Love in motion as couple reaches out to save those on the margins

By Joyce Coronel, Together Let Us Go Forth Magazine

The phone rings inside the red brick building on the campus of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in North Phoenix. Peg Lanphear answers.

“St. Vincent de Paul. May I help you?” Peg says as she grabs a clipboard.

The person at the other end of the line is looking for help with his rent and is hoping for a food box, too.

Meanwhile, in the pantry, Tom Lanphear, Peg’s husband of 55 years, restocks the shelves with cans of vegetables, boxes of pasta, and jars of peanut butter.

The Lanphears are Vincentians, members of Ss. Simon and Jude’s conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The charitable organization provided a whopping 5.9 million pounds of food through its central food bank in 2021.

Most parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix have a group of volunteers known as Vincentians who belong to the parish conference that serves the needy. The Lanphears are just two of the thousands of individuals who give of their time to reach out to those on the margins of society. They got involved serving as Vincentians 14 years ago.

Peg is president of her parish’s conference. She grew up the youngest of 13 children in rural Illinois. Her father died when she was 8. Times were tough, “but I never felt like we were poor,” Peg says with a smile. “I know I didn’t have the fanciest of everything, but there was always food on the table.”

As Vincentians, she and Tom reach out to families who struggle just as her own did.

Tom does home visits on Mondays while Peg answers the phone. “Mondays are busy,” she says. Usually, the conference receives about 15 calls a day from people seeking assistance with rent, food, or utilities.

What if the person on the other end of the line doesn’t speak English?

“We work it out,” Peg says. “We go to phrases on the clipboard like ‘como se llama?’ Or you ask if they have someone nearby who speaks English. Quite often there will be a child who will speak for them.”

Uptick in need

Sharp increases in food prices and rent mean that the Lanphears are seeing a rise in the number of people seeking assistance.

“We’re getting more people that have full-time jobs,” Peg says.  

On Wednesday evenings, the couple serves at the pantry. Peg meets with newcomers, filling out an intake card with key information, while Tom gives guests a food box with non-perishables. Children are invited to survey a large collection of books and take one home.

Tom does home visits on Mondays, but sometimes, when there are more people needing help, the couple does home visits on Fridays, too. He also picks up food from the St. Vincent de Paul Society main campus in downtown Phoenix and brings it back to the Ss. Simon and Jude conference pantry.

“We’re here a lot,” Tom chuckles. He’s a retired dispatcher with the U.S. Postal Service, and Peg once worked in the afterschool program and as a classroom volunteer at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral School. Tom’s father was a Vincentian, and the couple’s niece, Mary, helps out, too.

Though the Lanphears have met countless people seeking help from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, there are some faces that stay with them through the years.

We had those two girls during the pandemic,” Tom recalls.

The girls’ father and grandmother succumbed to COVID-19 within three days of each other, leaving the girls, ages 16 and 18, to face the harsh realities of life alone. Alone, that is, until the Vincentians of Ss. Simon and Jude stepped in to help.

There were funeral expenses to be paid, for one thing.

“They had to pay for the cremation and everything, and they had no money,” Peg says. “The grandmother was taken care of by other family members, but their father wasn’t.”

A beautifully handcrafted urn, donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, held the ashes of the girls’ father, illustrating the teamwork that goes into serving the vulnerable.

“You’re reaching out, and the response you get is absolutely amazing,” Peg says. “That, to me, is what the society is about — you come together to help other people.”

People like the homeless veteran living in a nearby park who had his meager belongings stolen. Mary, the Lanphears’ niece, helped him get a new ID and get his pay straightened out with the Veterans Administration. The man went from life on the streets to an apartment until ultimately winding up in hospice.

“He wasn’t just left on the streets to die,” Peg says.

“It was a beautiful thing, but it was also just so hard, so heartbreaking to see this man suffer like that, but he didn’t seem like he thought he deserved any better, until somebody said, ‘You deserve better.’”

Sharing Christmas joy

During the Thanksgiving season, the St. Vincent de Paul Society conference at Ss. Simon and Jude receives around 150 donated turkeys. The walk-in freezer and refrigerator next to the pantry was on its last legs and had been repaired many times through the years and wasn’t big enough to accommodate the donated turkeys. The Lanphears had to borrow space from the school, which wasn’t ideal.

The owner of the company that services the freezer and refrigerator is a Ss. Simon and Jude parishioner. He decided to provide the conference with a brand-new system.

“It’s totally amazing,” Peg says. “When they say it takes a village, it does.”

With the new refrigerator and freezer, the 50 Vincentians at Ss. Simon and Jude are able to store more items for home visits, too. There are five teams of Vincentians at the parish that visit people in their homes, bringing food, toiletries, and other crucial items like diapers. The teams go out Monday through Friday in groups of two, wearing their Vincentian ID on a lanyard.

The teams call first to make sure people are home, then map out their route. Most days, they visit at least three homes. The visits, scheduled when people call the Vincentian office at the parish, begin with prayer.

“A lot of times, you’ll ask, ‘Can we say an Our Father together?’” Tom says.

Along with the non-perishables, the Vincentians bring meat, milk, eggs, and bread if the family requests these foodstuffs.

The joy children exude when receiving the assistance of the Vincentians is palpable, Peg says.  

“When you’re bringing food to someone’s home, and you see a child who gets so excited that there is a box of cereal — they are so excited for anything so small, yet to them it’s so big.”

Recalling an elderly Iraqi immigrant who comes for food boxes, the Lanphears smile.

“When she comes, we just hug her.  And she hugs us,” Peg says.

At Christmas, the Vincentians organize the Adopt-a-Family program to assist the needy. Families volunteer to “adopt” a family and spend on average about $300 providing a gift for each member of the family. Last year, 50 families were sponsored. The parents each get something they need — like a tool belt or new pair of shoes — and they also get something they want. Prior to the pandemic, they provided the fixings for Christmas dinner, but for the last couple of years, they’ve substituted that with a gift card to the family’s usual grocery store.

If there are donated turkeys that didn’t get given out at Thanksgiving, the Vincentians give the family a turkey.

“Now that we have this new freezer, we’ll be able to give out even more,” Peg says. “Oh, my gosh. The blessings that come.”

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