Early influences set Rhonda Meister on a path that would make a difference, not only in her life, but in the lives of many others.
She grew up on a farm in central Illinois, where the nearest town had a population of 1,350. There was deep sense of community, where people felt connected and helped each other out. Her parents had a strong commitment to social justice and to the belief that every person is valuable and their gifts are needed.
“Those two experiences impacted how I viewed people and life,” she says.
After studying psychology and social work, Rhonda went to divinity school “at a time when I thought women would be ordained in the Catholic Church.”
She ended up specializing in ethics and public policy.
“Both focus on community,” she says. “How do we get as much equality for all of us as possible?”
At the same time a former school colleague needed a case manager for a family shelter in East Los Angeles, a friend originally form Los Angeles was moving back to L.A., so, in 1983 Rhonda had a job and she and her friend found an apartment in Venice.
“I happened to be one of the few people in the United States who hadn’t heard of the Venice Beach reputation,” she says.
Rhonda kept driving by “this little building on Fourth and Rose” and noticed all the activity, oftentimes with lines of homeless people. One day she decided to see what was going on. It turned out to be opportune, because the building was St. Joseph Center and they were looking for a homeless program case manager.
St. Joseph Center was founded in 1976 by two Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who began providing advocacy and referrals and assisting families with the basic needs of food, clothing, and job readiness. From the very beginning, the sisters saw their task as one of renewing hope in all people and empowering them to take steps to heal their lives.
When, in 1984, Rhonda became case manager, there were 12 employees, headed by the co-founder and director, Sister Marilyn Rudy.
Toward the end of Rhonda’s first year, Sister Marilyn announced that she was taking a year-long sabbatical and asked Rhonda to be acting director.
“Little did I know that she would never come back,” says Rhonda.
There were two main programs, Family Services and Food Pantry, plus a small homeless program, when Rhonda became permanent director in 1986.
Today, St. Joseph Center is a multifaceted organization employing close to 100 paid staff and benefiting from the dedication of more than 400 volunteers annually. It is a significant presence on the Los Angeles Westside through its ten programs and eight different locations, all of which continue to respond to the wide-ranging needs of homeless and low-income families and individuals in the community.
There is now an integration of services so clients don’t have to go to different places for assistance.
The construction of a new facility primarily for family-based programs and administration scheduled to be completed in the next couple of months will ensure that St. Joseph Center continues to be up to the task of addressing the community’s needs for decades to come.
There are certain continuing situations that Rhonda feels still have to be addressed. The homeless issue has long been a volatile one in Venice. Rhonda remembers the mid-’80s, when homeless advocate Ted Hayes brought his tent encampment to Venice Beach. She cites the recent ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) lawsuit that basically gives homeless people the right to sleep on a sidewalk.
“I truly wish there were more change in the fact that homeless people had enough housing, rather than being on a sidewalk, but having shelter,” she says. “Now with rents going so high there is a real pull on between people on the street and families trying to scrape together enough money to stay in housing to pay the rising rents. How do we create a space that works for everybody that is here?”
Rhonda also remembers that when she started working at the center there was a focus on immigration status. People who didn’t have documents were fearful that they would get picked up.
“I think there is at this point — I hope — the will to actually address the immigration issue in a way that makes sense to society and makes sense to the people who are here and really contributing to society.”
Now, after 22 years as director, Rhonda has handed over the reins.
“The new building brings a sense of newness and new vision and it seemed the right time to bring new leadership and really start everything new,” she says.
She will stay involved with the center as a member of the board of directors.
The experience and knowledge that Rhonda have accumulated will help plan her future. She will do some consulting while taking the time to decide what lies ahead. At this point, she knows her work will be in the nonprofit arena, possibly in public policy. Whatever it is, she will be on the side of those who have the greatest necessity to improve their lives.
The legacy that Rhonda leaves is what she wishes her successor to retain. That is “to continue the commitment of St. Joseph Center to those who are the poorest and the most in need and continue to reach out and make a difference in the community and work to bring about change.”
To know Rhonda is to love her. As much as she will miss the center’s staff, volunteers and supporters, they will miss her even more. Few people bring as much commitment and dedication in making a difference to help others, and, to her credit, always exemplifying grace under fire.
“Realizing Possibilities” is the theme of St. Joseph Center’s May 3rd annual fundraising dinner dance. It celebrates the success and achievements of clients as they strive to overcome the cycle of poverty and attain stability and self-sufficiency. Rhonda will be honored with the “Hope Through Empowerment Award” for her leadership and service.
Information, Valerie Harwin, (310) 396-6468 ext. 336.