Volunteer Connie Ruiz rings a customer up in the thrift store.
Clarice Keating Of the Catholic Sentinel
One in five Grants Pass residents are living below the poverty line, reports the 2010 U.S. Census. Many of these folks come to the Grants Pass St. Vincent de Paul seeking assistance — perhaps they need something to eat, clothes to wear, rent or utility assistance, or simply a kind smile.
With its team of dedicated volunteers and community support, the organization has met increased demand for service over the past few years with resourcefulness and determination.
Even so, some days are harder than others.
“Two people work in the office at a time, and some days we’ll get 35 phone calls and an office full of people besides,” said Donna Deignan, who runs the Social Services Office. “Those are the days you feel like you’re barely scratching the surface.”
Grants Pass’ Vincentian council is Our Lady of the Valley, currently chaired by longtime volunteer Paul Wilson. Under the council are three conferences, which are the legs of the charitable organization. The St. Anne Conference runs the Social Services Office; St. Joseph Conference handles the thrift store; and the Blessed Frederic Conference is in charge of the soup kitchen.
The structure is tight-knit and interwoven, each conference working closely with the others, as well as other human service agencies in the area.
“Poverty is not an uncommon occurrence in smaller rural areas,” said Kelly Wessels, chief operating officer of one of those other organizations, the United Community Action Network. “But it’s not just poverty anymore. There are many more systemic issues so the number of families that are homeless is on the rise.”
There is a common misperception that housing in rural areas is less expensive than in urban areas, Wessels said, but rentals in the area often charge much higher security deposits. So if a family loses its home, they find it much harder to get into another one. In a recent “point-in-time” tabulation of homeless in the area, 38 percent of the people counted were under the age of 18. Smaller communities just don’t have the number of shelters to handle that level of need, Wessels said.
“The human services agencies here work closely together to see where one begins and the other one ends to make sure we’re serving the best we can,” she said.
Maureen Hutcheson, president of the St. Joseph Conference, saw an acute need years ago when she taught children in Wolf Creek, an unincorporated community 20 miles north of Grants Pass in Josephine County. She saw how the families of her students struggled.
“I remember feeling grateful that our church, through St. Vincent de Paul, was giving help to this community that was so impoverished,” Hutcheson said.
At the time, the thrift shop in Grants Pass, which is one of the primary fundraisers for the St. Vinnies Society here, was only open during the week. That didn’t make much sense to Hutcheson, who knows that many working folks do their shopping on the weekends. She offered to help out at the thrift store one Saturday each month. Volunteerism picked up, the program grew, and these days the store is open every Saturday of the month.
“Many of our volunteers come out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they want to gain something themselves,” Hutcheson said. “Thy feel blessed in many ways and want an opportunity to be able to give back.” A sense of camaraderie is fostered among the store’s volunteers and shoppers, too. Oftentimes, shoppers come in with a primary purpose of saying “hi” to their favorite volunteer, and walk out having purchased a treasure they didn’t even know they needed.
Gary Quinn, one of the store managers, calls the Grants Pass shop the “Nordstrom of thrift stores.” They gussy up donations and resell them, and proceeds support the soup kitchen and social services office.
“We have got the system humming like you wouldn’t believe,” Quinn said. “We all work together to wash and dry clothes, and wash dishes. Northing goes out of the store that is broken, and nothing goes out that isn’t quality.”
In 2003, someone came up with the idea to offer children’s clothes for 25 cents. The price hasn’t gone up since.
Patricia Kissinger, president of the Blessed Frederic Conference, and her team of volunteers in the soup kitchen serve between 75 and 100 meals each day, Monday through Saturday. In their professional days, the soup kitchen’s two volunteer chefs worked at fine dining restaurants in the United States and Europe.
“No one ever leaves our premises hungry,” Kissinger said.
The council is affiliated with St. Anne Church in Grants Pass, but the volunteers aren’t all members of the parish. Volunteers from a variety of faiths come together at St. Vincent de Paul with one mission — to help the poor.
Last year the Vincentians’ appeal exceeded expectations, bringing in $10,000 in donations, and $15,000 through the SVDP Vehicle Donation Program. The organization also received $59,000 in grants, and the thrift store netted $48,000 in sales.
Revenues were up, but demand for services was also on the rise. Last year, the kitchen served more than 23,000 meals and the pantry provided 40 percent more food boxes than the year prior. The organization provided assistance with rent, utilities, prescriptions and other household needs, totaling more than $55,000, to more than 5,000 people. There are only 34,500 residents in the city of Grants Pass. On the days when the resources just aren’t available, SVDP volunteers refer clients to another agency or simply have to turn them down.
“Sometimes we can’t do anything for them,” Deignan said. “All we can do is just talk and sympathize and tell them that we’ll pray for them. It’s a really hard job sometimes.”