An island in a sea of need

Alumnus dedicates career to advocating for Maryland’s homeless

By Kathrin Havrilla  |  Photos courtesy of John Eckenrode & Shepherd's Table

A product of 16 years of Catholic education and a 1974 graduate, John Eckenrode’s career reflects the Loyola mission to serve others in a diverse and changing world.

Since his graduation, Eckenrode has been drawn to work that would improve the lives of others. During his time spent attending parochial grade schools and Calvert Hall College High School in the Baltimore area, he was influenced by the Catholic traditions that foster a humanistic attitude and respect for all people.

“My Catholic education taught me that it’s important to leave the world a better place than you found it,” Eckenrode said.

His passion for advocacy began to take shape during his time at Loyola, where he was studying political science.

In 1972, he spent a mini-semester working with Project Amos, an investigation of day labor practices, run under the guidance of Fr. Eugene Ahern through Campus Ministry. During the project, for which Loyola students tried to gain day-laborer employment every morning to see how many organizations in the area were in compliance with federal labor regulations, Eckenrode’s eyes opened to the different types of experiences that people endure.

John Eckenrode, ’72, delivers mail to clients at Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, Md.

Eckenrode began to see that his political science degree had many facets, and he became determined to utilize as many of the skills he had acquired at Loyola as he could.

“I realized that I needed to advocate for people who are treated with a lack of the dignity and respect that they deserve as human beings,” he explained.

After graduating from Loyola, Eckenrode was employed in a helping occupation as a mental health worker at Shepherd Pratt Hospital. From there he moved on to work with a consumer group at the Maryland Action Coalition. This experience in an advocacy group showed him that full-time work in the nonprofit world—a relatively new career path in the late 1970s—was a possibility.

In addition to meal service, clothing programs, and mental health resources, Shepherd’s Table provides free eye exams and eye glasses for people in need.

In 1983, Eckenrode joined the Montgomery County Department of Social Services, where he worked in income maintenance for several different programs, making him aware just how many basic human services were unavailable to people all over the state. The General Public Assistance for Employables Program introduced him to the plight of the homeless in Maryland. Through the program, single adults could receive some income and food and medical assistance in exchange for monthly work with a government or nonprofit agency.

Because much of the population applying for the program didn’t have an address, they were not eligible to enroll because there was nowhere to send their checks. Shepherd’s Table, a soup kitchen and social service agency in Silver Spring, Md., established in 1983, began offering mail services to this population, giving them a place to pick up their mail and find help.

Meal service at Shepherd’s Table includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunches, where hundreds of people are served weekly.

Eckenrode began to build a relationship with Shepherd’s Table, referring some of his clients there—not only to pick up their mail, but also for meals, hygiene supplies, and mental health therapy. His connection with Shepherd’s Table grew, and when they had a job opening in 1990, he jumped at the chance to work there full-time.

Over the past 25 years, Eckenrode has played a major role in the organization’s mission, nurturing the skills he gained at Loyola University Maryland and developing others along the way. As the director of social services, today Eckenrode runs the resource center, where he assists dozens of daily visitors with everything from referrals to community and government agencies, to medical and mental health care and finding a place to sleep for the night.

As director of social services, Eckenrode runs the resource center, where he assists dozens of daily visitors with referrals to community and government agencies.

Eckenrode says retirement may be on the horizon eventually, but is more in line with his wife’s wishes than a desire to stop working.

When he does leave his position at Shepherd’s Table, he knows that volunteering in his community will likely be on his agenda.

“There are so many things in this world that need attention,” he said, “and I want to devote my time to some of them. The work that I have been doing over these years sometimes makes me feel like I am working on an island in a sea of need.”

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