After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when then-President George W. Bush encouraged Americans to serve their communities, Naperville resident Jeneane Ryan answered the call.
A social worker by profession, she learned about Naperville CARES and began volunteering to serve families in financial crisis. For more than 10 years, she has interviewed clients, listened to their stories, guided them to available resources and aided with the nonprofit group's fundraising efforts. Naperville CARES recently honored her efforts with its Volunteer of the Year Award.
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"She just has the biggest heart," Executive Director Janet Derrick said. "She's not a woman of words. She's more a woman of action."
Derrick recalled listening to Ryan interview a young client, talking to the woman almost as if she were a daughter.
"I think the young woman took what she had to say to heart," Derrick said. "She'll spend up to an hour, an hour and a half (with clients)."
Ryan, who spends five or six hours a week at Naperville CARES, said showing respect to people in need is key to helping them find solutions to their dilemmas. Many are in financial distress because of circumstances beyond their control.
"I just try to be mindful that it could happen to any of us," she said. "I never would want them to feel bad about asking for help."
Help in crisis
Naperville CARES provides one-time, once-a-year emergency assistance to people in financial crisis, guides them to other resources and has a program to supply donated vehicles to qualified clients who need a way to get to work or medical appointments.
With the difficult economic climate, Ryan said she has seen a shift in clientele. Clients used to be primarily people who were already financially stretched when an unexpected emergency or expense put them in crisis, she said. Now many clients have had good jobs, but they have been unemployed for an extended time and used their savings.
"Because they've never been in this position before, not only is it very difficult, they don't know where to begin," she said. "They don't know what questions to ask. They don't know who to go to."
Ryan also learned about Women At Risk when its founder spoke at a CARES meeting about the group's efforts to help women who are victims of trafficking or at risk of becoming victims. When the organization opened the WAR Chest boutique in Naperville about a year ago, she signed on.
"I was so incredibly touched by her story that I started volunteering, working at the store," she said.
Called to missions
By her own account, Naperville CARES offered Ryan a good place to volunteer her skills. She thought she found her niche, but then she discovered God had something more for her to do -- something she never would have imagined.
In 2005, shortly after Ryan retired from professional employment and joined Knox Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. One of the pastors said the church was considering sending a mission team to the devastated city and asked anyone interested to see him.
"I made a beeline to him right after the service," Ryan said. "I love New Orleans. I spent time there during college and grad school."
She went on mission trips to New Orleans for six years with her church and a few other times on her own. She also organized mission trips for about a dozen other churches that wanted to participate.
"I never thought in my mid-50s I would be headed into the mission field, but it's my passion," she said.
Ryan found herself putting up drywall and doing other construction work.
"The things I've been able to do make me chuckle," the married mother of two adult children said. "We always say in our church, 'God does not call the equipped. He equips the called.' That's truly the category I fall in."
Ryan shared her love of missions with a friend who was involved in Haiti. She joked about joining her friend there, but when the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, she knew the time had come. She and Patty Meyer of Naperville have gone to Haiti three times since then, and have a fourth trip planned in September. Ryan also made trips on her own.
"Her heart got broken just like most people when they go there," Meyer said.
Meyer said Ryan started sponsoring one child at New Life Children's Home and Rescue Center in Haiti and now sponsors four.
"She has unending patience with the children and definitely puts herself last in most situations," Meyer said.
The two women are working on a silent auction and sale on Aug. 11 in Naperville to raise money to buy water filtration systems for Haiti.
Ryan said she is involved with both the New Life Children's Home and Rescue Center and Haiti Clinic, which provides medical care to the impoverished population.
But Ryan's mission work didn't stop with New Orleans and Haiti. When a tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, Ryan returned several times to the town where she grew up and led two mission teams from her church.
The Rev. Deb Roberts, senior co-pastor of Knox Presbyterian where Ryan serves as an elder and member of the missions council, said Ryan has been instrumental in getting other church members involved.
"Jeneane was the connecting point with Haiti as she was to Joplin," Roberts said. "She's been kind of an advocate and full of information."
Ryan said she is repaid in smiles, hugs and the knowledge she helped others feel loved.
"If I can go and touch one person on each trip, that's all I need to keep going back," she said. "When you give back, you get 10-fold in return. I certainly have found that to be true."