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Sylvan McKenzie finds hope and housing through SVdP, returns to volunteer

He slept in the back of his truck at one point. Now Sylvan serves breakfast and inspires new shelter residents to transform their lives.

Each morning, Sylvan McKenzie shows up bright and early to serve the residents of Ozanam Manor, the transitional shelter at St. Vincent de Paul for 55 and up, veterans, and people with disabilities. He does it with a quiet smile, one that hides many of the things he has been through. It hides time spent on the street and time spent dealing with exhausting medical issues, but he still smiles because of the help and community he has found in a little corner of the world at SVdP.

Sylvan originally came to Arizona from Jamaica with a group of friends, but unfortunately, the situation didn’t end up working out, and he was left without housing.

“I ended up living on the street,” says Sylvan, who entered homelessness during summertime and lived out of his truck. 

It was in the midst of this struggle that Sylvan found SVdP’s Resource Center, and he immediately started getting close with the staff and volunteers that were helping him.

Unfortunately, the strain of his new situation started to take its toll on Sylvan. He suffered from anxiety and depression. Some of the SVdP staff, especially Esther, would check up on him just to make sure he was okay.

“He had a blow up mattress in the back of his vehicle. I remember going out there one day and just seeing how he lived. And it was the saddest thing ever,” Esther says. “It's not easy to live in the heat and be an older person.”

Not long after, everything changed for Sylvan.

“One day I was outside and a gentleman came there. We were talking and I don't know what he did, but I think it was maybe important,” he says. “He went into Ozanam Manor and talked to them there. And then that day, they called me and gave me a room to stay [in the shelter].”

Sylvan’s chance to stay at Ozanam Manor was a game changer. There, he had a safe, stable place to lay his head, three hot meals a day, a community to surrounding him, and a case manager to help him find housing. Who better to take on Sylvan’s case than the case manager and friend Esther, who had checked up on him.

“We design what's called an individual service plan with each resident, because each resident is different. They walk through the door, and they have their own story,” Esther says. “We actually care, we get involved. We help navigate through issues, whether it be mental health, whether it be a medical barrier, whether it be a financial barrier. 

“We really get down and we help them navigate through that.”

After some time Sylvan took to recover after the traumatic experience of being on the street, he worked hard with Esther to find housing — which he found. Now, he lives in his own place, but returns several times a week to SVdP to serve in the organization that once served him.

He is known for his friendly smile and for welcoming many of the new guests and volunteers. One can always count on seeing Sylvan behind the breakfast serving line, helping the guests warm up to the new day.

“He is 110% better than he was when he first got here,” Esther says. “He came here, he conquered, he thrived.”

During his service at SVdP, he often runs into the many friends he made while he was a guest. Esther says they’ll ask him all the usual questions like, “How’s the new place?” 

Sylvan always responds the same way: “Life is good. Life is good.”