Kevin Ryan celebrates HHAW with inspiring lecture

Sarah Stiglianese

To wrap up Villanova’s Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, keynote speaker Kevin Ryan gave a lecture in the Driscoll Auditorium on Nov. 21. HHAW began at Villanova under the guidance of the late Rev. Father Ray Jackson, O.S.A., in 1975.

Ryan, President and CEO of Covenant House International, the largest privately-funded charity in America serving homeless, trafficked and sexually exploited youth, perfectly embodied the theme of the week. Covenant House, whose motto is “Opening Doors for Homeless Youth,” works as a non-profit to provide shelter, food and crisis care to these adolescents.

Additionally, Covenant House arranges permanent homes for these youth and helps them transition into adulthood through services such as healthcare, education, college scholarships, degrees and drug and alcohol abuse treatment.

The Adela Dwyer-St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions to the understanding of the meaning and conditions of justice and peace in human communities. The 2014 Award was given to Ryan, who has restored hope for these vulnerable youth through his work at Covenant House.

Ryan demonstrates what is possible when you dedicate your life to peace and justice. Under Ryan—father, activist and child advocate—Covenant House International has spread across many new cities in the United States and to six countries.

He has recruited thousands to participate in organized Covenant House sleep-outs, which have raised four million dollars to shelter, feed and educate thousands of homeless youth. Rev. Father Peter Donohue, O.S.A., gave the award to Ryan because he is not only a preacher of unity and love but also embraces the spirit of the University.

The speech began with a video sponsored by Covenant House showing testimonies of homeless youth who were scared, hungry and abused, had no stable shelter and no one to turn to. Covenant House was able to turn their lives around.

Ryan expressed that their safety and providing them with shelter is nowhere near as important as giving them comfort and the knowledge that they are not alone.

When Ryan first began working at Covenant House, he was still filled with the life, hope and joy shown to him in his childhood.

“Our parents tell us ‘you must, you can, you should.’ They make us feel special and give us a sense of the possible.” Ryan stated. “I was not prepared for this house of heartbreak and devastation I entered at Covenant House and the alarming number of homeless kids.”

He began to lose sight of hope in the world as he witnessed these devastating lives. “Four months in, I began to question my decision to work there,” he said.

“The least interesting thing about these kids is that they’re homeless.” They work multiple jobs, go to school, strive to be better and have many talents. Ryan couldn’t help but wonder how one could go from having such a horrible childhood to becoming a hard-working, successful young adult. “I’m not asking this in a hypothetical way, I really would like to know how it happens,” he said.

Ryan realized as he was looking over the stories of rape, homelessness and abuse, he was missing that there were graduations, first apartments, new dreams.

“Miraculous transformations of the human spirit were happening and I got to witness them,” he said.

Ryan decided that the answer to how this happens is not mystical and magical—it’s the people of God coming together and supporting those who need it. “People, including myself, often strive to do the big things and forget that the little things might be considered big things to someone else,” he said. Ryan saw that with the help of Covenant House, these youth were moving from homeless to hope.

Ryan pointed out that the truth is not just painful for the kids at Covenant House, but for those who work there. These kids have to rewire and hear a different story. All they’ve ever known was “you’re stupid, you’re wrong, you don’t belong.” This becomes the narrative of their lives. They’ve experienced this marginalization their whole lives. “We at Covenant House do the rewiring work,” he said.

“The point of Covenant House is that God’s providence and love is revealed to us through each other. We are hope and light to each other,” Ryan said.

 Ryan noticed that these kids don’t want tears or pity, they want help and for someone to physically be there. They desire to be part of the contribution effort too.

One of the most heartfelt and beautiful stories that brought a tear to Ryan’s eye showed that these kids want to be a part of the greatness happening at Covenant House.

 One Christmas Eve, a child showed up to the shelter with nothing in his pockets. Ryan saw him and decided to give him some cash.

Later that day, Ryan discovered that someone had stolen all the Christmas gifts from the shelter. As Ryan explained this situation to the other workers, the boy overheard the chaos and handed the money back to Ryan.  

Ryan ended the speech with one message for us to follow, “Show up.”

To learn more about Covenant House or to get involved, you can visit the Covenant House International website ( There are numerous opportunities to volunteer by giving your time, effort, and comfort for a life-changing experience.