Taking Care of Their Neighbors
It is one of the oldest charitable organizations in the world. And here in Rhode Island, the Society of St. Vincent De Paul last year helped 120,000 people through food pantries, one-on-one assistance and direct financial aid that totaled nearly a million dollars. This month Jim Hummel introduces us to some of the non-profit organization’s volunteers - and to a woman who got a lifeline when she needed it the most.
``Those are going to go right in the bathroom, we have half a case there, so this will go under those….’’.
It is delivery day and Jim Carroll is playing both traffic cop and cheerleader at this food pantry in Greenville - as volunteers help unload and arrange thousands of pounds of items that in a matter of hours will be distributed to needy families in the Smithfield area.
Carroll has been volunteering since the pantry was founded 20 years ago by a chapter of the St. Vincent DePaul Society, a worldwide charitable organization that last year helped 120,000 Rhode Islanders, through pantries like these and direct financial aid of nearly a million dollars.
This food pantry, located in back of St. Philip Church in Greenville is one of 16 run by St. Vincent De Paul across the state.
Carroll: ``We weren’t exactly sure whether there was going to be a need or not 20 years ago.’’
That has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Eight years ago when the church built a separate building for the food pantry, it was serving 2,000 families a year. That number is up quadrupled to more than 8,000 this year.
Carroll: ``The stereotypical perception is that most of the people that come here are out of work, and they’re on the system and they’re just looking for free food. Their stereotypical thought about a food pantry is they’re going to get a can of beans, and a thing of pasta and people will hand them food they’ve preselected.’’
But here a volunteer is assigned to a client, who twice a month can walk through and choose what he or she needs. And it’s the volunteers that are key to making it all work.
Carroll: ``We have people that pick up at 10 o’clock at night on Tuesdays, we have people that volunteer and come in and unload trucks on Wednesday morning. We have people who will come and spend three or four hours helping clients select food on a Wednesday or Saturday morning.’’
This year the pantry will distribute 200,000 pounds of food on a budget of $17,000. Much of it comes at 10 cents a pound from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, some is donated by individuals. And then there are multiple corporate partners.
Carroll: ``Panera Bread at 9:59 at night on a Tuesday night they’re selling that product at full price. One minute later it’s consider day old, non saleable, and they donate it, and they do it every night of the week we’re just one of seven charities that benefit from a partnership with Panera.’’
Gordon: ``We’re not an agency. You come to us, but instead we go to them.’’
Mark Gordon oversees all of the St. Vincent De Paul chapters - or conferences as they’re called - throughout the state. He got involved in 1997 as a parishioner at St. Brendan’s Church in Riverside.
And while St. Vincent De Paul - named after the so-called apostle of charity from the 1600s - originated in the Catholic Church in 1833 - it is non-sectarian when it comes to those it helps.
Gordon: ``Who we help is defined by the need, not by their religion, their race , their gender, their color. Or their status as immigrant - illegal or legal.’’
Gordon said there are 434 members of the society statewide, who have been fully trained and attend regular meetings.
Another 270 are associates helping out with the food pantries.
A total of 35 parish-based conferences are located throughout Rhode Island.
Gordon: ``It’s been a lot of the working poor. And now it’s a lot of people who are coming off the unemployment rolls but who haven’t been able to right the ship in their own finances.’’
Gordon says much of the work that goes on is out of the public eye, in the form of one-on-one counseling and assistance.
Kristi: ``I really did not see hope…’’
Kristi Bussler heard about St. Vincent De Paul at her church, Mary Mother of Mankind in North Providence. The mother of three was going through a divorce and losing her house to foreclosure. She had a good job but just couldn’t make ends meet. Then her car was repossessed.
Kristi: And they came to my job and took my car away from me. And I didn’t know how I was going to get my son off the bus. How I was going to get to work.
Fisette: ``At the very least I think we give people hope - because there’s somebody out there that cares.’’
Enter Paul Fisette, who heads the St. Vincent De Paul group at Kristi’s church. He and another volunteer met with her more than a year ago.
Hummel: ``What did you see when you saw Kristi initially? What were your thoughts?’
Fisette: ``Boy, initially I was scared to death. I was more scared for her, I think, than she was for herself because it looked hopeless. We’re supposed to be there giving hope, but I gotta tell you it looked bad.’’
Hummel: ``Did yo put on a good poker face?’’
Fisette: ``We did.’’
Kristi: ``He drove me around to bring me to work, and then would drop my son off at daycare in the morning, and this was for about a month.’’
They eventually were able to help Kristi buy a car and get settled in a apartment just down the road from her old house, by helping her with a security deposit. It was just the jumpstart she needed.
Kristi: ``I was going down avenues and I was getting nowhere calling everyone and everyone and finally I was able to get somewhere.’’
Paul says sometimes a little tough love is involved and with limited resources the society can’t solve everyone’s problems. In Kristi’s case, he told her she needed to liquidate the house before they could help with a security deposit on the apartment. He says he always keeps the donors in the back of his head.
Fisette: ``I’m asking them for their money and I feel personally responsible for that. I never want to waste their pennies. We help people who want the help, can use the help and after we give the help it’s going to be good for them.’’
Gordon: ``So the demographic has changed, the need is much greater and so one of the struggles we have it to grow our resources to meet that need.’’
The society relies on money it raises through 148 clothing bins like these throughout the state as well as individual monetary donations and foundations grants. It also holds an annual Friends of the Poor Walk. Last year 300 walkers raised more than $25,000. This year’s walk is at Gov. Notte Park in North Providence. Kristi Bussler is walking to raise money for others.
And back at the food pantry, Jim Carroll sees little miracles happen every week.
Hummel: ``Do you ever worry about running out? Or is it like the loaves and fishes?’’
Carroll: ``It’s absolutely the loaves and fishes every year. Every year in October I’m sure we’re not going to make it to Thanksgiving and all of a sudden you’ll come to church and the doors will be overflowing with donations:’’
And he echoes the feeling of many who give their time every week, every month and every year.
Carroll: ``If you’re talking your religion and not living it, other people are going to look at it and say they really don’t believe in it, they’re not practicing what they preach. I think what we try to do here is feed the hungry and take care of our neighbors. So that’s what we try to do.’’
In Greenville, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.