The moment you sit down with Ralph May, the stories start pouring out — snapshots of his intrepid journey from a rural Idaho farm to Catholic lay missionary work in some of Peru’s poorest and most violent barrios. During his decade of service in the country, he helped launch projects to remove dangerous landfill waste, offer government-issued identification to unregistered residents, plant over a thousand trees, and organize a neighborhood watch. May also improved local nutrition by opening the largest dairy farm in the Peruvian jungle.
Today, the Gem State native is back home leading St. Vincent de Paul of Southwest Idaho as its first executive director, a position he has held since 2017. The organization operates seven thrift stores, five food pantries and a dining hall, serving thousands of people each year from Mountain Home to Caldwell.
May has big plans for St. Vincent de Paul of Southwest Idaho, including increased partnerships with other nonprofits and corporate sponsors.
He recently chatted with the Idaho Business Review about his unique path — an adventure dedicated to service. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have had an interesting trajectory from row crop farming in Jerome, Idaho, to Latin America to St. Vincent de Paul.
I did farm for a lot of my life and had the ability to do different things, particularly in the winter. One of those things that helped change my life direction, I became involved with an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. We started organically and informally going down and helping rebuild the orphanage. That grew into a much bigger, more concerted effort. We were supporting the orphanage on a monthly basis. That was one of the sparks for me. I could see the needs. That became Capstone Missions, a 501 (c)3. My wife and my daughter, who was 4 years old at that time, and I left to go to Peru and were there for six years on the coast of Peru in the city of Trujillo, a very poor area, very violent. The coast of Peru is basically a sand dune. The barrios we were working in were all up on the sand dunes, clay, adobe homes, some with very little roof. There were communal water stations.
About three years in, I found a Peruvian partner. He had grown up in middle-class society in Trujillo and he knew the institutions, the universities, the government. I knew the people and had the trust and the confidence to move around even though it was very violent. We set up a nonprofit there. As a Catholic lay missionary, we had access to the best facilities in those barrios, which were church facilities. We went block by block and talked to people, met at people’s homes.
The universities in Peru all provide services as part of their mandate. The challenge was the universities didn’t have a lot of contact with the very poor areas. We were that nexus point. We brought in dental campaigns and medical campaigns. There were counselors available because there is a lot of trauma in those areas. We also brought educational opportunities.
Is there a particular experience you remember from your time in Peru when you felt like you really made a difference?
There were people who had built their houses in a landfill — they cut mounds of garbage to put their house in. They were breathing in the dust and things from this garbage. The kids were playing in the garbage all day long. The health concerns were extreme. We coordinated with the mayor to haul out tons of this composting garbage.
In another situation, the area where we were working had no trash pickup, so people were throwing garbage in the lowest area behind their house. Disease was a big problem and also people’s pride in where they lived. We went to the mayor and asked for trash pickup, and he agreed, but he said people wouldn’t use it. We told him that if he provided trash pickup regularly, we will help educate people on how to use the trash pickup. We spent many weeks meeting with people in their homes and explaining what was going to happen. When the trash was going to be picked up, we went through the streets ringing a bell to let people know trash pickup was coming. We would go into homes and help people bring their trash to the street. People did not know what to do. Those were just two things we did to help bring government services to that very poor area.
You worked a lot with female entrepreneurs in Peru. Talk more about that.
We had entrepreneurship classes and a lot of them focused on cooking commercially — specialty things that sell. We had one particular lady who really embraced that idea, and she, even before we finished the classes, had a cart and was selling on the street doing well, making a much better living and supporting her three kids. She was selling to other poor people, but her goal was to take that cart to the business district and this was her first step.
You also started a dairy farm in the Peruvian jungle. That must have been an adventure.
Yes, it was so violent in Trujillo that we decided we couldn’t stay there when my daughter turned 10. So we moved across the Andes to the jungle. We spent four years there building up this dairy farm. We were in continual construction the whole time. At the end, we were approaching 100 cows milking — the largest dairy farm in the jungle, though that is still not very big.
I was not an experienced dairy farmer, but I saw a lack of education because the jungle of Peru is quite isolated. People didn’t have an understanding of modern dairy techniques. I set out to introduce new ideas. We began doing a lot of different trials and things to improve production, and immediately we had visitors showing up at our door who wanted to see what we were doing. We had over 700 visitors and four universities came.
I saw that there were nutritional challenges there, and milk could help with that. It was really quite a wonderful experience and very intense. For those four years, I never left for more than two hours at a time.
What brought you back to Idaho?
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and our daughter had reached the age where she was going to high school. We wanted her to be able to do that in the States. I started working with St. Vincent de Paul on employment assistance for ex-offenders, men and women coming out of prison. It was a great transition for me to learn more about St. Vincent de Paul’s mission. In 2017, St. Vincent de Paul received a grant from the Murdock Foundation to hire an executive director. I started in August 2017.
What are some of your goals in the executive director role?
St. Vincent de Paul is a large organization. Before I came on as executive director, there had never been paid leadership, it had always been volunteer. The goal was to get everything in order — policies, procedures and things that had not been looked at in years. We want to multiply what we are already doing helping people. There is always more work to do in that realm.
One goal was to do more with returning citizens. In Ada County alone, there are a thousand men and men released from the state system alone. That doesn’t include the federal system. That is a thousand people who have an opportunity to make a positive impact in the community — or a negative impact. We see that as an opportunity. Building on the reentry work has been a priority. We are looking at working with other St. Vincent de Paul organizations across the state to multiply that.
It is a time for us to look at how we can go further with what we are really good at. Something that we are really good at is homelessness prevention. We have our helplines — last year we responded to 6,300 calls, people who have a problem with rent or utility shutoff or they have no furniture. A volunteer will assess what is going on and offer help. We offer free furniture to people who are in dire need, we have clothing vouchers, rent assistance — it all adds up to some serious help. We did roughly half a million dollars in rent and utility assistance last year.
We also have the food pantry side, which is the largest retail food assistance in the area. We see people on the ragged edge of homelessness who are facing food insecurity.
I know the city of Boise is in the midst of a conversation about homelessness.
We look at all of these things we do as homelessness prevention. Most of the major cities have huge homelessness problems, but Boise doesn’t have that level. What we are doing is trying to keep people in their homes. It is much cheaper to keep people in their homes then have them become homeless and have to get them back. Hopefully, we can diminish that incidence.
This is a great time to be involved with this work. There are a lot of good people in Boise. There is a lot of openness to make a difference."