Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
St. Vincent de Paul Society seeks return to spiritual roots
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the June 8, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
The main St. Vincent de Paul retail store in Spokane spreads out on a couple of asphalt and concrete acres on Trent Avenue in the city’s east side industrial area. The Society operates a second retail store on North Monroe Street, another store in Spokane’s northeast Hillyard area, and maintains a Family Services office at 722 N. Regal St., where the St. Vincent de Paul food bank is located.
St. Vincent’s food bank, which is a contracted outlet for Spo-kane’s Second Harvest food bank network, is the largest food distributor in the Spokane area. It is the only one of 21 Second Harvest outlets that is open five days a week, distributing food to between 4,000-6,000 people each month. Although most of the other food banks limit their service to very specific geographic areas, St. Vincent’s serves all of Spokane County.
Things are changing, however, for Spokane’s Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. If most observers aren’t aware of some basic differences between the Society and other agencies organized to care for the less fortunate, they soon will be aware of those differences.
Adrienne Brownlow, a member of Spokane’s St. Anthony Parish, is the recently-hired executive director of the Society in Spokane. She sits at a cluttered desk in her small, borderline cramped office, and the future is on her mind.
“This is a real time of renewal for us,” Brownlow says thoughtfully, “and what we’re trying to do is emphasize the spirituality of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. For many years, I think that wasn’t the primary focus. We’re trying to remember that in our mission statement, growing spiritually is the primary goal. How we go about it is through service to the poor.
“Another thing we’re trying to do,” Brownlow continues, “is rebuild the business of St. Vincent de Paul. For a number of years the business hasn’t done as well as it could have. So we’re cleaning things up, we’re making things look a little fresher again. We want to have a brighter appearance.”
Cyndi Cook, from St. Joseph Parish in Colbert, has been hired as the Society’s volunteer coordinator and interim charity director.
“We’re continuing to recruit volunteers the usual ways,” said Cook, “from advertising in newspapers, to getting the word out through the colleges – all the colleges, not just Gonzaga but Spokane Community College, Eastern Washington University, and Washington State University, too. We’ve always had volunteers, but we haven’t had a volunteer program. So we’re developing a training program, and that’s new.
“We’re starting to put together a strategic plan, with an actual budget and actual programs,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re a brand-new organization, starting from the ground up. But the environment is different, and we need to professionalize more than we ever did in the past. Especially we need to get out there and call on the faithful to assist us. Life is so busy that people don’t volunteer the same way that they did 20 years ago.
“It’s getting to the point that we are going to be utilizing even more volunteers,” said Cook. “Up to now we’ve had staff, and the staff has been great, but most food banks survive almost solely on volunteers. So we want to get to the point where we can have volunteers going out with the food and helping the clients.”
According to Brownlow, “the goal is to have more person-to-person service. Also, rather than paying people to do our special works, the faithful would do those through volunteerism.”
Becoming a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer isn’t necessarily a long-term commitment, said Cook. “For the food bank we prefer volunteers who can come in for a few hours on a more-or-less regular basis,” she said. “But apart from that, we have a group that comes in once a month for two and-a-half hours, they help out in certain areas, then leave. We get groups from churches that call all the time wanting to come in and help with volunteer projects, and we do our best to keep them busy for as long as they can stay.”
Brownlow says that high on her list of priorities is asking, “How can we bring the faithful back to St. Vincent de Paul to help us out with this important mission?”
“Our base of volunteers, right now,” Cook said, “are those retired people in the community who have been involved with St. Vincent de Paul for a long time, and they’re still involved, and they’re amazing.” The Society needs younger volunteers – even families have an opportunity to get involved, she said.
For many years, Spokane’s St. Vincent de Paul stores have been open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the food bank has been open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. “But that’s when most people nowadays are working, or going to school, so we’re looking at different options,” said Cook. “The main thing is, however, that we want that spirituality back into what we’re going here.”
In its Family Services division, the Society hopes to build collaborations with other service providers in the area so they can offer more services on site. “We would be interested in collaborations with agencies like the Community Health Organization of Spokane (CHAS) and the Ronald McDonald medical van,” said Brownlow, “so they would come out here on site. We wouldn’t be actually doing it, but they would come and provide their services to make them more accessible to people.”
What the Society is about these days, said Brownlow, is “kind of reinventing ourselves. We want to reinvent St. Vincent de Paul and bring it into this century. We want to rediscover what it is that people are most needy for.”
In order to help bring about a transformation in Spokane’s Council, both Brownlow and Cook have immersed themselves in learning about the history, values, and mission of the Society. “It’s been very interesting,” said Brownlow. “It fits my own personal values 100 percent. I completely buy into the Vincentian mission.”
The Spokane Council is placing a new emphasis on educating both employees and volunteers about the spirituality of the Society. “We’ve already started doing that,” Adrienne Brownlow said. “One of our volunteers who has been here for many, many years, has started to introduce our mission and our values to the employees once a month. The intent is that at some point everyone would know what our mission and values are.”
Brownlow thinks that the Society has gone about its work rather quietly in Spokane for “a long time,” so that today it’s a kind of “best-kept secret.”
“We survive out of the goodness of others,” she said.
The Society was founded in Paris in 1833 by some French college students led by 20-year old Frédéric Antoine Ozanam (1813-1853). Ozanam was beatified in 1997 by Pope John Paul II. The Society has been in the United States since the first chapter was founded in St. Louis, Mo., in 1845. The Society is active in 133 countries, with 175,000 members in the United States.