In the first quarter of 2016, Vincentians operating out of a local parish-based food pantry helped more than 6,600 people.
That’s essentially one person served per family registered with another 16 percent of families helping one additional person in need. Sometimes that help translated to a sit down conversation in a makeshift living room area of the Vincentians’ pantry operations to assess other needs and underlying causes.
At other times, St. Vincent de Paul volunteers made home visits bringing food boxes and offering to pray together prior to their departure. When funding permitted, help also meant temporary rent or utility assistance or outfitting men living in a nearby halfway house with work boots.
No matter the form of help, a personal, wrap-around approach came standard. A similar scene plays out almost daily at 82 other parish-based St. Vincent de Paul conferences throughout the Diocese of Phoenix. Such efforts have been the cornerstone of St. Vincent de Paul’s operations since its founding 70 years ago.
“When it first started it was very simple: we delivered food to the poor,” said Frank Barrios, who knew the area’s first Vincentians — Dan O’Meara and four others based out of St. Mary’s Basilica — and has been a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer for at least 25 years.
That’s still the premise. Outreach has expanded significantly to serve the community’s vulnerable in need of clothing, a shower, shelter, dining services or rent or utility assistance, even travel assistance or medical or dental treatment. The latter outreach received the inaugural Henry Schein Cares Medal for oral health from Henry Schein, Inc., the world’s largest provider of health care products and services to office-based dental practitioners in June. The recognition came with $10,000 to continue its ministry of restoring genuine smiles.
Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Whether the St. Vincent de Paul outreach focuses on feeding, clothing, housing or otherwise healing individuals and families, each one piles hope and love on top of the free help.
That’s what comes to mind when Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted thinks of St. Vincent de Paul. He sees it as a place where the corporal works of mercy are carried out.
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only,” the bishop said, citing the Epistle of James. “I give thanks to God for all our Vincentians who treasure their faith and put it into action. Our diocese is richly blessed to have these dedicated men and women in nearly all of our parishes, bearing witness to Christ among the most vulnerable and forgotten of society.”
Vincentians and other regular donors and volunteers don’t forget.
“They’re our brothers. They’re a part of us,” said Barrios, who is the current president for St. Vincent de Paul’s board of directors. “Our rule is, whoever needs help gets help.”
Such need escalates in the summer months when donation dollars and volunteer support drop to “worrisome levels,” said Steve Zabilski, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul. Higher energy bills coupled with hungry children home from school all summer means families barely making ends meet as it is struggle even more.
“From the very beginning, our Vincentians see the face of Christ in everyone we serve. It is the foundation of our organization,” Zabilski said.
Most assistance comes though the conference level and there’s even a system within that to ensure poorer conferences get the financial and volunteer support they need. Twenty-three conferences benefit from “twinning” support offered by other conferences.
That volunteer spirit is part of what has kept Terry Wilson involved for 37 years. He spent time in many trade associations over the years and recalled watching heads go down when someone asked for volunteers.
At St. Vincent de Paul, “Every time we need a volunteer, hands go up,” Wilson said. “It’s the right people doing the right things for the right reasons.”
Volunteers come in as young as five for monthly family-friendly volunteer sessions at St. Vincent de Paul’s main campus and have been known to serve well into their 90s. Some lift up the poor by donating money or gifts they would have received for a birthday or honeymoon to those in greater need. Newlyweds Joseph and Julia Kohn met through CatholicMatch.com and had wedding guests fulfill wish list needs for toys and supplies in St. Vincent de Paul’s Dream Center.
The multi-use space within the family dining room provides activity centers for children to move their mind and their spirit beyond crisis mode. It offers homework help because parents may want to help, but it’s a struggle due to their own limited education. Other hands-on activities, via crafts, science projects and volunteer interaction, encourage the kids to set and exceed goals.
“The Dream Center changes those kids’ lives. That is the best thing we’ve ever done,” Wilson said.
Some of those children could easily be among the next generation of “One At A Time” scholarship recipients. Wilson oversees the 16-year-old program that has supported 105 students through college. Some 60 percent earn degrees and many find career success. Wilson calculated that his scholars can expect to earn some $55 million above what their high school graduate counterparts can expect in a lifetime.
“That is game-changing. That is generational-poverty changing,” Wilson said.
“Our urban farm is producing more than 1,000 pounds of nutrient-rich produce each week for our guests who otherwise would not have access to this type of healthy food,” Zabilski said. “Our downtown Henry Unger dining room is now open every night to allow homeless women and disabled men to have a place to sleep.”
The outreach was in response to the closure of a local overflow shelter. The move would have forced individuals to live and sleep in the streets and alleys.
Local Vincentians call Phoenix’s St. Vincent de Paul one of the most prosperous in the U.S. Its 3,500 members model what some 800,000 members in 150 countries do daily for the poor in their areas.
Such numbers are independent of the strong corporate support St. Vincent de Paul has. Phoenix’s 10-year-old breakfast dining service has more than 400 corporate partners serving the homeless weekdays on the Human Services Campus.
St. Vincent de Paul thrives — and is poised to soon expand — because of those who support it from the bottom up, volunteers say.
“They’re blessed by being able to donate. We’re blessed by being able to receive that and then pass it on,” Lori Sellers, president of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, said after filming a “Pay It Forward” segment on CBS 5AZ. “It could be a relatively small amount, but it could be a giant amount to someone else.”
“We’re just one little tiny part of it, but we’re just a tiny little machine that works.”