If you’re going to run an organization as illustrious and long-lasting as Lutheran Settlement House, change is inevitable. Just last month, the River Wards-based nonprofit hired its latest executive director, a man named David Chiles, who has more than 20 years of nonprofit experience. The Star got the chance to chat with Chiles last week now that he’s gotten his feet wet at LSH, which is the community’s most prominent leader when it comes to supporting victims of domestic violence, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry and more. During the chat, Chiles talked about how the first few weeks of work have gone, leaving his mark on the storied nonprofit and things you might not know about the organization.
How have the first few weeks on the job been?
I love it. It’s exciting. It’s been exciting to learn about all the work that’s happening here and I’ve loved meeting and working with our staff and I’ve been so inspired and impressed by the work that they’ve been doing and their dedication to the people that they serve. A big thing for me with nonprofits is that I’m always looking for not just how well the services are being delivered but also for how people are treated and that has been something that’s really stood out to me here – that the services are excellent and we have a lot of people with great amounts of expertise and what goes along with that is there’s this real sense of caring for people when they come in and caring for people exactly where they are and that’s really moving to me.
What’s a typical day at the office like for you?
Right now, I don’t know if I’ve gotten into a typical day yet, but usually I have some meetings with program directors here. Sometimes there’s group meetings as we’re looking at things like the way that we’re using data within the organization to understand the impact of our work or groups that are planning our upcoming events. I’ve been working right now to meet with a lot of our supporters and volunteers so I can get a sense for what is the community that has been holding up the work of Lutheran Settlement House. So it’s been meeting a lot of people, learning a lot and then beginning to put some plans in place for what the upcoming year is going to look like.
What does Lutheran Settlement House mean to you?
I think what it means to me is that there is a place in our community where people who are at a turning point have a place where they can go, be connected to multiple services and be empowered to live with dignity. For some people, that’s people coming to us [such as] an elderly person who’s running out of food or is looking for companionship. A person who wants to go back and continue their education – they have a place here. Or it could be people in crisis. Someone who is fleeing an abuser in a relationship or a parent who’s facing homelessness and needs a place for them and their children to stay. All kinds of people come to Lutheran Settlement House, but the commonality is that they’re at this crisis point or this turning point in their lives and when they come here, they’re supported and accompanied and connected and they find community here.
Can you tell me a little bit about your previous experience and how you arrived at Lutheran Settlement House?
Sure. So, previously, I was at an organization called Providence Center, which was an education organization at the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia and I have worked at Philabundance and Cabrini College prior to that. My announcement said I have over 20 years of nonprofit experience and that made me feel a little old, but that is where I’ve built my career. I particularly love community-based nonprofits.
What made you want to make the leap from the Providence Center to Lutheran Settlement House?
I loved my work at Providence Center, but I was really drawn to the larger scope and variety of services that are available at Lutheran Settlement House. The fact that we can have someone coming to us out of a domestic violence situation and to not only be able to support them with counseling for themselves and their children but also be able to find them housing if they need it to be able (to continue) their education if they need that support, to receive food, if they need some basic support like that. I was really drawn to the web of social supports that are available at Lutheran Settlement House and I was really excited to be part of that.
What is your vision for Lutheran Settlement House going forward? How do you hope to leave your mark on the organization?
I’m in my second month so I’m still developing that. I would say that we’re in a changing community here in Fishtown, but it’s a community with some more means who have moved in here, but there are still areas of real need in our area. And I’m excited to expand people’s knowledge of what Lutheran Settlement House does and ways people can be involved in supporting that work or ways that people can access services that they need. And I’m excited to work with our staff to help the visions they have for how their programs can continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of our community. I’ve been really impressed that while we’re a 117-year-old organization, there is still this grassroots energy here of people constantly looking and saying, ‘How are the needs of our community or the needs of our clients changing and how can we change to best address those needs?’ So I’ve been working with our program directors who are incredible, dedicated people to see what other ways in which we’re going to continue to evolve as poverty deepens in area, as violence deepens in our community, as we have seen the struggle of immigrants in our country, to see how we are going to be able to evolve and address these issues.
Is there anything you think people might be surprised to learn what Lutheran Settlement House does that they might not know?
I think people here in our neighborhood might be surprised to know that we also run a shelter for parents and children. We have about 25 adults and 75 children in shelter. I think they would be surprised to know that, for instance, in our domestic violence program we have a large outreach to the medical community where we’re working in four different hospitals training doctors and nurses to recognize the signs of domestic violence and we have advocates inside the hospitals who can provide emergency services to people who are fleeing a domestic violence situation. I think people would be surprised to find out that we have a food cupboard here and most of the people who are taking advantage of our food cupboard are coming from the immediate area. There are still pockets of need in this area and while there are these amazing restaurants and apartments and stores opening, there is still a need that needs to be filled and we draw people right from our immediate area. Those are some things that come to mind.