Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


St. Vincent De Paul Sets Priorities For Year Ahead

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 17, 2007

The St. Vincent de Paul Society held its annual Spring to Life meeting April 21 focused on strengthening its community partnerships, raising the charitable lay group’s profile, and improving communication among its 67 parish conferences where serving the poor of North Georgia has been the mission for over 100 years.

The grassroots impact the Society steadily makes on persons in crisis is life-changing, as last year it distributed over $4.7 million to North Georgians and the Atlanta Council central office answered some 15,600 calls.

The daylong meeting was held at St. Brigid Church and drew about 230 Vincentians sporting royal blue and white Society shirts. There are roughly 2,000 members throughout the Atlanta Archdiocese, most volunteering at their parish conferences and making home visits to potential clients where they meet face-to-face to understand their circumstances and determine the most appropriate way to address their needs. The Society strives to equip individuals facing hardship with the materials, education and confidence needed to establish financial security and self-sufficiency.

Top Hat Awards for dedicated service to the Society were given to Kathy Richards of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Conference in Carrollton and Alfred Ledon, who has served the Our Lady of Charity Conference for Spanish-speaking immigrants since he helped establish it in 1964. Ledon, who has served as conference president and at times volunteered 25 to 30 hours a week, has never forgotten the critical support the Society provided him and his family when he fled Cuba in 1962, helping to furnish their home and providing Catholic school tuition assistance.

“St. Vincent de Paul was the only one to help me and my family when I came. I said to my family, we need to do something for the organization,” he said. “It’s very rewarding … to help the people when they need it.”

The Society operates eight thrift stores and at its central conference office in Doraville has a learning center with classes in English, literacy, computer skills, GED preparation, and life skills such as job searches, finances and nutrition. Last year 753 people attended the low-cost classes, a 300 percent increase since 2000. Their English classes have been particularly useful to Latina immigrants, enabling them to communicate effectively with their children’s schools.

Last year the Society’s 33 North Georgia food pantries distributed over $567,000 in food to those in need. Of 458 donated vehicles, 152 were given to clients, while the rest were sold to help fund SVDP programs. SVDP also resells goods to recyclers, ranging from used books and poor quality clothes to computers and other working electronics.

Presenters included the Society’s spiritual advisor, Phyllis Morris; the council president, Jim Rosentreter; and council executive director, John Berry, who accepted the position last October. Innovative efforts were also highlighted as Pam Zander spoke of the robust Adopt-a-Family SVDP program at Christmas at St. Ann’s Church in Marietta that has attracted not only Catholics but also other faith communities. Joyce Yohler of Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Jasper described the Family Uplift program to provide long-term financial and other support to qualified clients committed to improving their education and/or job skills with mentor supervision.

Berry reported that last year the North Georgia conference distributed $3.9 million in direct aid cash assistance from parish conferences, clocked 167,321 volunteer hours and made 18,238 prison visits. Their thrift stores made $1.2 million in sales, $569,000 of which went back to conferences, with 59,465 volunteer hours logged in stores.

Staff changes at the Society include the new deputy executive director, Jane Currie, the new Vincentian support director, Brian Freel, and the new conference services manager, Daniel West. Priorities include establishing more efficient, electronic case reporting practices, increasing fellowship opportunities, improving inter-conference communication, and finding “ways to grow and feed our spiritual base that makes us Vincentians,” said Berry, who has more than 15 years’ experience as a management executive.

He said he is focused on increasing collaboration between the Society and other community agencies, particularly Catholic Charities of Atlanta. Berry said he is “working very diligently to increase collaboration between SVDP and the archdiocese, keeping in mind we are independent.” Berry will serve on the Catholic Charities’ board of directors and Joseph Krygiel, Catholic Charities’ chief executive officer, will serve on the board of SVDP. The Society will put more emphasis on social justice, he said.

“We want to teach people how to fish as well as just giving them a fish. We need to do things to help break people out of the cycle of poverty and dependence and put them on the road to financial and spiritual health,” Berry said.

