By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published December 9, 2009
In a year marked by economic distress, the Atlanta Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society saw an increase in contributions—an estimated $1 million more this year than last year.
The published amount of public support and contributions for the Society in 2008 was $5,183,525—in 2009 that number increased to an estimated $6,250,269.
Coinciding with that increase is a recognition that demands for help from the Society have spiked up to 300 percent during the same time period.
John Berry, who joined SVdP as its executive director in 2006, acknowledged that “we’ve had an impressive increase in individual donations,” while donations from foundations have decreased. However, with overwhelming increase in demand for the organization’s help, he said, “we’re not even close” to what is needed to serve those in the community who ask for help.
As an example, Berry said that the SVdP food pantry served 58 families in October 2008. In October 2009, almost 500 families received food from the same food pantry.
Jim Verrecchia, who is the director of support programs for the Atlanta council, said that while he doesn’t like to emphasize numbers, “those numbers represent people.”
In September a year ago, he said, the Society was serving about 50 families in a month on average at the Chamblee family support center. A year later, they are helping 100 families a week.
Verrecchia said that they’ve seen the need “cross every race, cross every age group, cross every economic level.” He said it’s an “amazing reality” to deal with.
Started in Paris, France, in 1833 by a group of college students helping the poor, the Society first came to the U.S. in 1845. In 1903 the Society was first established in Georgia at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta. Today the 68 conferences of the Atlanta Council include more than 2,000 members in service to those in need.
The scope of the Society’s work in the communities of north and central Georgia has widened and grown over the years, including working with United Way, Catholic Charities, and other agencies to help people in poverty and in distress.
Berry gave an example: “We are the number one referral source for United Way’s 2-1-1 program,” which is a phone number for individuals across Georgia to call when they want to find or give help. Trained referral specialists assist callers with almost every human services need. In September 2009, United Way received approximately 36,000 calls to 2-1-1, he said. St. Vincent de Paul was referred almost 5,000 of those calls, which Berry called a “dramatic increase.”
While he doesn’t want to take credit for increasing the role of the organization, Berry is happy to talk about the partnerships that have formed in his three years with SVdP. He is proud of the partnership with Milton Little, president of Metro Atlanta’s United Way. Because the Society’s work with 2-1-1 calls was becoming too much to handle, Little funded caseworkers to screen calls and analyze the situation before sending them to the appropriate SVdP conference. Then, said Berry, “We could help hundreds more people.”
With collaborations with United Way and Catholic Charities Atlanta, Berry believes that the nonprofit agencies are working in tandem to “accomplish so much more.” When he talks about this concept, Berry shares with a laugh, “in other words, two plus two equals five.”
Another nonprofit supported with St. Vincent de Paul volunteers is the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign, one of the projects of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Verrecchia said that through this project, the Society does screenings for 20 different benefits people might be eligible to receive. Staff and volunteers do the work.
Verrecchia said, “If we can find ways to keep money in the monthly budget … keep more disposable income in people’s pockets,” they do.
Howard McGinley, a Society board member and caseworker in the Lake Oconee Reynolds Plantation conference, is the chairman of the development committee for the Atlanta council and is working to set up an infrastructure for lay development across the conferences of the North Georgia council. Previously, the local groups had relied on collections from the parishes—some parishes blessed, and some poor.
McGinley said, “There has to be a better way” to get strong support from the community. He believes that “there are ways of building a stronger base for giving – helping people become aware of St. Vincent de Paul and its mission. Ways of education and recruiting people to help.”
The key is networking, he believes. Small groups, working together to build volunteers, getting people involved, whether it’s by donation of funds or by teaching a class of English as a second language, or by going to people’s houses.
“It’s just networking,” he said. “You meet a lot of nice people.”
One of his favorite challenges, said McGinley, is “finding people jobs.”
“They don’t want charity, they want a hand.”
He helped one young man, just out of the Army, with getting a trailer and some furniture—something more than the blow-up mattress he had. McGinley found a local gardener who said he would give the young man a chance to work for a week. The man still works there.
McGinley believes that people have to know “why should I give to St. Vincent de Paul?”
He said, “We go into people’s homes and analyze what needs resources. This differentiates us from other groups and allows us to do the groundwork.”
He hopes to “broaden the spectrum of the people who are touched.”
Verrecchia said that the Society has a variety of ways in which people can help to achieve its mission, which is to provide “financial, material, educational and spiritual support to those in need regardless of background or faith.”
“We certainly need ongoing, dedicated volunteers,” he said, especially those who want to volunteer on a continuing basis and who can help with cases, participate in educational programs, or teach classes.
He said that people who can provide financial support for the Society’s work are vital. He added that “oftentimes, we can get more for the money because of our partnerships. If we can purchase the food—we can stretch the dollar.”
McGinley said that the most important part of SVDP work is “putting people on the road to self-sufficiency.” He lives by that rule about not just handing people a fish to eat, but teaching them how to fish.
“Sometimes you have to give them a fish, too,” he said, but “it’s important to teach them how to do for themselves.”
Or as Berry said, “You don’t want to just help them, you want to uplift them.
For more information about the Atlanta Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, visit the Web site at www.svdpatl.org.