As elementary and high school students, they’re among St. Vincent de Paul’s youngest volunteers who lack enough income to wholly support themselves. Yet over and over again students across Diocese of Phoenix schools follow the example of the widow’s mite by navigating around that and other barriers to still help St. Vincent de Paul fulfill its four-fold mission: Feed. Clothe. House Heal.
There are 30 junior high students at Annunciation Catholic School and a few neighboring schools extra passionate about living the mission of St. Vincent de Paul. They’re known as Vibrant Vinnies, the only elementary level St. Vincent de Paul Vincentian conference in the western U.S. region.
They commit to two events per month with at least a handful of Vibrant Vinnies at each one. Annunciation students study social justice in fifth grade and the SVdP conference offers an immediate and long-lasting way to bring that lesson to life.
“It’s a wonderful idea to help children understand that they have a role in society in helping the poor. It’s a gratitude and thanksgiving for all of the gifts that we’ve been given,” said Ling Patty, past president of the St. Gabriel’s conference at the same campus. She helped form the student conference as a way to ensure the future and growth of the society.
Vibrant Vinnies support the receiving end of food drives; sponsor an annual Christmas party in one dining room complete with faith-inspired goodies for children’s stockings; coordinate clothing drives for SVdP thrift stores; visit older residents at Ozanam Manor, SVdP’s transitional shelter; and pair up with St. Matthew’s Vincentian Conference to make home visits to guests in need. Their youthful faces during home visits often encourages the guest to be more relaxed and open about their needs.
Tyler Schlarb, a sixth-grader, said being a Vincentian grows your spirituality. “School teaches you academics. This teaches you to be caring, grow stronger in our faith.”
Others talked about it opening their eyes about the poverty around them.
“A lot of kids don’t realize how lucky they are,” said seventh-grader Michael Motola, noting a common attitude among youth of, “Oh, my parents can buy it.” “Eventually, they become careless of how much they have.”
The Annunciation Catholic School Vibrant Vinnies will host the district meeting for Vincentians Jan. 24 and are supporting Pizza Night in the Family Dining Room some time this month.
Corporal workers of mercy
Students at St. Francis Xavier aren’t an official conference, but their “Mini Vinnies” effort has them regularly filling Family Dining Room roles each semester. An electronic signup invites students ages 9 and older to volunteer with their family and friends. Not every slot got filled, but the school offered 40 different dates during the fall semester with dates closer to Christmas completely full.
Volunteers either support the Dream Center where kids do homework and games or serve dinner restaurant style. After a long absence, fifth-grader Henry Pastor was happy to return in December with his brother, cousins and friends.
“I felt like I should come here because I hadn’t done it this year and I’ve been busy,” Pastor said. He and others viewed SVdP as their “getaway” place where they could also do some good.
Pastor’s aunt, Sonya La Sota, said the opportunity helped families, not just the students, live out the “Kids for Others” part of St. Francis Xavier’s mission statement.
At Sacred Heart in Prescott, the local SVdP conference knows it “can” count on students when the pantry supply is low. The school holds an annual “SuperSoup Bowl” around the time of the big game. Students select which themed “end zone” to donate their canned goods.
Students at the high school level often help SVdP from both their school campus and the main SVdP campus where guests will find freshmen at Brophy College Preparatory.
“They serve as one of the primary co-educators of our students and allow our students real opportunities to put their faith into action, and into context,” said Will Rutt, director of Ignatian Service, calling SVdP’s partnership invaluable.
Seton Catholic Preparatory in Chandler has a similar setup through its “Prayer and Service at Seton” program. November marked the first time freshman Maeve Byrne was at SVdP. She wrote in a reflection that she was a little nervous to serve lunch to the guests at first — praying beforehand helped, as did staying busy.
“The most enjoyable part of my day of service was seeing the appreciation in the guests’ faces. I felt as if they knew how hard we were working to help them. Their gratitude was a great boost in morale,” she wrote. “Having helped others, I feel closer to those in need.”
Aidan Alcott, a senior at Brophy, started volunteering at SVdP to fulfill service hour requirements, but returned to helping in the Family Dining Room when he accepted a gentle challenge from a Xavier College Preparatory friend — and regular volunteer — to be a better person.
“The stories I have of St. Vincent de Paul, I love to tell my friends about,” said Alcott, who now comes weekly. His quest each night of service: to go the extra mile for guests, engage them and put a smile on their faces. The experience has also made him more patient and more social.
Sarah Fox, a senior at Xavier College Preparatory, supports SVdP’s Family Dining Room weekly and recently was the key point of contact. She began volunteering through the Xavier Young Vincentians Club, which began in 2004. The club volunteers twice a month, but Fox comes on her own too.
“I try not to let what I have going on outside of St. Vincent de Paul affect my schedule of being present here,” Fox said while serving one night. “I’d rather be here when they need me rather than when I’m available.”