During his life, Venerable Nelson Baker established his legacy and work in the Our Lady of Victory Institutions that made him a local saint. A century later, Our Lady of Victory Homes of Charity Executive Director Rick Heist walked in many of the same footsteps of service Father Baker did, as Heist is set to culminate a 45-year career on the Lackawanna campus when he retires in June.
During his life as a Catholic priest, Father Baker helped establish a number of ministries to care for unwed mothers, orphaned boys, infant care and a hospital, in addition to championing the building of the Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna. Most of these ministries were paid by fundraising and donations through direct mail campaigns.
As it turns out, social care and development are the two major highlights of Heist's career at Our Lady of Victory. The second oldest of 13 children, Heist grew up in Alden with a strong interest in the Catholic faith; his uncle was a priest, and he even enrolled in a seminary for nine years.
"We came from a strongly religious family," Heist said during a recent interview. "The door was always open. It was rare when somebody called in advance (to come over), and sometimes they would stay a couple of days. It was chaotic. (But) we're all very close."
After leaving the seminary in 1973, Heist took a job in finance but it didn't last long. "I was pretty good at lending money, but having to collect it was a challenge, so I started at Baker Victory."
His first job at Baker Victory was as a socio-therapist (later renamed child care worker), where he was in charge of 11 teenage kids in the unit.
"After three and a half months, I almost quit," Heist said of his first job. "A guy named Bill O'Donnell who I worked with at the time said, 'Come on, we're going to stop for a beer.' I told him, 'I don't think I'm cut out for this.' He said, 'You know, you really do some stupid things in responses to these kids, but your heart's in the right place and someday you're going to make a really good child care worker.' That kept me."
After a difficult start, Heist was soon promoted and began to enjoy working with the youth staying there.
"Forming the relationships with the kids and seeing the changes they were able to make, and seeing their success of going through the program, and then go on from us to independent living (was great)," he said. "We had a lot of success stories."
Heist was named director of the residential program in 1984, a position he admits was stressful as it required most of his staff going out into tough neighborhoods in the evening before the era of cellphones allowed people to easily check in. In the late 80s, Heist was asked by then Our Lady of Victory Pastor and President Msgr. Robert Wurtz to oversee the fundraising operation of the institutions.
"It was an adjustment for me," Heist said. "I moved from what I thought was going to be my calling for the rest of my life as a counselor/therapist, and I had a lot of training for it. Moving into this was dramatically different. Why would I make that change? Working in that environment was the fast lane. (This) would help me have more control in my life."
Part of Heist's new responsibilities was to raise funds to cover any shortfalls the Our Lady of Victory Institutions might have, especially when New York state cuts financial aid for their services.
"We face challenges because the state has consistently cut back or changed the regulations that have a significant impact on our work," he said. "Dealing with state reimbursement strategy is a big challenge. Another challenge is that despite state cutting back or changing programs, costs are going up all the time. Over the past 10 to 15 years, all of us have put off addressing problems with the infrastructure, because we've focused on the quality of care."
A $12 million capital campaign was launched to help address the physical operations at the Lackawanna campus, but "the competition for donor dollars has never been harder," Heist said. While Father Baker's direct mailing campaign continues in the 21st century, now e-philanthropy is part of Our Lady of Victory's modern plan to raise money.
"All of that has grown exponentially," Heist said. "Our challenge has been to maintain a national donor base and to be able to grow that donor base so we can meet the needs on an annual basis, as well as try to build our reserve for Father Baker's legacy."
Father Baker's legacy is never far from the mind of Heist, as it has been for the leaders he's served under during his time there: Msgr. Joseph McPherson, Msgr. Wurtz and current pastor Msgr. Paul J.E. Burkard. When Heist started, Baker Victory Services had less than 100 clients, and now counts more than 4,000.
"We've been able to accomplish a great deal here," Heist said. "Baker Victory Services expanded tremendously. It's a much broader diagnostic group. We never had all these services before. Even though we put off the infrastructure stuff, we've caught up quite a bit with that. We've been able to continue on our work, and expand (it), increase donations and level the support services because we stand on the shoulders of giants here."
Following his retirement, Heist said he plans to spend time with his wife, help other Catholic institutions like Gerard Place in Buffalo and Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, as well as visit his three children and three grandchildren.