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St. Vincent De Paul Puts A Face On Help

Many organizations help the poor and others in need but the St. Vincent de Paul Society believes in looking at the person they help face to face.

“What sets us apart is we go into people’s 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 Counties.

In more than 50 parishes across Long Island, including Our Lady of Mercy and St. Ignatius, volunteers in the parish-based St. Vincent de Paul conferences, offer emergency food, clothing, furniture, and often other assistance, such as utility payments, or rent or mortgage.

“When we go into peoples’ homes we can see whether their lights are on, whether there is heat in the houses, whether there is food in the refrigerator,” as well as other ways they might help, said Abbate said.

Abbate and the central council coordinate the efforts of more than 50 parish-based conferences, like St. Bernard’s.

“You can see the things that people actually need, which they might not even tell you about,” said Barbara Genna, president of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at Our Lady of Mercy.

“They are very import for getting to know them,” said Joan Cunningham, president of the conference at St. Ignatius, and for establishing a relationship.

“It’s not an investigation,” said Msgr. Tom Costa, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy and chaplain for the St. Vincent de Paul at his parish. “The attitude is always: Let’s see if there are other ways to help you.

“There is always a sense of compassion and great respect for the people,” Msgr. Costa said.

“You can see the things that people actually need, which they might not even tell you about,” said Barbara Genna, president of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at Our Lady of Mercy.

“They are very import for getting to know them,” said Joan Cunningham, president of the conference at St. Ignatius, and for establishing a relationship.

“It’s not an investigation,” said Msgr. Tom Costa, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy and chaplain for the St. Vincent de Paul at his parish. “The attitude is always: Let’s see if there are other ways to help you.

“There is always a sense of compassion and great respect for the people,” Msgr. Costa said.

The society is a fellowship that dates back to 1833 Paris. They became active in the U.S. in 1845 and on Long Island in the late 1940s.

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,” Abbate said.

 “We are not about one-time assistance. We don’t just give people food and walk away,” Abbate noted. “We stay with them and try to help them get their lives right,” often assisting with their budgets and planning how to improve their lives.

“There was one single mother who came to us for food, which we provided,” Abbate said. Members of the society continued to work with her, eventually encouraging her to go to college, get a degree, and a better job.

“Now, she has come back and helps us,” Abbate said. Though that story is not typical, “it shows what can be accomplished if you are willing to spend your time with people.”

“Our volunteers will help a family look at their situation, refer them to social service agencies, and try to help them improve their situation,” Genna said.

“Sometimes people just need a hand up,” Cunningham said, a way to shift the direction in their lives or help them over a temporary obstacle so that they can improve their situation.

The parish conferences work in conjunction with their respective parish outreach or social ministry offices, referring people and sharing resources. They also work with the diocesan conference in Bethpage.

 “We have a store in Garden City Park and one in Huntington” that have 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.

Fundraisers, revenue from the thrift stores, and donations support their ministry. “The people on Long Island have been very generous,” Abbate said.

“We are doing God’s work,” Cunnigham said, “and the people we help are grateful.”