was something more to her enthusiastic response.
“It’s not even about the coffee I brought her,” he said.
>> Ignatian Volunteer Corps
The Ignatian Volunteer Corps offers semi-retired and retired men and women an opportunity to serve others, pray and reflect together as a small community and to grow spiritually. Using their talents and professional life experiences, volunteers commit to serve one or two days a week.
There are nearly 50 volunteers who are contributing eight to 16 hours of service a week at 21 partner agencies and schools in the St. Louis area.
Volunteers meet monthly as a community for prayer, conversation and reflection in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality. Each volunteer also meets monthly with a spiritual reflector to talk about their service experiences in light of their faith.
To learn more about the program, contact regional director Sister Amy Diesen, OSF, at (314) 361-7765, ext. 147; or email [email protected]. Or visit ivcusa.org/ivc-offices/come-meet-ivc-st-louis/.