When I was in high school, I had to complete 20 hours of service to my local community each semester. To some of my peers, this was a burden — those were 20 hours they could have spent elsewhere. For me, however, it was an additional reason to spend a few afternoons at the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Growing up, I was a regular at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and looking back, I can see that the experience cultivated within me a heart for service. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise — St. Vincent de Paul, himself, felt a call to make an impact on the lives of those suffering on the margins. The charity group that bore his name is following his example.
Who was St. Vincent de Paul?
St. Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 to French peasant farmers. His father sent him to the seminary when he was 15, and he was ordained a priest four years later. Several years after that, Vincent was asked to act as a chaplain and tutor to the Gondis, a family of Florentine bankers. One day, when he was preaching to the peasants on the Gondi estate, his calling to prioritize serving them came into focus.
In his hopes to be of further service to the poor in his community, and because the need he saw was too great for him to bear alone, Vincent organized a group of women (with the help of Louise de Marillac, who was canonized a saint in 1934) to do things like collect funds for missionary projects, found hospitals, and gather relief funds for war victims. He ended up founding a religious order for women to join this work as nuns, and another one for priests (they are referred to as “Vincentians”) who would devote themselves entirely to serving people who are poor.
What does the St. Vincent de Paul Society do?
This is a mission that the Vincentians continue today, but their reach has expanded far beyond France. The St. Vincent de Paul Society has a presence in 155 countries on five continents, boasting more than 800,000 members in 44,600 different communities. The Society has nearly 100,000 trained volunteers in the United States alone. The mission is a simple one, which may be a direct cause of its efficacy: serve those in need.
This service takes on many different forms. Vincentians and volunteers deliver food and other essentials directly to the homes of people on the margins, providing rent and utility assistance, distributing clothing vouchers, and hosting community gardens, among many other initiatives. My local chapter started a project to ensure that every child in our community can go to sleep in his or her own bed at night. They also host an adopt-a-family Christmas initiative, where people can provide food and gifts for a local family in need.
What’s it like to volunteer there?
I’ve been a Vincentian since I was in the third grade. I started out stocking our parish food pantry and then assisted with food deliveries in grade school. I enjoyed meeting and serving new people, so in high school I joined their after-school tutoring program.
I started to build relationships with the kids whom we served, which changed my perspective. These were young people like me, but their life experience had differed greatly from my own. They opened my eyes to a whole part of my hometown that was too easily hidden. Finding commonalities with them revealed to me our shared human dignity; they taught me a lot about resilience.
If you are looking for a way to make an impact in your local community, I recommend finding your city’s St. Vincent de Paul chapter. People there — those who show up needing help, and those who show up ready to offer what they can — know that relationships can touch hearts and change lives. It changed mine.