Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

St. Vincent de Paul Society: Busy at Christmas, and the rest of the year as well

Story and photo by Jami Lebrun, Inland Register staff

(From the Dec. 16, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Mathew MeeusenMathew Meeusen is the new Executive Director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Spokane. The Society is scrambling to provide Christmas food baskets for the needy this holiday season. Turkeys, especially, are in short supply. (IR photo)

At this time of year, local charities are hard at work, turning Jesus’ call to serve the poor into a Christmas reality throughout the Spokane area. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, one of the area’s largest non-profit organizations, is just one of the many charities attempting to make a dent in poverty; and as Christmas approaches, volunteers and employees are working around the clock to ensure that families are able to have a modest Christmas dinner and that there are a few gifts under the tree.

The Christmas season is a season of joy, giving, celebration and family – or at least it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately, many families in Spokane are unable to celebrate Christmas the way in which so many people are accustomed. There is no money to buy a Christmas turkey, cranberries or pumpkin pie filling for a family Christmas dinner. No money for a new sweater for mom or a pair of much-needed jeans for a growing teenage son.

And though Christmas is about much more than a sumptuous meal and expensive gifts, human nature makes it difficult celebrate such a beautiful holiday with nothing when others have so much. Jesus told his followers to share the plentiful gifts God had bestowed on them with those who did not have as much. After all, Christmas is a season of giving and sharing Christ’s love with others, even those who may seem unworthy or far removed.

St. Vincent de Paul operates the largest food bank in the greater Spokane area, distributing 32 percent of all the food needed to feed hungry families and individuals. For the last several months, needy families from all over the Spokane area have been signing up to receive a St. Vincent de Paul Christmas Basket, complete with all the fixings for a Christmas dinner, including a family appropriate-size turkey. Over 5,000 families and individuals have requested baskets and so far 1,200 have been assembled. Now all workers have to do is wait for donations to fill the remaining 3,800 baskets.

“It’s on a first-come, first-serve basis,” said Mathew Meeusen, Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul. “Whoever signed up earliest is going to get a basket and then it just depends on donations. Turkeys, without a doubt, are the meal breaker. We’re always waiting on turkeys.”

On Dec. 5, St. Vincent de Paul also held its annual Christmas for Kids event. From noon to 6 p.m., over 600 children, referred to the event through various social programs, were welcomed into the store to shop for gifts for their parents and family members. Volunteers helped them select and wrap appropriate gifts before sending them on their way.

St. Vincent de Paul’s hard work does not end with the Christmas season, though. The main center encompasses an entire city block on Trent Ave. in Spokane, housing the food bank, main thrift store, loading docks, storage sheds, trucks and administrative offices that are open and functioning six days a week.

The food bank distributes food year-round – averaging 120,000 pounds distributed to 6,000 people each month.

The thrift stores operate six days a week, selling clothing, household goods and other miscellaneous items at the most affordable prices in Spokane. Funds from thrift store sales support the operating expenses and charity events of St. Vincent de Paul.

Thousands of qualified individuals also receive vouchers to shop in the thrift stores to purchase clothing, beds, kitchen utensils and other necessities for their homes and families at no cost to them.

The fleet of St. Vincent de Paul trucks is busy six days a week, traveling all over Spokane to pick up donations of food and clothing to be used in the food bank and thrift store.

The St. Vincent de Paul organization takes to heart the mission of its patron saint, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The Society operates on a shoestring budget, cutting costs wherever possible in order to make the most of all money they receive through donations and fundraisers.

Unfortunately, running an enormous organization on donations and the meager income from the thrift stores often leaves employees and volunteers working with less than adequate equipment and facilities. The organization has only one forklift, built in 1979, to move pallets of food, large furniture, trash and other huge items.

“When that thing goes down,” said Meeusen, “it nearly shuts us down. We desperately need another forklift.”

One big warehouse, where many employees and volunteers work, was built without insulation. This oversight now costs the Society several thousand dollars a month in heating bills. Administrators are soliciting donations of insulation in order to make the building more cost-effective and habitable for those working there, but those donations have been slow in coming.

“That’s one of my first priorities right now,” said Meeusen. “We have to get this building insulated.”

And he is not sitting idly by waiting for donations to trickle in. Under Meeusen’s direction, St. Vincent de Paul is becoming a “happening place.” Meeusen and the other St. Vincent de Paul staff are planning several fund-raisers in the coming year, joining with other charities throughout the Spokane area to plan and execute activities that will improve capital and help St. Vincent de Paul expand its charitable works.

They hope to open several new food banks in outlying areas – one is already in the works in Deer Park. Meesuen also hired a grant writer to help generate monies for expansion. The staff at St. Vincent de Paul are seeking artists who want to consign their art at St. Vincent de Paul stores, giving the bare walls of the stores a new look and providing artists a venue to sell their work. Meeusen and his staff are carefully sorting through donations, looking for valuable pieces that can be sold for higher prices at online auctions.

“This is great news for the Catholic Church right now,” Meeusen said. “We’re working hard and we’re expanding and we’re helping people all over the place.”

St. Vincent de Paul takes the Christmas spirit of giving into a year-round effort, forcing others to see the great need that is present throughout the year, not just at Christmas time. They take the message of Jesus and the mission of St. Vincent de Paul, the college student who dedicated his life to serving the poor, and put it into effect each and every day. And now, the hard work of generations of dedicated workers has turned into a nationwide network of well-oiled non-profit organizations known throughout the world for their dedication to the poor.

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