A Letter from Our President
A group of college students was assessing the problem of local poverty and homelessness when they were challenged to find a solution. The year was 1833 and the university was the Sorbonne in Paris. Rising to the occasion was a young student named Frederic Ozanam. He and some fellow Catholics decided to meet the challenge with an innovative program that included venturing into the slums of Paris, providing food, clothing, and firewood to the poor of the city. They chose as their patron St. Vincent de Paul, already famous as the consummate devotee of the poor. Thus was born the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Frederic went on to become a literary scholar, lawyer, journalist, as well as an advocate for equal rights. Yet his unparalleled dedication to the plight of the poor became his all-encompassing passion. A mere 12 years later the charismatic movement had come to St. Louis in 1845. As the United States expanded west, so did the Society reaching Los Angeles in 1908, where it has since grown to encompass Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara Counties, and served by our 2,500 volunteers. While celebrating our 175th anniversary in the U.S., the Society now cares for the poor in 160 countries with over one million volunteers.
Members of the organization–we call ourselves Vincentians– view service to the poor as a vehicle to holiness. Spirituality, therefore, underlies all of our activities as we respond to the message of the Gospels. It underscores our motto: “No act of charity is foreign to the Society.” Becoming a Vincentian involves preparation coupled with a warm, compassionate heart. This readies our volunteers for one of the core activities of the Society—the home visit. Whether the “home” may be an overcrowded apartment, an old van, or a park bench, a prayerful, in-person visit enables a fuller assessment of the challenges facing the struggling person or family. We assist with delinquent bills, car repairs, or whatever financial setback a person may face. While the current pandemic has set obstacles in our ability to serve, the generosity of our supporters has allowed our numerous food pantries, as with all our services, to remain open to all the hungry regardless of faith tradition.
The St. Vincent de Paul Council of Los Angeles has been operating our Cardinal Manning Center on Skid Row since the mid-1950s. It’s an oasis of comfort where the homeless can drop in and receive access to food, restrooms, computers, and other basics. However, the real care blossoms when homeless men are provided shelter at the 65-bed facility. The Center is staffed by dedicated and compassionate Vincentian social workers and case managers. They offer the residents rehabilitation, counseling, and job training to recognize their dignity and transition them into permanent housing and employment. The recent collaboration with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has added a much-needed mental health component. With an estimated 50,000+ people living on the streets of L.A., our program may not offer the systemic change needed to address this monumental problem; but we are doing what we can with our limited resources to support our neighbors in need.
In addition to donations and bequests which we need and gratefully welcome, income is generated from our two thrift stores, one in L.A. the other in Long Beach. This funds a part of our operations; and allows us to hire about 80 workers, who might otherwise be among the city’s homeless. The L.A. store is the largest thrift store in the county, referred to as the “Costco of Thrift Stores.” Our trucks provide free pick up of clothing, furniture, appliances, and other usable household items for sale or for a needy family unable to afford to replace an unreliable refrigerator, a leaky washing machine, or a hazardous kitchen stove. Also, donated cars can be found lined up for sale in front of our store–another source of income that supports our outreach.
What we call our “Crown Jewel” is our summer camp for boys and girls near Lake Cachuma north of Santa Barbara. The primary goal of the Circle V Ranch camp program is to develop a strong spiritual, mental, physical, and social character in the youthful campers. Our staff of college students offers positive role models for the youngsters, many of whom come from foster or group homes. These trained counselors provide enriching outdoor experiences that build self-esteem, expand knowledge and appreciation of others, nature, and God. For $650 per child for a week of camp, nearly all of these disadvantaged youth depend on “camperships” to attend. We turn to individual donations and foundations to fund the life-changing experience. As a former camper myself, I can personally attest to its impact on my life.
Unfortunately, in July 2017, the Whittier fire surrounded the camp forcing the evacuation of campers and staff. We lost several buildings, including our water treatment plant; and reconstruction was delayed by the ensuing mudslides, preventing the reopening of camp in 2018. The summer of 2019 saw the return of the first wave of campers, but with a shortened season. The 2020 summer was supposed to put the camp back on a complete schedule at full capacity, anticipating 1,200 kids, but we all know why that didn’t end up happening this year.
The winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are usually a busy time for all of us. They are typically imbued with joy, laughter, and the happiness of gift-giving. However, for the thousands living below the poverty line and the many families suffering as a result of the pandemic and its effects, we will be busier than ever this year. At Thanksgiving, hundreds of food baskets were distributed by our local chapters which we call Conferences of Charity and almost 300 to-go diners were handed out at La Placita – Our Lady Queen of Angels Church. Here again, teaming up with Navidad En El Barrio, the Society is readying hundreds of complete Christmas dinners for needy families. In addition, we are partnering with the California Highway Patrol’s CHiPS for Kids toy drive, presenting approximately 1,000 children and teens with what may be their only toy of the holidays. But we don’t stop there, as many children also walk away in a new pair of shoes from Shoe Palace. These are the rewards of the Vincentian way of life, where knowing that one is making a difference, an improvement in the life of another motivates, inspires, and, indeed, sanctifies.
It’s hard to imagine that our founder, Blessed Frederic Ozanam, would have envisioned the impact his fledgling organization would have all these years later. His example and inspiration have touched the lives of millions. Inspired by Frederic’s ardent dedication to those in need, we Vincentians invite you to join us in continuing to feed, clothe, house, and heal.