2018-04-01 / Up Close

50 Years of Fortitude

Interfaith Human Services provides holistic aid for those who need help getting back on their feet
Samantha Lauriello

When Lance Ripka moved back to the State College area about a year and a half ago, he was in the midst of a battle with mental illness and he felt like he had hit rock bottom. One local organization, Interfaith Human Services, helped him find a leg to stand on.

Unable to trust himself with his own money, Ripka turned to IHS to help him manage his finances. The organization introduced him to B.J. Weaver, now his representative payee, who makes sure his bills are paid and he has enough spending money to get through each week.

“It’s been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” Ripka says.

After relying on his family to handle his money caused more stress than security, building a trusting relationship with Weaver has given Ripka peace of mind.

“I know that B.J. has my best interest at heart,” Ripka says. “I know she’s not going to let me do something that I can’t afford to do.”

Nearly 50 years ago, four local congregations came together to combat a community issue: lack of support for those who didn’t have the resources to provide for themselves. Today, IHS comprises more than 30 faith communities and helps around 2,000 people annually.

paid staff members


people served
each year

people served via the Emergency Financial Care Program last year*

people received assistance from the Centre County Fuel Bank last year*

people served via the Financial Care Program last year*

pieces of free furniture received
by 356 families
last year*

*Fiscal year from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017

The individualized financial care program is just one of IHS’s many offerings, which have grown exponentially since the organization came to life.

In IHS’s first days, Mary Lou Bennett was a member of Diakonia Presbyterian Church, one of the founding parishes.

“We were helping people who were homeless, people who didn’t have enough money to pay for oil or heat, just people in need,” Bennett says. “There weren’t a lot of those kinds of services here in the ’60s, and if there were, they weren’t well coordinated.”

At that time, Bennett was co-administrator of the emergency fund, a service IHS still offers today. The fund provides emergency financial assistance for water and electricity shutoffs, transportation to medical appointments and more.

“The budget for our first year was $300,” Bennett says. “At the time, home heating oil was somewhere between 11 and 17 cents per gallon.”

Since the beginning of 2018, heating oil has averaged about $3 per gallon, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

In some cases, if someone’s home didn’t have heat overnight, Bennett says the organization could get the person a hotel room for about $17 per night. Today, the average cost of one night in a hotel in State College is around $88.

IHS has used this changing climate as motivation to expand its services.

“Now we’re not just providing money for emergencies, but we’re also striving to help people become more self-efficient and financially stable,” says Wendy Vinhage, executive director of IHS.

Bennett says the financial care program came to life when one IHS client came looking for help and said, “I can’t handle my own money. Please take it, pay my bills and give me $5 a week.”

Now, about 100 people utilize this program, Vinhage says.

Ripka has two main goals he would like to accomplish with Weaver’s help: paying off past debt and becoming financially stable.

“I would like to be able to take care of my own money and finances eventually,” Ripka says, “but my number one goal is to take care of my debt, so I would much rather have B.J. at the helm of that than myself.”

Maintaining trusting relationships with clients, as Ripka and Weaver have, is something on which IHS prides itself.

“It’s definitely more than just a ‘What do you need?’ kind of thing,” Vinhage says. “There was a woman whose daughter was getting married, and she didn’t have anyone else to tell, but she couldn’t wait to tell her case manager.”

Another of IHS’s popular services is its free furniture and appliance recycling program, where donated furniture is used to furnish low-income households.

Vinhage says this program has helped a lot of people escape deceptive “rent-to-own” furniture programs, which actually end up costing much more than market price.

Many IHS clients are able to benefit from more than one program. This is true for Ripka, who has also used the furniture service.

“I didn’t have an apartment to live in. I didn’t have anything,” Ripka says of his life just over a year ago.

As he slowly got back on his feet, he was able to find a place to live and then turned to IHS to help furnish his home.

Before being accepted to the program, Ripka had to go through an application process, as all clients do for any of IHS’s offerings.

This aids IHS workers and volunteers in understanding each client’s unique situation.

“There are some people who need furniture one year and then three years later we’ll see them again, but we also have some clients who have been with us over 10 years,” Vinhage says. “It’s really tailored to the need of the person.” •SCM

IHS will host a 50th anniversary celebration from 4 to 6 p.m. April 12 at Foxdale Village. It will be an open house with light refreshments provided.

To learn more about donating to IHS, visit

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