Serving Joyfully

“I should have gotten you a St. Vincent de Paul ball cap,” said Shannon Clancy, handing me a hairnet before we begin meal service in the Family Dining Room. She is serving chicken marsala and mashed potatoes while I am spooning out squash. Clancy doesn’t typically serve meals —a blessing she likes to save for volunteers, but she’s made an exception to join me.

It’s a Tuesday evening at the St. Vincent de Paul campus on Watkins Road and Third Drive in Phoenix. People facing hard times line the streets outside, but it’s still a joyous scene here. Kids doing homework. Diners complimenting the food. An impromptu Zumba class.

Little do most of the guests know who is serving them this night, which suits the self-effacing Shannon Clancy fine.

Clancy was recently named the CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Phoenix, which serves Central and Northern Arizona and is the largest St. Vincent de Paul chapter in the world. Leading an organization that employs more than 300 Arizonans wasn’t on Clancy’s radar when she was growing up in a family of four kids in North Central Phoenix. She thought she would be a math teacher. Still, Clancy was exposed to volunteer service while attending Xavier College Preparatory — “That sort of faith aspect of living out the Gospel values of caring for people in need and Catholic social teaching,” she said.

While attending the University of Notre Dame, Clancy had a transformative experience. She took part in Urban Plunge, a program that allows participants to immerse themselves in poverty in their own hometowns. Over Christmas break her sophomore year, Clancy worked alongside the folks of André House, a ministry serving vulnerable populations in Phoenix. She says from the first time she witnessed homelessness, she couldn’t get it out of her mind. “I had never seen that level of suffering, and I couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t do something,” she said. “After that, I really couldn’t look away.”

After college, Clancy gave a year of service through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working in a transitional housing program for families in Northern California. “That was eye-opening because I worked right alongside families and saw them in their moment of need,” she said. Clancy was 22 and doing case management when an incident took place that forever changed how she viewed her work.

“There was a family that had five kids. Their oldest daughter was 16 and kind of spoke for the family because it was Spanish-speaking,” Clancy said. The family had outstayed their time in the shelter and the staff made the decision to ask them to leave. “I remember thinking at the time that we were there to help support them and, instead, we were making it worse,” Clancy said.

Unable to face the family, Clancy hid in her office. There was a knock at the door. When Clancy opened it, it was the 16-year-old daughter. “I prepared myself for her to lash out and be angry,” Clancy said. “Instead, she stretched out her arms and said, ‘I just want to thank you.’”

Clancy learned something powerful that day that has informed her work ever since. “In people’s moment of greatest need, they just need to know they’re not alone,” Clancy said. “That someone is there, even if they can’t fix it.”

St. Vincent de Paul Phoenix has been here, serving Arizonans in need for 76 years, and Clancy is the first female leader of the nonprofit in that time. “I’ve seen how much it means to other women of all ages, younger and older,” she said. “That surprised me a little bit, the depth of feeling about it. It amplifies what it means to others in terms of having role models or examples of people in the world.”

Clancy’s journey to leading the organization started two decades ago. “We were living in Baltimore and felt that we needed to be here, closer to family,” she said. She and her husband moved the family to Phoenix in 2002, and Clancy started working at St. Vincent de Paul part-time, the first of a few stints over the last 20 years. “I have four kids, so I had a little bit of back and forth while trying to contribute to what’s going on in the world, as well as take care of my family,” she said.

Having worked in several roles, Clancy is happy serving in whatever way helps the organization most at the time. To get a sense of why, you need to understand something she witnessed years before.

Back in Baltimore, she worked at a school for low-income kids that was run by several different religious congregations of sisters and brothers. “It was a really small school, but they were role models of servant leadership for me, watching how they lived out their faith and service so joyfully,” Clancy said.

Something else about how they worked stood out to her. Someone would be the principal and then, when their turn was up, they would go back into the classroom happily. “So at one point, there was a new principal, but six of the different faculty — all sisters and brothers in different congregations — had been principals. They were happy to let her be the principal and were there to support her,” she said.

Clancy found it an important model for this challenging work. “Watching how gracefully they did that and how it allowed them to serve over a long period of time was an important part of my formation,” she said. “It really wasn’t about them. It was just about the work.”

Sometimes the work can be tough to balance with the already significant responsibility of raising a family. Clancy and her husband have four children, ages 15, 18, 21 and 23. “I have two here, still in high school, one that is a senior in college, and one who’s graduated and out working,” she said.

Like many parents, Clancy sometimes looks back and wonders whether her career negatively impacted her kids, but a recent conversation with her 18-year-old daughter comforted her.

