By Gary Morton
EASTON, Md. — About 20 volunteers assisted a steady stream of shoppers who picked up bags of groceries and checked out clothing, housewares and other items at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store one recent Saturday.
To Ron Virostek, the workers’ motivation was clear. “We follow the commandments of Jesus,” said Virostek, spiritual adviser for the Ss. Peter and Paul Parish conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “That’s what these people are all about, the beatitudes — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.”
The Easton Vincentians, as members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are called, are part of the international association of lay men and women dedicated to personal service to the poor. The work of the Ss. Peter and Paul Parish conference has expanded significantly over the past three years to meet needs exacerbated by the recession. Formerly using a storage unit the size of a single-car garage, the society now uses a 2,000-square-foot storefront at 8648 Commerce Drive, about four miles north of Ss. Peter and Paul Church, for its thrift store and food pantry and a 600-square-foot store nearby for furniture.
At the old storage unit the society distributed about 35 bags of food each week, vice president John Wafer said. Last year volunteers provided 5,457 bags of groceries, an average of more than 100 per week, worth almost $75,000.
A fashion show to benefit the food pantry will be held Saturday at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Easton. The show, which will feature clothing donated to the thrift store as well as food from the food pantry, is sold out.
When Eleanor Morrell became chairwoman for the thrift store, she had “four cardboard boxes (of clothes) and a desk,” she said. Today, the store is packed with merchandise with a small army of volunteers to sort the goods, fold and hang clothing, work as clerks and manage the operation, which is open on Tuesday and Saturday.
Five home visitation teams, one for each weeknight, provided $36,009 in assistance to 1,040 individual requests last year. More than a third of that money went toward rent and mortgage assistance; almost another third for utility assistance and the remainder for other needs, according to the society’s yearly report.
The society hosted a Christmas party for inmates and their families at the Talbot County Detention Center; operated Angel Tree and Angel Wreath gift-giving programs that delivered 1,700 gifts through various agencies, including the parish’s Hispanic Ministry last Christmas. It also maintains and distributes a prayer list and works with the Talbot Interfaith Homeless Shelter.
About half of the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s 300 members are active volunteers, said Alex Handy, the group’s president. Most are parishioners, though some are non-Catholics who learned about its work and wanted to become involved.
That ties in with what Handy sees as the society’s two-fold purpose. “Our mission is for those in need to see the face of Christ, and to help people who want to serve the Lord to have the opportunity.”
While most volunteers are retirees, the society involves people of all ages. Ss. Peter and Paul Elementary School students, for example, provided foods for Thanksgiving dinners that the society distributed to 36 Talbot County families and collected canned foods for the food distribution program during Lent. Ss. Peter and Paul High School students provided gifts for 52 children at the Talbot County Detention Center Family Christmas Party.
A key to the society’s operations, Wafer said, is that “we have a very generous parish that’s able to support us,” making such programs as the emergency assistance possible.
Most requests for emergency assistance come in the winter, he said. “People that do day work, especially in the Hispanic community, get a lot of work in the summer and don’t come in for help,” he said. “Of course, in the winter the utility bills are a lot higher.”
Sometimes a need is greater than the society can meet by itself; its average assistance last year was less than $100. In those cases the client may be referred to other agencies.
“Say a person owes $1,000 in back utilities; maybe we’re able to contribute $200 but then we’ll say, ‘why don’t you try these other sources for the rest of the money?’” Wafer said. “If they’re being evicted, we say, ‘Well, we’ll give you so much money if you can get the rest of the money from other areas.’”
Throughout its temporal work, the society retains its spiritual outlook. Virostek recalled how Father Robert Coine, Ss. Peter and Paul pastor, described the thrift store facility when he blessed it in November.
“He said, ‘This is a chapel,’” Virostek recalled. “‘It’s not a thrift store; it’s not a food pantry. It’s a place where people come to get refreshed, not only in body but in soul and in hope.’”