To attract new members the Society will actively recruit in parishes, he said. A program in June will ask priests to talk about SVDP in their parishes. They are also planning to partner established parish conferences with nascent conferences with limited resources.

“I am convinced that SVDP is the best kept secret in the Catholic Church and the community,” Berry said. “SVDP does a lot of wonderful things, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t know what they are.”

Making the Society better known and stronger will mean “getting involved in community events and associations, developing strong ties to parishes and priests in the archdiocese,” said Berry, a member of Transfiguration Church, Marietta, where he was a Society volunteer and where he started a job ministry.

He said the council would also like to strengthen its ties with youth and young adults.

Currently a young adult conference meets twice a month on Saturday mornings, often visiting the elderly and shut-ins in Atlanta neighborhoods and helping them with home projects. The group then comes back to the central office to talk about the day, pray and eat lunch. There is only one high school SVDP conference in the archdiocese at Blessed Trinity High School.

“The most critical issue we face—not only with SVDP, but with society in general—is we need to get young people involved in all our ministries. Young people hunger for an opportunity to grow spiritually. We need to give them an opportunity to do that because service is a key part of their lives,” Berry said. “We have one high school conference. I’d like to see us by the end of the next high school year have three.”

“We are here for you,” he concluded. “We’ve made improvements and will do more. We are one family joined together in faith and service.”

A Vincentian’s first calling is to deepen his or her relationship with Christ through community and service to the poor. Each conference has its own spiritual component and the day included a reflection by Morris on working in a spirit of love and making the work a preparation for contemplation.

Rosentreter reported that since 2005 the Society passed new bylaws as part of a national initiative. In January 2006 they formed a new board of directors and began district meetings and developed a more comprehensive Web site. They also have a new volunteer training program. He reminded them they are living in solidarity with the poor.

“We are our brothers and sisters’ keepers where we live. We are one human family whatever ethnic, racial or economic differences. You must love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself,” he said.

In a later interview, Berry explained that the board of directors was realigned to fit more closely with the bylaws and now includes people from the community with expertise and involvement in germane areas, in addition to conference leaders.

The Society, which is volunteer-driven, always needs volunteers with a variety of skills, particularly in administrative areas, development support, database maintenance and fundraising, Berry said. “We need volunteers of every skill set and type of thing they want to do.”

Berry, who recently attended a national Society meeting, said it also stressed social justice “and what we can do to address societal issues that are driving people into poverty and keeping them stuck in poverty.”

He said the Atlanta SVDP, along with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, is currently networking its efforts in life skills training and some of its volunteers with Catholic Charities’ outreach centers. The aim is to help people coming to the outreach centers learn practical skills such as how to manage their finances and complete paperwork needed for government programs.

“Between us we have a whole myriad of centers and locations around North Georgia and the archdiocese and a whole myriad of volunteers,” he noted.

Tom Warren, conference president at St. Theresa Church, Douglasville, said he has been enriched in retirement as he concretely applies Gospel teachings. His conference has 15 volunteers who meet twice monthly. They see about 30 clients a month, and he has been impressed by the generosity of his parish to support their work, despite limited resources. Warren had attended the Catholic Church for years with his wife, a longtime RCIA instructor, but didn’t enter the church until a few years ago.

“I never really gave anything back to the community, I was so focused on work and making money with a family,” he said of his younger years. Joining SVDP “has deepened my faith, made me really a part of a community I’ve never been a part of before. Going out on cases and seeing our clients and seeing their need I walk around and am humbled by every case.”

Some clients have made bad decisions, while others are victims of misfortune or had a spouse abandon them, precipitating a crisis, he has found. Volunteers always strive not to be judgmental.

“If we are out with a client we may refer them to the Department of Family and Children Services or the Food Bank” or another agency, he said. “Many of the people are overwhelmed, and people don’t know what to do. We go and listen and talk to them and make suggestions about things they can do to help themselves, and we help in a small way. … So much of our population is living paycheck to paycheck. If that paycheck goes away they are in crisis.”