Monticello, NY – For Sister Kevin John Shields, it’s never been about herself. Not even today, when she was given the Distinguished Citizen Award by the Sullivan County Legislature.
“There are wonderful people who do so much for others around the County, in spite of their own hardships,” the longtime Roman Catholic nun relates, accepting the award on behalf of all who volunteer their time in the service of their community.
That selfless spirit is reflected in her entire life, most of it spent as a Dominican Sister. The Long Island native joined the 800-year-old Order of St. Dominic in 1959 and first arrived in Sullivan County in the 1960s, when she ran the Sisters of St. Dominic’s camp in St. Joseph’s, near Forestburgh.
She made her stay permanent in 1977, beginning a religious education program in Sullivan and Orange counties with Sister Mary Elizabeth Kelleher. Though Sister Mary passed away six years ago, Sister Kevin continues to direct the program from its Liberty office, which also doubles as her home.
“I fell in love with the area,” she admits. “I see much of it regularly, as I supervise curricula and train volunteers to be religious education teachers, doing anything I can to help coordinators, directors and pastors in our churches. As a result, I do a lot of driving, but fortunately I like to drive, so that’s a big help!”
Sister Kevin’s attitude of service has long reached beyond the walls of Catholic churches. In 1983, she founded the Sullivan County Cares Coalition, working with a variety of agencies and individuals to address the burgeoning substance abuse and addiction scourge. She recruited people like Thompson Town Supervisor David Kaufman and Liberty School Superintendent Richard Beruk to lead the nonprofit’s board, and for the next 30 years, it made a difference in thousands of lives.
“Addiction can be such a tragedy, and it attacks many different elements of society,” she rues. “But there were many great stories of people who pulled their lives together.”
Teens were a particular focus, with countywide Awareness Days, Walks for Youth and trips to Daytop (a local rehab center) organized by the Coalition.
“We’d bring kids to Daytop to play basketball and have conversations with the young men and women residing there,” Sister Kevin recalls. “And they’d tell them, ‘I’ve been there, done that, and drugs don’t work.’”
That message remains just as critical today, she notes.
“I am concerned about the world our young people are growing up in, not just with substance abuse but with racism, violence and division,” she acknowledges. “I feel many of our families are in terrible trouble today, and as families go, so goes society.”
But her hope remains, bolstered by – of all things – the demise of the Coalition she founded.
“It became harder and harder to get funding from the state, but I was delighted to see so many people become involved,” Sister Kevin explains. “By the time we said ‘amen’ to the Cares Coalition in 2013, there were many other groups which existed and now cared as much as we did.”
That’s the challenge she continues to make to everyone.
“We have to get back to a positive, just, compassionate, merciful outlook with one another,” she says. “What are we doing to make things a little bit better?”