Theirs is a story of togetherness and faith, service to others in need that began soon after Tracy and Shawn Ryan married.
“We started with just the two of us when we were first married,” says Tracy, “and we just kept going. God kept allowing us resources to make meals, and as children kept coming, we kept going.”
That drive has powered the Ryan family’s commitment to their community through more than twelve years and four children as they volunteer with SafeHouse Outreach, an organization that helps people experiencing homelessness transition from the streets to self-sufficiency. The Atlanta, Georgia family now six strong serves hot meals with dignity through SafeHouse’s IMPACT Meals, as their volunteerism is guided by the motto “others before self.”
“We claimed one particular night a week (to provide meals) with another family,” says Shawn. “Tracy, the executive chef, was sometimes cooking more than 200 meals on a Monday. We say Caleb was there one week before birth and then again as a three-week old. We never missed a month. Our children have grown up serving.”
The Ryan children, eldest Caleb (12), Asher (10), Alden (7) and Micah, who just turned 4, have been raised with the understanding that volunteerism is “just something you do,” says Shawn. On average, SafeHouse serves more than 80,000 plates each year, the Ryan family operation contributing thousands of creative and economical meals over the years to that total, even little Micah passing out drinks to hungry community members at SafeHouse.
“These are people just like you and me,” says Shawn. “People we most often drive by and ignore, or look the other way when we pull up alongside them in a car. Instead, we are now just stopping, saying hi, calling them by name. They’re folks just like you and me. Their circumstances are extremely different for sure. But people are still people and people need to be loved.”
Cooking meals for the hungry and those experiencing homelessness in their home kitchen, the family makes everything from Shepherd’s Pie to chili, but Tracy says meatball subs are a favorite of the diners they serve. It’s the meals, accompanied by worship services with organizations like City Takers, wisdom teachings, live music, game nights and other activities that are not just satiating a tremendous number of hungry neighbors, but also uniting their community through kindness, says Caleb, who has joined his family in hosting drives, cooking and serving meals and other outreach events.
“(Volunteerism) allows me to meet new people,” Caleb says. “We pray with people, serve them, make new friends and do a lot of community service for people out there on the streets that don’t have a job. We got a washer and dryer through a Ten Thousand Reasons grant, and that impacted people because every time I got outside, people didn’t have clean clothes. Now I can go out and see (them wearing) clean clothes. It makes me feel really good knowing there are people out there with cleaner clothes.”
In addition to benefiting the community, their impact has helped to strengthen the Ryan family bond and development according to Tracy, who says the outreach helps her children step out of their bubble and learn about others who aren’t as fortunate. Caleb’s younger siblings have their own unique perspectives on service. For Asher, volunteerism is about impacting his community. According to Alden, service is a fun activity full of appreciation and helping those less fortunate. And even Micah enthusiastically reports how he helps his “friends” at SafeHouse. That interaction, says Tami Ballauf, a SafeHouse volunteer and board member, offers a level of comfort and outreach that is transformative for the individuals the Ryan family is serving.
“The level of compassion they show together as a family is not usually seen, even in our type of outreach, and it gives people dignity and value, something they don’t usually receive,” says Tami. “The people we serve at SafeHouse, people don’t usually look them in the eye, ask their name or touch them. The Ryan family just loves people without judgement. They’re very kind and approachable. With the kids being so present and active there’s a level of trust that gets built for the whole team. It breaks down some of the walls people have. Sometimes, people are very hardened by their way of life. The kids melt that away.”
SafeHouse is open for any individual, team, church, business or organization that is looking to host a meal, and was dependent upon support during the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenge Tracy calls humbling. The Ryan family increased their service in response to the great need in their area. What had been sit-down dinners evolved into guests social distancing in a line that extended for blocks, just for a take-out meal. Throughout the uncertainties of the last two years, what’s remained constant is the Ryan family’s dedication to service, efforts Shawn says he sees paying off in the lives of those they’ve connected with.
“We served food all the way through a career development program, and one guy we’d served who was living off the street came back and told me he’d just had his first paid vacation. It’s the little stuff we take for granted. What Alden said about people saying thank you, we’ve been there with the littlest of kids, and the people are just grateful. The smiles the kids bring them bring smiles back.”
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