SVdP’s new board president opens latest chapter of journeying with those in need

He spent his professional life dealing with dollar signs and operational positions.

Meanwhile, Steve Attwood’s personal life has long dealt more with people, particularly those without enough dollar signs to make ends meet. He has spent the last three years merging the two in a professional role as chief operating officer of Phoenix’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

It’s a role he willingly relinquished Oct. 1 to serve the volunteer-driven organization in a different way. Now Attwood is president of its board of directors, a nonpaid position that oversees 85 Vincentian conferences in the country’s largest diocesan council.

Steve Attwood has been involved with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at one level or another since 1992. He relishes the opportunity to be face-to-face and on a first-name basis with those he serves. He became board president Oct. 1.
(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“It’s at the conference level where you have the face-to-face, the home visit, which is central to our mission — meeting them where they are instead of forcing them to come to our office,” Attwood said.

Phoenix’s St. Vincent de Paul has more than 3,000 Vincentians who make home visits. He made his first one in 1992 through SVdP at Corpus Christi Parish. A fellow parishioner one pew up, now formally part of SVdP herself, had simply invited him to attend a meeting. Attwood went. He went again.

“At the conference level, it’s face-to-face with an individual, a family, with someone who is hurting and letting them know someone cares,” Attwood told The Catholic Sun on the feast of the society’s patron.

That care translates to a food box or help with bills during a temporary gap in income, but referrals for counseling or addiction help aren’t uncommon. As its staff and volunteers say, no work is foreign to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“It’s an organization once you get involved in something, it’s easy to get more involved,” Attwood said.

Steve Zabilski, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, has known the other Steve since he began serving there 20 years ago. Attwood was on the board of directors at the time. Zabilski credits Attwood’s vision awhile back for its current construction project: a new transitional housing center and sorely needed expansion of the medical and dental clinics. The capital campaign to fund it was the largest such endeavor of any St. Vincent de Paul in the U.S.

“He always challenges us to look for ways where we can grow our organization to serve more people in need, as well as to provide additional opportunities for people to become involved as volunteers and donors,” Zabilski said.

Along those lines, Attwood is eager to give more people the opportunity to serve, especially on the board of directors. The more perspectives they bring in terms of their professional background — even if now retired — the better.

As for Attwood himself, he brings to the table an accounting degree from Arizona State University, certification as a public accountant, plus senior-level financial and operational positions with Allied-Signal — now Honeywell — Dell computer, Avery Dennison, Swift Transportation and Quality Distribution, the nation’s largest bulk transportation company.

He also brings a deep spirituality having completed his sacraments through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and later teaching RCIA in several places. Attwood briefly supported the Church as the top person in diocesan finance and through leadership roles with Catholic Charities, a parish’s finance council and as current president of the board of directors at Paz de Cristo, a soup kitchen that offers an array of other services, in Mesa.

“In order to bring about social change, you have to get into the trenches and see how things really are,” said Attwood, who now attends St. Timothy Parish in Mesa.

A vacation to visit one of his daughters during her college days confirmed that. She had him serving breakfast at a soup kitchen near Santa Clara University and then challenged him to sit down to eat and converse with one of the guests. Attwood saw his new friend as “emotionally broken,” but sharp as a tack, especially when it came to global economics.

“It put a face on the poor for me, very different than what I had previously thought,” Attwood said.

It’s his balance of “sound business principles with a true servant leader’s heart” that Zabilski said makes Attwood a good fit with any role he holds at St. Vincent de Paul. The business side is there, but it’s the stories about those the society serves and the volunteers who make it happen that are always on the tip of his tongue.

“You will never hear any of us say, ‘If you give us a dollar, we can feed X number of people.’ We’ll never say that because it’s about people and it’s about relationships,” Attwood said.

And he’s keenly aware of how those relationships flow both ways. Attwood has found that the gratefulness and humility of St. Vincent de Paul guests enriches the lives and the faith of the volunteers.

“You have to recognize in some way, we’re not just helping those who are less fortunate. They’re helping us who are spiritually hungry for something,” Attwood said.

UPDATE Oct. 19

We already found Steve Attwood out and about mingling with Vincentians at the parish level.