How refreshing to find a true charity working to reach anyone who needs their help. But what happens when those who help others find themselves in need? If they are fortunate and blessed like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, members of the community step up and see that their needs are met, and not only met but exceeded because these folks believe in what the organization in Winnie does for others.
SVP is an international Roman Catholic voluntary organization dedicated to assisting those in need and seeking charity and justice for all. The first conference in the United States was established in 1845 at the original Cathedral of St. Louis. Today it continues to address social and material need in all its many forms. The society took Saint Vincent de Paul as its patron.
The local branch or mission housing the popular thrift store in Winnie was hit hard by Hurricane Rita but was almost entirely destroyed by Hurricane Ike, according to Murlene Blanchard, manager of the location. “We had to move several times, and that is no little feat,” she said, pointing to great amounts household goods. “Without the backing of this community, we would have not been able to function.”
Blanchard added that for a time they were in a church, then in the former Sammy’s Western Store and then in a building provided by a businessman in Winnie. “We needed visibility and to make it convenient for our people to come in to shop or to seek assistance,” she said.
Along with the thrift store that attracts shoppers from all over the area, there is also an assistance center staffed with kind and sensitive volunteers who understand fully that bad things can and do happen to good people. “Everything we do is based on meeting a need,” said Cynthia Devillier, director of that portion of the work. She showed off the well-stocked food bank where people who have a need can come on Tuesdays and Thursdays and choose what they’d like. There is a short form to fill out, and residents generally come from Chambers County, but there are no restrictions. Medical needs are also evaluated and referrals are made for help in that area as well. The assistance center helps pay utility bills for seniors, the homebound and anyone with a genuine need. “We get a lot of requests for utility bills help during the colder winter months,” said Devillier.
One of the important parts of this part of the work is SVP cooperation with school and community leaders to determine who is in need and then pursue helping those people. Huge boxes were filled with what Devillier described as “weekend backpacks.” Food items, including healthy snacks, easy-to-cook dishes like the ever popular macaroni and cheese, crackers, juices, and the like are picked up by the school nurses and sent home each Friday with children who likely would not have good nutritious food until they return to school on Monday mornings. “It is one of our most popular programs,” said Devillier.
“It was just terrible,” said Helen Royer, assistant manager, who has been a faithful volunteer five days each week for more than 11 years at the store in Winnie. “We had all of these people needing just everything and no space to display what we had been sent.” Working with Helen Henry, president of the local organization at the time, Blanchard and others set out to find a bigger, better space that was visible. Stepping up to the plate was a local businessman whose father had established a company in Winnie in 1950. He shared part of his building with the assistance program that was so vital in those days and began to seriously consider what he could do next to help more. His wife, now deceased, had a real heart for helping and he knew she would want him to continue that goal. He owned land and another building on Highway 124 in Winnie, and he allowed the thrift store to move its merchandise into that building free of charge at first.
Blanchard gets teary-eyed when she tells of a church in Hankamer whose members hunkered down and moved the entire thrift store in five hours in February 2011. “I’ve never seen folks work that hard,” said Tiny Cormier, a regular fixture in his wheelchair at the store. He cooked red beans and sausage for about 30 people and they all ate and rejoiced in the victory of the move. Cormier also handles electronic checking and repairs, motors and general good will. “It was truly a community-wide effort,” he said.
The local businessman did not want any recognition or particular thanks for his effort, but he worked tirelessly to finance the building, extension of the store providing the housing of the assistance center, food bank, a large furniture display area, and more room for storage, sorting, cleaning, and repairing. He had the help of others he paid and supervised, and together they built the nearly 10,000-square-foot building including pouring the concrete floor, staining it, building walls, shelving, and putting in air conditioning. He, at one time, borrowed more than $225,000 and put it into the project without looking back.
Blanchard said that the SVP group will in time pay the note on the money, but to get it started was a miracle. “We could not have ever done anywhere near this without his help,” she said. “This place is wonderful,” said Royer. “Not only do we help others, we receive help and blessing by being here and seeing needs met every day of our lives.”
One employee in the shop is a young man named Tim who has found himself down on his luck. He helps out with anything needed, moves furniture and helps load merchandise. Tim is virtually homeless and takes most of his meals with the ladies and Cormier in the store. And they help to meet his needs with a small salary until he can get on his feet. “He’s an excellent worker and we are glad to have him,” said Blanchard. “That’s what it’s all about to me, helping those who need our help when they need it.” They also have a program where community service workers are used to help in the store and have had excellent results with that program.
Blanchard says the greatest need they now have is for volunteers to come and help sort the donations. “Others help financially if they cannot offer their time,” said Blanchard, “and we’re most grateful for all of it.”
“You must come to our style show we conduct every May,” said the manager. “We use our own clothing, shoes, bags, hats, and our volunteers serve as the models for the Young At Heart Show. We have such fun.”
Asking the businessman why he does what he does to help others, he answered, “I cannot bear to see anyone treated with less than dignity, and in so many places and circumstances, folks who are down on their luck, even if they have added to it by making poor decisions, need a helping hand to be lifted back up and made better. The attitude of the workers here is the most important thing to me personally. I want everyone to feel important and special when he or she comes in here and not feel that they are second class citizens just because they have a need.”
He and his current wife are dedicated to seeing that this work continues in helping those in their community. “It’s the least we can do because of all that God has done for us,” he said.