Tents in parking lots sometimes signal sidewalk sales, but in the parking lot of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Joseph County, a blue tent has become a sign of charity in difficult times.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society is comprised of lay men and women who volunteer their time to aid those living in poverty. Begun in France in 1833 by Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the society took its name from St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest who dedicated his life to serving the poor. The organization spread to the United States through its establishment in St. Louis, Missouri, branching out from there.
Restrictions enacted in the state of Indiana due to the COVID-19 virus have caused officials at the agency to reconsider how to best meet the needs of the poverty-stricken in their local communities. “We really had to reimagine what we’re doing,” said Anne Hosinski Watson, executive director. Not only did they need to continue the mission of assisting the poor, but also “to take care of our own people.”
She explained how the organization has temporarily put other programs on hold and is focused on the vital need to feed those who cannot get food elsewhere. Currently, the society is in what she calls its “emergency phase.”
To protect at-risk volunteers, or “Vincentians” as they are typically called, the society decided to suspend in-home visits to distribute food. In lieu of this, they had to find another method of connecting food and the people who need it. They came up with a plan to package boxes of food from their pantry for people to pick up on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon. On the day before the order issued by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to stay at home took effect, volunteers were able to prepackage 270 boxes for distribution the following week. All of the boxes were claimed by patrons and 500 had to be ordered to keep up with the need.
Because St. Vincent de Paul is a charitable organization, paid staff are exempt from the stay-at-home order and are able to go to work, handing out the boxes to the needy. Some staff members are at higher risk than others and therefore working from home, so a team of five is now performing the work that a group of eight-plus volunteers would typically do. “The boxes are standard, so they’re easy to put together in an assembly-line format,” Watson said. While some staff members distribute boxes outdoors, others work inside the office packing more food to be handed out.
The boxes provide spiritual as well as physical nourishment. They include a copy of the New Testament and a prayer card provided by John Boughton, the new president of the St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Joseph Parish in South Bend. “He asked if he could bring (500 copies) and we said ‘yes.’ People have been very appreciative,” stated Watson.
In the past two weeks, 330 boxes have been distributed, consisting of 7,260 pounds of food worth $8,000. That’s roughly 20% more than the usual amount of food given away by the society.
“It’s a new situation; it’s uncertain, and a lot of people are worrying,” Watson commented. In the midst of that uncertainty, the agency has seen a “big spike in need,” with new clients coming who previously had not known of its existence or had never asked for help. “It’s definitely a community in need,” she said.
To continue meeting those needs, the society is seeking financial contributions to continue its generous work. Watson explained that staff members have been buying food commercially because the Food Bank of Northern Indiana has also been running low on supplies. Food purchases at stores such as Meijer and Gordon’s Food Service help fill their boxes, and Meijer also gave a grant of gift cards to the agency. The boxes cost about $25 for St. Vincent de Paul volunteers to put together and contain $60 worth of food for needy families.
Watson expects that the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Joseph County is only beginning, and that more help will be needed when utility companies lift the temporary waiver on shutoffs. Many people who have been unable to go to work could fall behind on their household income, she fears.
One of the organization’s programs offers rent and utility assistance. Watson and her staff have applied for outside grants, although those have not yet been approved. Watson stated that some of the grants represent resources that were not available in the months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And naturally, prayers for this and other organizations providing assistance to the poor are always welcome. Watson said, “Pray that no one else gets sick and that we can continue to do this and help those in need, because that’s what we’re called to do.”
Although there’s no date set for discontinuing the box program, Watson says the agency is envisioning a continuation until May 1 at the earliest. “We’re adopting a wait-and-see approach. The Vincentians want to get back to work.”
Watson sees a few positive things coming from the crisis, including the fact that many people and organizations are reaching out and working together to meet the needs of those in distress and to ensure the well-being of others, especially those at greatest risk from COVID-19. She has also seen a rise in interest of people wishing to volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Additionally, the society has partnered with St Joseph Hospital to deliver food to some clients. “St. Joseph Hospital Systems has been wonderful – making a few extra deliveries for us as we have had some folks contact us because they are disabled or have no other way to get to us for the food.”
St. Vincent de Paul is known as the “Apostle of Charity” and is the patron saint of charitable organizations. The St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Joseph County is doing its part to continue his mission of bringing hope and spreading faith within the local community. With the statewide travel ban in place until at least April 6, those who wish to financially support this work can donate at www.svdpsb.org.
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