Good Neighbor Virginia Ferry: Mission Accomplished

For 36 years, Virginia Ferry has remained among MorningStar Mission Ministries' most active volunteers. She helped organized a campaign to start a 35-bed women’s shelter in 1980 and was instrumental in a $1.6 million capital campaign to build a 46-bed men’s recovery center in 1993. An educational center followed last year and now the new Women and Family Center.

Virginia Ferry had hoped to become a movie star when she moved to Los Angeles as a young college grad. But the Joliet, Ill., native never made it on the big screen, returning to Joliet from L.A. in 1958. “Marilyn Monroe made it. I didn’t,” she says.

Yet she’s played a starring role in her community by helping thousands of neighbors and serving as a role model for others to emulate. Her change in plans represented one of life’s surprising — and inspiring — detours.

In 1971, when Ferry and her late husband Alan were in their 30s, they lost meaningful direction in their lives because of alcoholism and marital problems. They were considering divorce, but a friend encouraged them to volunteer at the MorningStar Mission Ministries, a Joliet nonprofit service organization established in 1909 that had a shelter for poor homeless men in a rundown, drug-infested section of the city.

The Ferrys helped cook, serve, clean, and hold prayer services. Early on, one visitor made a lasting impression on Ferry.

“I remember answering the door after a service and seeing Tommy,” recalls Ferry. “He didn’t have arms and wore ragged clothing. He asked me, ‘Can I have something to eat?’ I urged him to come in. We sat down, and I fed him. I had a $50 bill in my purse and put it in his pocket, saying, ‘Maybe this will help.’ We never heard from him again, but I’ve often thought he might have been an angel sent to make an impact on me.”

Since then, Ferry’s time, money, and heart have focused on MorningStar, which now shelters and cares for more than 10,000 homeless and struggling men, women, and children annually. The mission helps adults re-enter mainstream life by counseling substance abusers, feeding the hungry, teaching basic skills such as cooking and using a computer, and providing job training and placement. It also reaches out to the community through clothing, furniture, and food drives.

On August 10, Ferry proudly celebrated the Mission’s latest success: the dedication of its $5.3 million Women and Family Center, a homeless shelter she helped to envision three years ago, specifically with families in mind.

“It seemed odd to separate families,” Ferry says, explaining that most shelters have to separate fathers from mothers and children, even sometimes prohibiting teenage boys from staying with their mothers. “The [residents] didn’t complain because they were in desperate circumstances. But we decided to change the accommodations.”

The new 72-bed shelter uses an innovative blueprint. It allows families to stay together in hotel-style suites that include a private room and bathroom. Residents share a lounge, kitchen, playroom, and yard. “We’re pioneers in keeping families together,” Ferry says.

Ferry devoted almost 1,300 hours of her time during the last 16 months to help decide the type of facility needed, raised $1.5 million including $12,000 of her own funds. She also rallied potential volunteers to visit so they could see firsthand what went on.

“It didn’t give them a good feeling to watch people wait in line with their children for food. But it opened their eyes about what they took for granted. They’d say to me, ‘Oh, my goodness, this place makes a difference,’ ” she says.

One of the most important ways in which Ferry serves MorningStar residents is by giving them personal attention. “I want people to feel they’re somebody. No matter what they’ve been through, we surround them with care and love,” she says.

Her efforts have made a difference for women like Mary White, who never met Ferry personally but who has benefited from the love she received at MorningStar. White says her childhood ended when she was sexually abused in elementary school. She eventually became an alcoholic and a prostitute and lived on the street. Believing that nobody cared about her, she became spiritually bankrupt, hopeless, and suicidal. Yet for a reason White can’t explain, she was drawn to the mission.

“MorningStar became my road to deliverance, a place where little was expected of me except going to a 7 p.m. church service and volunteering. I cleaned toilets. In return, I received clothing, a place to sleep and eat, and courses in substance abuse. For the first time in years, I felt hope from the mission’s divine intervention,” recalls White, who went on to earn a master’s degree in social work.

After she left, White graduated from college, earned a master’s degree in social work, and worked as a mental health professional at the Illinois Youth Center. She married and now stays home to raise a granddaughter and participate in a radio show, “Increase the Light.”

For 36 years, as the mission has expanded, Ferry has remained among its most active volunteers. She helped organized a campaign to start a 35-bed women’s shelter in 1980 and was instrumental in a $1.6 million capital campaign to build a 46-bed men’s recovery center in 1993. An educational center followed last year and now the new Women and Family Center.

Why does one person give so much time to help others? Besides her faith, Ferry credits her roots. “I grew up during the Depression, but if we were poor, I never knew it. My parents were givers who taught us to do the same,” she says.

The message was reinforced when she stepped foot in the mission. “Once you see its work, you’re hooked. The last thing I wanted to do was be a servant, but when I went there, that changed. God inspired me to love and help others,” she says.

Even now, at age 71 and a cancer survivor, Ferry continues her hectic pace. “I love this work and the people. After my husband died, I took his clothing to the mission. One man, Steven, asked to try on a winter jacket. I remember him saying, ‘Winter’s coming, and I have no warm jacket or shoes.’ It sounds insignificant, but it touched my heart. I’ve never worried about what I’d wear the next winter. If I can show someone I care, I’ve succeeded. The mission changed my life, and I’m a better person for it,” she says.

Contact Ferry at Twelve Oaks Realty, 26125 Leslie Drive, Channahon, IL 60410; 815/744-2288;

Contact MorningStar Mission Ministries Inc. at 350 E. Washington St., Joliet, IL, 60433; 815/722-5780;