St. Vincent de Paul of North Texas
Neighbors helping Neighbors
By Sonia Duggan
A Catholic priest’s ministry to the poor, and his ability to organize groups of volunteers at the turn of 17th century to do the same, set the tone for what would later become the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Founded by Parisian Frederic Ozanam in 1833 based on Father Vincent’s principles, the vision of the Society is to “Embrace the world in a network of charity.”
Even in modern times, the mission hasn’t changed for the nonprofit Catholic lay organization comprised of over 800,000 men and women all over the world who volunteer by offering personal assistance to those in need.
Each diocese has a council, and in North Texas, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Council provides programs and assistance including short-term financial, material and emotional support across nine counties through 38 local conferences (chapters). Volunteers in each conference work with “neighbors” as advocates for those in need, not only by providing financial support, but with educational tools and referrals those being helped are empowered to reach the goal of self-sufficiency.
Although there are 38 conferences, not every Catholic Church has a conference. At St. Anthony Catholic Church in Wylie, parishioners Ronni Fetzer and Chuck Johnson were recruited to help start the St. Anthony conference in 2012. Fetzer is now a past president and Chuck is the current president of St. Vincent de Paul.
“The SVdP Society in Rowlett and the one at St. Marks in Plano mentored us,” Ronni said.
In the beginning, Chuck said he couldn’t believe the kind of commitment it would take (to make it work), but after 12 years he says, “I really look forward to it.”
Each church is championed to take care of the people in the conference, said Chuck, and within their parish boundaries they assist neighbors in Allen, Lucas, Wylie, Lavon, Nevada, Princeton and Farmersville.
Currently, SVdP has 23 active members in Wylie, says Chuck, and most are over 45 years old.
“This is about the most we ever had,” he said. “It’s a wonderful group.”
Once a person calls the SVdP hotline for assistance, which is run by Chuck’s wife Jane, neighbors are assigned two advocates (volunteers) who visit, then report back on the issues to the group at the Monday meeting.
Most calls for assistance involve late, or lack of ability to pay, rent or utilities. Other requests include car repairs/payments, medical bills, food, lack of housing and much more.
“All landlords, utility companies have our hotline number and they’ll call us,” Ronni said.
The Society meets every Monday night for 1-1 ½ hours and starts with a 15-minute spiritual reflection.
“It puts you in the right frame of mind,” Chuck said. “It settles you down from whatever you might have been going through throughout the day.”
The personal connection, which includes a home visit, is a key part of the process in determining the scope of need. Advocates pray before they enter anyone’s house, and Ronni says, “Coming into their home gives us an opportunity to see if they need additional help.”
At the end of each visit, advocates leave a booklet with contact information for local nonprofits, churches and other sources of help. While awaiting a decision regarding assistance, the advocate will contact the neighbor and let them know what’s happening.
In most instances, the need – such as late rent – is already at a crisis level, when the hotline is called.
The nonprofit never gives any money directly to a person. Instead, Ronni says, “If a payment is needed, after the conference approves it, Jane gets it ready and we’ll often personally deliver the checks then.”
A typical limit for a one-time donation to a neighbor is $300 but Chuck reported “that has moved up to $500.”
If there is an unusual case where more funding is needed, the conference reaches out to other conferences in a process called “twinning.”
“You get all the money you need in two hours,” Ronni said. “We’ve done that several times.”
For those who have become trapped in a cycle of debt by the predatory lending practices of payday and auto title lenders, SVdP offers a Mini Loan Program.
“We also provide loans to cover emergency expenses, so they are not forced to resort to payday or auto title lenders,” Louise Bland, council coordinator of SVdP’s Mini Loan Program said. “Along with the ability to receive a low interest loan, individuals have the opportunity to participate in additional financial coaching and receive a savings incentive, providing a basis for long term stability.”
Ronni added, “Now, we are offering loans in general for certain things, car repairs etc. though Inwood Bank. SVdP is the second cosigner. It’s been a hugely successful program, but we do have our defaults. We give them a year to pay back the loan at 2-3 percent interest. That is doable.”
The St. Anthony SVdP conference works to help as many neighbors as they can. The bulk of the funds, with the exception of grants, comes from generous parishioners, yet Chuck says over 90 percent of the neighbors they help are not church members.
Wylie is unique in the fact that many nonprofits and churches collaborate, which has proven to be very helpful to advocates of the SVdP mission. Depending on the scope of need, the group determines who to contact. They’ve joined forces with the Knights of Columbus, Wylie United Methodist Men’s Group, First Baptist Wylie, Wylie Christian Care, Amazing Grace Food Pantry and many more.
Ronni said Mary Warkentine, Christian Care Center director, has helped in many cases where clothing and furnishings were needed.
During the pandemic, Ronni has stepped up to help by volunteering at Amazing Grace Food Pantry. In the process, she’s noticed that a number of people picking up food at the pantry were in pain or elderly. After speaking with Karen Ellis, pantry director, SVdP now has permission to pick up and deliver food for a client in need.
“If someone is a shut-in, call our hotline and a volunteer will pick up for them,” Chuck said.
A unique service now offered by the Dallas SVdP Council is the St. Vincent De Paul Pharmacy where free prescription medication is offered for those without insurance. Forms can be found at svdpdallas.org/pharmacy.
The Society is not unlike many nonprofits who are experiencing an unusual number of requests since the pandemic. Michael Pazzaglini, executive director of the Dallas Council said, “With many experiencing job loss or a reduction in hours due to COVID-19, we have seen a significant increase in calls to our helpline.”
Ronni said they’ve had over $20,000 in assistance requests just in the month of May, but are hopeful they may see some funds from the $301,000 originally allotted by the city to small businesses which are now covered by the Collin County CARES Act.
Advocates have been meeting via Zoom since March, and the personal touch that makes SVdP so special is hard to replicate via a phone call.
“Before COVID-19 we would sit down and discuss their needs and problems,” Chuck said. “I think it makes them more comfortable. They get emotional support.”
While they generally don’t help someone more than one time per year, Chuck says they’ve been much more lenient since the pandemic especially since many people are not eligible for unemployment.
“Before, a limited amount of money was paid, now people are really hurting,” he said.
As the economy continues to struggle, Pazzaglini said they anticipate that the need will continue to increase in the months to come.
“For those who are fortunate enough to have a bit extra to give, donating to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a wonderful way to help provide emergency financial and material assistance to people in need right in their own backyard.”
Want to help? Email [email protected]
To donate visit saint-anthony.com/svdp
St. Vincent de Paul N. Tex svdpdallas.org