As I wind down my six-year tenure as Board President I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to our volunteer Board of Directors for the confidence they placed in me when they elected me to lead the Society. I am also deeply grateful to all our stakeholders – our management team and employees, our dedicated Vincentians and generous donors – for all their support over the years. I was invited to join the Board in 2011 knowing little more about the Society than “Bundle Sunday.” I leave having been spiritually enriched by the Vincentian charism and its singular focus on serving Christ in the poor.
I would like to let the L.A. Council at large know where we stand as an organization, how far we’ve come and how we are well-positioned for a future of increasing service and spiritual growth. Simply put, the state of the Council is strong and we remain abundantly blessed. I attribute this in great part to a thoughtful and prayerfully committed Board of Directors and an equally talented and resourceful leadership team executing Board directives on a daily basis. This included overcoming a number of daunting challenges, some of which required the upskilling of the Board as well as the executive management team. My personal thanks go to David Garcia for stepping up in time of need as an effective Executive Director and building all-important employee morale. Now let’s take a look at a few of those challenges and how we were able to meet them.
Upon accepting the presidency it was immediately evident that we were hemorrhaging cash and we needed to staunch the flow in order to survive as an organization. The first step toward establishing financial control was the retention and addition of Board members with financial expertise. Today our Board includes CPAs, an investment manager, business people, lawyers and entrepreneurs in addition to a host of dedicated Vincentians. As became clear to all, the drain on our finances was coming mostly from our two thrift stores. The problem was turned around when I brought in the National Stores Director who, with the help of more professional managers, retrained staff and streamlined the entire operation. Within several months the improvements were noticeable. Our new social media team has been profoundly instrumental in attracting a younger demographic that has made the L.A. Store a “destination” point for local fashionistas. Store sales at both locations have soared. The result–-a clientele of mostly teenage girls and ultimately, a balanced budget.
Not long after taking office, as I was leaving church on a Sunday morning, I received a call on my cell phone and was stunned by news of a dangerous wildfire that had surrounded our beloved Circle V Ranch Camp the day before. The staff and campers were all safely evacuated, thanks be to God, but it took Hollywood heroics by staff and firefighters to rescue them. On visiting the camp the next day, with flames still licking up from smoldering tree stumps, I observed how close the fire had come to wiping out the entire facility. Fire retardant drops directly on top of cabins and a shift in the wind had saved most of the structures. As a former Circle V camper myself, the devastation touched me emotionally. Rebuilding was a slow process, hampered by heavy rains that produced mudslides and then by the endless bureaucratic red tape. The good news is we were finally able to reopen camp last summer and we are currently finishing up this summer’s final sessions. This time kudos to Ray Lopez and Susana Santana for embracing the painstaking and arduous task of rebuilding.
It became apparent during my years of service that the Society lacked a much-needed professional Strategic Plan to guide the organization. So we engaged the services of the Center for Nonprofit Management and formed a Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Aimee Brazeau (thank you Aimee). It has been a long but thorough process with input from everyone involved in the organization. Happily, we are coming down the home stretch toward the finished product that will benefit the Society for many years to come.
The heating up of the real estate market in recent years engendered interest in our property. This prompted me to form a Properties Committee to explore the value and potential of our real estate holdings. We have heard various opinions and had several proposals and offers; but given that our L.A. store has since become a destination for thrifters and that a move elsewhere would be so costly and disruptive, I’m recommending we take full advantage of our current location. In fact, acquiring the land next door is under consideration. This could be ideal for medical offices that would add the fourth element of “Healing” to our Vincentian offerings. Also, we are actively looking for new locations for thrift stores, preferably in the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys.
The Covid pandemic has brought pain, suffering and death to literally millions of people. SVDPLA has not escaped completely unscathed. But by comparison, we have been able to avoid the disastrous heartaches so many have undergone. During its peak last year the PPP loan pulled us through a two-month shutdown of our stores, and we were fortunate enough to keep all our employees on payroll. Not only that, the good Lord took great care of us with some of the largest and unexpected bequests in the history of the organization. We have been able to keep food pantries open and our Vincentian services have continued unabated via phone and Zoom and contactless deliveries. Watson Land Company, with our Emeritus Board Member Bob Huston at the helm, continues to buttress our financial position. As that position continues to grow stronger, we will be prepared to offer more programs and services to our friends in need. My hope and prayer is that the organization will continue building an enduring legacy in the years ahead.
It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the Society as its Board President. May God bless the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and all whom we serve in Christ.
Finally, my heartfelt congratulations go out to Phil Wijmer who was elected the new President of the Board of Directors at last week’s Board meeting. Phil is a dedicated Vincentian who will provide the compassionate leadership needed to face the ongoing challenges of serving God’s poor throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He officially takes over on October 1, 2022. Phil, I hereby pledge my prayers and support as you assume your new role. May the Holy Spirit bless and guide you in all your efforts going forward.