Two-by-two, Vincentians make a difference

By Mary P. Walker
Senior Correspondent

Throughout the Diocese of Austin, it happens 30 times a day. Two volunteer caseworkers, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), visit the home of a needy person or family to see how they can help. 
“This personal interaction lends incredible dignity to the family visited, making our volunteers the guests of those they are serving,” said Joleen Boyer, board president of the SVDP Diocesan Council of Austin.
Vincentian George Caudle, president of the Bryan-College Station SVDP Conference agrees, “It makes all the difference in the world to meet clients in their home, in their own safe space. They are not coming to a cold office. Being in their home tears down all the bureaucratic barriers.” 
Home visits also offer opportunities for caseworkers to understand how they can go beyond a simple request and customize help to address more of the needs of the household. For example, if a person calls asking for help to pay a utility bill, the caseworkers may also notice that the family could use some furniture, warm clothing or help weatherizing their home.  
Founded in 1833 by Blessed Frederic Ozanam in Paris, SVDP is a worldwide organization of laity in nearly 150 countries. Members, known as Vincentians, seek personal holiness through serving those in need, regardless of race, creed or religion, in a way that respects the dignity of each person. Although the organization is international, help is provided through grassroots teams of volunteers, called conferences. 
In the Austin Diocese, there are 41 conferences representing 50 parishes. Typically, a conference is based in a parish, but there are also conferences that encompass more than one parish. In addition, conferences often cooperate to meet overwhelming needs. 
Parish collections, small grants, monetary donations, as well as donations of food, clothing, furniture and household goods provide the resources that let the diocese’s 1,150 Vincentian volunteers help the poor. In the last year, conferences dispensed $4.6 million in direct aid, helping more than 160,000 people. The impact of this aid, donated goods, work of thrift stores and the value of volunteer work within the diocese is approximately $10 million. 
While material support is important, prayer and a listening presence communicate Christ’s caring love. 
“Pope Francis speaks of the relevance of this work on almost a daily basis. Our volunteers renew their commitment to the poor, hearing encouragement from the pope’s eloquence on the importance of personal interactions with our neighbors,” said Stacy Ehrlich, executive director of the Diocesan Council of Austin.
St. Vincent de Paul said, “Charity is infinitely inventive,” and because the conferences are parish-based, they can creatively address the serious problems of the poor in their midst. For example, some conferences operate large food pantries because their communities need them to feed the hungry.
One innovative way in which SVDP conferences are helping families improve their lives is working with the victims of predatory “payday” loans. A financial shortfall or emergency may have driven some one to seek such a loan. The high interest rates, fees and payments create a vicious cycle of re-borrowing and falling behind on other bills.      
Jim Sieh, president of the St. Christopher Conference of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Austin, explained that caseworkers in that conference helped a family get affordable loan payments by connecting them with the Predatory Loan Conversion Program. This program converts these loans into share-secured loans at a credit union. The family’s payments went from $400 per month to less than $70, which lets them keep up-to-date on their other bills.
Margaret McKinney, president of the St. Anthony Marie de Claret Conference in Kyle, gave the example of another life-changing encounter with a client. They helped a homeless woman secure housing and get a job, which allowed her to see her children.
Conferences often sponsor or participate in special programs during the holidays. Vincentians want the poor to share in the celebration of the season and know that they are not forgotten. The St. Anthony Marie de Claret Conference serves a large geographical area with many working poor and families suffering from unemployment. These families do not have extra funds for holiday meals and gifts. Collaborating with a local food bank, the conference prepared Thanksgiving baskets. They also sponsored a Christmas breakfast for 60 families with 100 children. Parishioners donated presents as well. 
Vincentians emphasize the blessings they receive in return for the services they provide. While they cannot solve all of the problems of the people they meet, they offer comfort through love and prayer. 
“This is a person-to-person ministry and it fills my heart. We have a relationship with the people, and we pray with them. Sometimes they just need somebody to listen,” McKinney said.
The Diocesan Council welcomes inquiries from parishes about establishing SVDP conferences and encourages the faithful to consider volunteering with or donating to SVDP. 
“We are all part of the body of Christ. Some have more material abundance than others, but we can all help one another. We are all in need in our own ways. It is our mission to make a difference,” Ehrlich said.
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