Patti Vile likes to take care of people - it's always been part of her nature. So it's no surprise that she has also always been drawn to volunteer work. But it wasn't until she started her own nonprofit, Volunteer Expeditions, that she felt she'd finally discovered her calling.
When Patti was still working full-time, she took a three year hiatus to help settle Soviet refugees in Chicago, creating networks and business opportunities for people from all walks of life. She served as president of Art Encounter, a nonprofit organization that brings art to seniors and underserved Chicago schoolchildren. She was president for a while of the Glencoe Public Library Board of Trustees. In 2005 and 2006, She volunteered with village agencies in Uganda and El Salvador. In 2011, continuing with her passion for volunteer work, she joined the Board of Directors of the Geographic Society of Chicago and became involved in Jewish/Muslim interfaith activities.
Even in her professional career, Patti focused on jobs in which she could care for people. She has a Masters in Urban Policy and Planning with a healthcare emphasis. She was a teacher, a consultant for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, she built private medical practices, and she designed nationally implemented self-insured health plans.
Patti was constantly looking for new ways to help people,and in 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she found a way to help that would change her life, and that of hundreds of others, forever.
Patti was shocked by the destruction in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005. When it was safe to travel there, she spoke with her rabbi about organizing a group to help in the rebuilding effort. He said, “All right. Do it!" With no experience in travel planning, Patti led a group of eighteen volunteers, aged 16-75, to New Orleans.
The group gutted and cleaned homes while meeting the people whose lives were drastically affected by the storm and floods. “Even eighteen months after Katrina, the scale of the destruction shocked them all," says Patti. “Thousands of homes had been destroyed and thousands more needed to be completely gutted before being rebuilt. We even had to wear HAZMAT suits."
When the group returned, they were all deeply moved. Word spread among Patti's community about the incredible trip, and soon other local synagogues and churches began asking her to create trips for them. "I realized how much I could help others through this," Patti relates. “So in March of 2007 I created Volunteer Expeditions, and plan trips for other groups to aid in the New Orleans rebuilding effort."
Volunteer Expeditions works pretty much exclusively with groups (like schools, churches, synagogues, etc.), and exists almost entirely online. Volunteers are a big part of how they're able to stay operational, and VolunteerMatch has been a key tool for them. “Since we work with groups from all over the country, there's no better way to promote our services," says Patti. And as a small nonprofit, it doesn't hurt that the service is free. To date, the organization has connected with close to 200 volunteers through VolunteerMatch.
“I am inspired by my volunteers on each and every trip," says Patti. “They have chosen to take their time, their energy, and their money to help others in a new city." One volunteer was so inspired after a trip with Volunteer Expeditions that he started his own nonprofit to help - and he's only 16! Patti is continuously amazed that no matter the age, background or community of her volunteers, every person comes together to help those less fortunate in their own way.
Patti loves to tell the incredible story of Pastor Bruce Davenport of the St. John's #5 Church and Social Ministry in the St. Bernard area. When he was younger, he was a gangbanger and on a bad path, but he turned around and became a pastor to help young people in his situation. Patti and Volunteer Expeditions join his church for a dinner on every trip to hear his story and meet people in his community. “Our volunteers, who usually come from nice neighborhoods, sit at the same tables as former gang members, recovering addicts, and those who are HIV positive," says Patti. “They talk, eat, laugh, and play together, and our volunteers are always touched by the experience."
In the five years since Patti started Volunteer Expeditions, over 40 groups have traveled to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding effort, which is over 1,200 people making a real difference. The organization has also expanded to include trips to tutor children in Jamaica and to help the homeless and hungry in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Even though she is now 70, Patti has no intention of slowing down! Instead, she is determined to share the knowledge she has gained with groups across the country and continue bringing more and more people to do good deeds in new cities.
Patti was stunned by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina when she first visited New Orleans. “I don't think anything can compare to my first visceral experience," she says thoughtfully. “But what moves me now in every conversation and every meeting with people either needing help in New Orleans, or those providing help, is the genuine appreciation of where they are, who they are and what's important. My growing list of friends, both volunteers and those in need, is a central part of my work and each of these people finds their way into my heart." And Patti will continue to help and care for all of them.