“Hard-wired to kids.”
That’s how Kevin Ryan describes himself. Spend some time with Ryan in his new offices at Covenant House in New York or at Mass at Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, and you quickly get a feel for what he’s talking about.
From the moment he walked out into the hallway of the headquarters of the largest privately funded non-profit agency in North and Central America, helping homeless youth to begin an interview for this article, to the minute he returned to his new office a couple hours later, it was clear that Ryan is over the moon at being named the first lay President and CEO of Covenant House.
“Kids are my passion,” said Ryan, father of six, guardian angel of scores and scores more and he’s not matter-of-fact about it. You could hear it in his voice. “This job was the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s a chance to reconnect to kids across America and Central America – to make a real contribution to their happiness and success…could you turn down a challenge like that?” Not hardly, not if you’re Kevin Ryan.
A challenge and then some
On Jan. 15, Ryan, a member of Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, was named the fourth President and CEO in the 37-year-history of Covenant House which devotes all its efforts to restoring homeless young people to productive lives in society at large. The agency annually serves 70,000 street youth in six countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Ryan is quick to say that this job is a homecoming. After years spent advocating for youth in the public sector – he was named New Jersey’s first Child Advocate in 2003 and then spearheaded a successful effort to reform the state’s crumbling child welfare system – he’s literally back where he started from.
“I’ve come home to Covenant House,” he said, during the Feb. 6 interview at Covenant House headquarters in Manhattan.
Kevin Ryan likes to say he cut his advocacy teeth in youth work at the non-profit he now heads.
He worked on the streets to bring kids to safety, fought for their rights and counseled them in crisis. All-in-all, he devoted a decade of his working life to Covenant House programs for kids who lost their way along the northeast corridor from Washington to Times Square to the South Bronx to Newark and Atlantic City between 1992 and 2002.
The courage of the homeless kids he encountered over the years had a profound affect on him.
Covenant House staff and donors all across the world have been moved by the kids’ suffering he said after being named to this new position.
“They’ve become icons of God’s love in the world,” he said.
Now, he said, he was “coming home” to rejoin their ranks and lead their fight against those who hurt, exploit and traffic them and literally “throw them away.
“I’m hard-wired to kids,” he said. “My wife Clare and I have six of our own and we have a special appreciation for kids. We believe in the promise of a better world for them.”
He believes that Catholics – himself included – have a real role to play in that promise.
“You know, the Church takes its licks from the secular world but when you step back and recognize the ministries, there is not another institution that brings as much good to society.”
Ryan said he expects his tenure to be “a real challenge. They’ve already laid off 18 people in Newark, 11 in Detroit, 20 in Los Angeles…what that means is that we have to find ways to keep going.
“The next set of challenges is to keep the doors open. It’s a tough time for everyone in the non-profit world.” Challenges aside, he said, “I’m glad to come home to Covenant House.”
Family tradition, Catholic-style
As Ryan sees it, the missions carried out by Covenant House manifest the fine points of Catholic social teaching his parents Eileen and Jim worked to instill in their six sons. Volunteer work, the importance of helping others, these were all foundations of the household Ryan grew up in.
The Ryan brothers, including a police detective, member of the FBI, a paramedic, a teacher and a child welfare worker who went on to graduate school, all went on to public service.
It was as a student at Catholic University that Kevin Ryan delved deeper into the “great gift” of Catholic education given by his parents.
“I came into my own there as a member of the Church,” he said with a big smile. “I met my wife – we dated and we both waited tables in the priest’s dining room.”
There the young couple encountered more “icons” – this time of Catholic social teaching including Father George G. Higgins, the great labor advocate who helped start the Solidarity Movement; Cardinal Avery Dulles, renowned theologian; Msgr. John Tracey Ellis, referred to by many as “the dean of Catholic historians” and Father William Byron, renowned columnist and former president of Catholic University.
“Imagine being surrounded by these giants and getting to eat the leftovers,” Ryan said with a merry laugh. “It was heady stuff.”
While Clare went on to spend 14 months in New Orleans working in the Covenant House lay community, he studied law at Georgetown Law Center.
The commitment to the ideals of Catholic social teaching forged in those halls of ivy never waned for the couple, he said. It remains as strong as ever today. The “icons,” he said, “believed in a preferential option for the poor. They made the Gospel real. They connected us to the body of Christ. They were riveting, inspirational.”
On Sunday mornings, it’s a safe bet you’ll find the Ryan family – all eight of them – making that connection at Nativity Parish, Fair Haven. Their pastor, Father Robert J. Schecker, sees them as a “very Eucharistic family; a very devoted family.” The Ryan family, he said, is a good role model for these times when families that pray together and stay together really need role models.
Schecker and Ryan often share insights about matters temporal and spiritual. And Ryan sought Father Schecker’s counsel when the position of Covenant House was offered to him.
It came, as usual, during a busy time in Ryan’s busy career. Recently appointed to monitor efforts underway in Michigan to reform the child welfare system there, he had just completed work in the District of Columbia helping stabilize and assess the child and family services agency in our nation’s capital.
And, he had helped launch a global support action to reduce deaths from malaria which kills more than one million children a year, most under the age of five.
Ray Chambers, the noted New Jersey philanthropist and humanitarian and founding chairman of Points of Light Foundation, and a good friend of Ryan’s, is spearheading the project and brought the Fair Haven resident on board.
This was all compelling work. Though Covenant House “was my passion,” Ryan said he still needed to reflect seriously before making the move.
“Father Bob and I talked about the opportunity and how hard it is to know the right thing to do,” Ryan said. “He talked about God calling out to Samuel and Samuel replying ‘here I am Lord, your servant is here. He urged me to follow that model.”
That model led him back to Covenant House, a move supported by his entire family. “I think it’s terrific that my Dad used to work at Covenant House and now he’s the head of it,” said son, Liam. His brother Dan, echoed those sentiments. “It’s definitely great work. He’s shot the bar high.”
His daughter, Maggie, and another son, John, talked about their visits to Covenant House. “We went there and we heard all the kid’s stories,” John said. “You don’t know how good you have it until you hear those kids talk.”
Maggie was so moved by the visit that she wants to follow in her parent’s footsteps at Covenant House. “I want to help other people like they do. It’s something that makes us all proud.” And Clare, who set the tone for the family by being the first to volunteer with Covenant House back in 1989-90 “while Kevin was in law school finishing up,” said she is thrilled to have her husband back there.
“He can take the program to places it’s never been,” she said. “He’s just so good for the job. He will help so many kids.”