When she was younger, Clancy’s daughter volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul’s annual Circle of Angels donor luncheon. She and other kids were little angels and passed out cookies to supporters. Eventually, there was a changing of the guard, and the angel wings had to move on to a new batch of little ones. “She’s a senior in high school now and just the other day, she said, ‘Do you think I could come back one last time and be the biggest angel for one more year?’” Clancy said, fighting back tears. “What she was really saying was, ‘Could I go back one more time before I leave home and feel cherished and loved, worthy and supported, in that space with these beautifully hearted people?’”

It’s a feeling Clancy wants more people to experience. “There are so many people who feel disconnected. There aren’t enough psychiatrists or medications in our world to serve everyone,” she said. “We see every day that people find healing and growth through service and reaching out to others. I see that in my own daughter, who said, ‘Just one last time.’”

What Clancy wants — to make St. Vincent de Paul the place where everyone is healed in service — has never mattered more than now. As we come out of the pandemic and take stock of where we are, Clancy argues that it might be the moment to learn from and care for one another. “There’s an immense beauty to being able to do that for someone in their moment of need,” she said.

That is where St. Vincent de Paul’s mission is unique. In addition to “feed, clothe, house and heal,” its mandate includes providing opportunities for everyone to serve. It’s why Clancy doesn’t volunteer in the Family Dining Room very often. She believes that our community is better — that we’re all better — when we are caring for others. So she makes room and invites others to do that.

“Maybe there is brokenness to all of us,” she said. “You might not need food or clothing or shelter or healthcare, but you might have a spiritual or emotional need. You might have a need to feel safe and connected and to belong. How do we create that opportunity?”

How can St. Vincent de Paul scale that opportunity while tackling significant social issues like homelessness and evictions, medical care, food insecurity and more? That is the question Clancy is focusing on.

“St. Vincent de Paul couldn’t do what it does without donors, volunteers and partners who bring in skill sets that we don’t have,” Clancy said. “Every day, you’re reminded of what that can make possible in the world.”

Clancy envisions St. Vincent de Paul as a common ground for people who need support to come together with people who have the resources or desire to help. “The human heart needs to be reaching out to others. It craves belonging and connection. You see that every day at St. Vincent de Paul. It’s a blessing to be part of it,” she said.

As the holidays near, Clancy is gearing up for weeks of events and festivities. “It starts in November and goes all the way through, like an ultramarathon, but of great gratitude, joy and celebration. It renews your faith in people and their desire to be generous and loving,” she said.

The marathon reference is telling. Clancy is a runner who appreciates the solace and simplicity of a good run. “You just put on your shoes and go out the door. It’s important to be in nature and have that time just to think,” she said. “I realize how important that is for my own mental health and feeling settled. I want to make sure that I continue to do that.”

Clancy’s self-care plan will be tested as she assumes the stresses of leading an organization with a $75+ million annual budget. She jokes — although she’s not sure it’s really a joke — that God called her to this work to teach her that she is not in control. “I am a very independent person and usually think I can take care of myself, but that is not how it is with this work. You have to trust that it’s meant to happen in the way it is, that people will come and it will reveal itself,” she said.

Time and again, Clancy has experienced miraculous moments when someone has come along at just the right time. She hopes some day her faith becomes automatic. “I’m hopeful that eventually I’ll get to where I won’t have to be reminded anymore, that I’ll just know. I think I’m getting closer,” she said.

After all, asking people to support St. Vincent de Paul’s transformational vision requires Clancy’s unyielding faith in it herself. “Finding our purpose and what we’re meant to do while we’re on this earth, there’s great joy in that,” Clancy said. “I would hope that St. Vincent de Paul could be that place where people may be able to discover that for themselves.” 

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Before Shannon Clancy took the reins of St. Vincent de Paul Phoenix, she served alongside former CEO Steve Zabiliski, who led the nonprofit for 25 years. Alongside his massive impact — doubling St. Vincent de Paul’s health clinic space to treat more people, operating dining rooms that provide meals every day and establishing a transitional shelter and resource center — Zabiliski was a model of using his leadership skills while living out his Catholic faith.

Fortunately for our community, Zabiliski isn’s going far. He was named the new president & CEO of Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, and will assume the job in April 2023.

According to Mary Jane Rynd, the current president & CEO of Piper Trust, “Steve is the natural fit to take the helm of the Trust at this critical time in our world’s history. His experience and true servant leadership will be transformative for the Trust and Maricopa County.”

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.
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