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St. Vincent de Paul Society steps up to help those affected by the pandemic

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The shelves at Bethany Food Pantry were as bare as bare could be. Director Marie Klatt stared at the void and felt overwhelmed. It was late March 2020, and many were beginning to feel the pinch of the pandemic. Klatt headed home not knowing what to do. 

Her husband encouraged her not to worry. “Now aren’t you the girl that always says, ‘Don't be afraid to give out the food, God will provide?’ ” he asked her that night. “And I said, ‘Yeah, you're right.’ I did my prayers and then I went to bed,” said Klatt. “The next day, I don’t know what happened but the donations started pouring in. Our shelves have been full ever since.”

As with many charitable organizations, the Bethany Food Pantry, run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society Conference at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, has seen increased need over the past year. Since the start of the pandemic, they have donated 160,000 pounds of food to 2,900 families, as compared to 61,000 pounds of food to 1,400 families during the same time period the previous year. 

Many other Vincentians, or members of the society, similarly are dealing with increased need from their friends — people other organizations might refer to as clients. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international Catholic charitable organization of lay women and men that was founded in the 1830s. The diocese has 10 Vincentian conferences at 11 parishes, as St. Jude Church and St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church, both in Fredericksburg, share a conference. 

Paul “Korky” Korkemaz, who attends both Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna and Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Washington, is president of the St. Vincent de Paul district council for the Arlington diocese. He estimates that requests for assistance and aid given have increased by at least 50 percent during the pandemic. In 2020, the 10 conferences in the diocese served 19,215 friends, gave away more than $1 million in financial assistance and donated $368,300 worth of services and goods, such as food. 

On a recent Tuesday morning at Bethany Food Pantry, five volunteers sorted 2,000 pounds of food from Wawa and Walmart, donated to the pantry by Prince William Food Rescue. Though Prince William Food Rescue donates the most, parishioners also help stock the pantry by donating around 1,000 pounds of food a week. As the volunteers worked, the small room filled with the smell of bagels and bread donated by Panera and brought to the pantry by a volunteer. The Vincentians moved around the pantry sorting the wares, occasionally asking each other where to put the odd can of mushrooms or jar of marshmallow spread. 

The pantry distributes food Friday mornings and Tuesday evenings. It’s the only pantry in the area that has evening hours, said Klatt. Though they ask that people living in the parish boundaries come only every other week, they often make exceptions. “I have a guy who lost his job and is living in a hotel. You can’t keep a lot of food in a hotel. You don’t have a refrigerator,” she said. “So he’s been coming every week and he gets stuff he can microwave.”

It’s been difficult not to hug the people who come to the pantry and share their stories, said Klatt. Many have lost their jobs or have trouble feeding their children now that they’re not receiving breakfast and lunch at school. “They tell you what they’re going through and it’s just heart-wrenching,” she said. 

Each St. Vincent de Paul conference provides aid in different ways, but the touchstone is care for the whole person, said Korkemaz. “We don’t look at it as a transaction — say, give them a food card and leave. We try to set up a meeting, we talk a little bit about their situation. (Through) that one-on-one, we get a holistic idea of what’s going on in the family and sometimes we can even provide broader help,” he said. “That personal relationship is what makes us distinct.” In-person contact took a hit at the start of the pandemic, though Vincentians soon switched to video conferencing, phone calls or meeting with friends at a distance in the church parking lot. 

In addition to providing food, personal care products, and utility and rent assistance, Vincentians continued their alternative loan program. The partnership with Apple Federal Credit Union helps those in need avoid taking out a payday loan, and instead offers reasonable loan terms and rates, improving credit scores. “We’ve had 15 loans to date and 14 are in the process or have been paid off, and only one was delinquent because the borrower passed away,” said Korkemaz. 

Looking back on this past year, Korkemaz is grateful for the work of the Vincentians and the generosity of their parishes. He wonders what would’ve happened to the thousands of friends if the St. Vincent de Paul Society wasn’t poised to assist them. He hopes more people and parishes join the society. “The more I witness, the more I get fired up that the St. Vincent de Paul Society is really a treasure.” 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

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