Written by Pete Sheehan Thursday, 02 May 2013 00:00
You’ve probably seen the St. Vincent de Paul Society trucks in your neighborhood but you might not know who they are and what they do, Who they are is one of the largest voluntary charitable associations in the world, having worked since its founding in 1833 Paris, to serve the needy. They became established in the U.S. in 1845 and on Long Island in the late 1940s.
“We offer emergency assistance in any way we can – food, furniture, utility bills, or help with rent or mortgage,” said Marion Holmgaard, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society conference at St. Kilian’s Church, Farmingdale. Hers is one of about 50 parish conferences on Long Island.
“We go wherever the need is,” said Pat O’Dea, former president of the St. Kilian’s conference and a veteran of the society. For example, many of the people they help already have access to canned goods from a local food pantry.
“We’ve been getting into food vouchers so that they can buy fresh food,” O’Dea said, such as milk and eggs.
Many organizations seek to help the poor and others in need, but society members believe in looking at the person they are helping face to face.
“What sets us apart is we go into peoples’ homes,” said Tom Abbate, director of the Bethpage-based St. Vincent de Paul Society’s central council, which coordinates the ministry of the society in Nassau and Suffolk.
"We learn better how we can help,” Abbate said. “When we go into people’s homes we can see whether their lights are on, whether there is heat in the house, whether there is food in the refrigerator.
Though the society is not able to provide long-term assistance, they try to offer guidance along with material support, such as helping families plan a budget and figure out a better future, Holmgaard said.
“There was one single mother and her daughter who were living in a small apartment with a lot of problems, such as mold,” O’Dea noted. They helped her find a federal subsidized housing program and get a nicer apartment.
“That changed their whole attitude,” O’Dea said. “They then had something to lose and they became more involved in helping themselves. Sometimes, amazing things can happen.”
Abbate heads the central council, coordinating the efforts of parish-based conferences who go out to meet the people seeking help, assess their situation, and strive to offer what they need.
The society takes its name from St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th century French priest known for his outreach to the poor. In that tradition, “we see the face of Christ in the people we help.”
Though a Catholic organization, the society assists people in need regardless of race or religion. The volunteers are generally lay people who go out in pairs to the homes of people who apply for help at their local parish.
“The people have to contact us first or be referred by a social service agency” or their parish, Holmgaard said. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to come to us.”
The parish-based conferences offer assistance with their own resources, but the Bethpage office is there for additional support. For example, they have three thrift stores, which sell some items to raise money for the ministry and give other items away to those in need.
”We have a store in Garden City Park and one in Huntington” that has furniture, Abbate said. Another store in Huntington Station has clothing. “We’ll bring furniture to a family who needs it. If they need clothing, they have to go to the store because they have to be sure it fits.”
St. Vincent de Paul has other ministries, such as an outreach to people in jail, transitional housing for men recovering from substance abuse, and “Voices of the Poor,” that speaks up for public policy on behalf of people in need.
Their ministry is supported by fund-raisers, revenue from the thrift stores and donations. “The people on Long Island have been very generous,” Abbate said.
Though their focus is serving others, society volunteers find personal fulfillment as well. Holmgaard, a retired secretary at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, wanted to “give back” for all the blessings in her life. “It’s satisfying to see that I can help someone.”
“Of course, while we are helping people,” O’Dea said, “we are growing closer to God.”