May 3, 2019

Society of St. Vincent de Paul celebrates new Bloomington location

Volunteers and supporters cheer as John Ryan, president of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Council, uses a large pair of scissors to cut a ribbon in celebration of the opening of the new warehouse location of the Bloomington Society of St. Vincent de Paul on April 11. The society recently upgraded to this 9,500 square foot building after operating in a location with 7,500 square feet. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

Volunteers and supporters cheer as John Ryan, president of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Council, uses a large pair of scissors to cut a ribbon in celebration of the opening of the new warehouse location of the Bloomington Society of St. Vincent de Paul on April 11. The society recently upgraded to this 9,500 square foot building after operating in a location with 7,500 square feet. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BLOOMINGTON—When the Monroe County branch of an international organization began 26 years ago, volunteers were operating out of a family garage.

By contrast, the Bloomington Society of St. Vincent de Paul now occupies a warehouse that boasts 9,500 square feet. Members gathered on April 11 for a blessing and ribbon cutting at its new location.

“I think the Holy Spirit is in this room right now, and he’s very happy with us, with all of you—you’re to be congratulated,” John Ryan said during the ceremony. Ryan is president of the Indianapolis St. Vincent de Paul Council, which helps to connect the societies throughout the archdiocese.

“We’re so proud of what you do here and what you accomplish here. It is simply remarkable,” he said.

The Bloomington council served about 3,400 people in need last year. The group offers financial assistance for essentials like utilities, medicine, vehicle repairs and rent payments. They also collect furniture donations, which are brought to the warehouse and then distributed to clients free of charge.

Many of the clients, individuals and families alike are attempting to establish a new life after experiencing homelessness. Others are struggling to pay their rent and cannot replace worn-out items or purchase beds for their children.

“Having furniture gives a sense of home,” explained Scott Alber, a member of St. Paul Catholic Center who is president of the Bloomington council. “They have more self-esteem.”

Last year, the group distributed more than 4,800 pieces of furniture.

Their former headquarters measured 7,500 square feet, and volunteers said they were bursting at the seams. Several members recalled that they had to stack couches on top of one another for lack of space.

The new warehouse could easily hold a major league baseball diamond with room to spare. The space includes a small office and an indoor loading dock for trucks.

The largest room, where clients arrive every Saturday to select their own furniture, was filled on April 11 with dozens of chairs, couches, bookshelves, kitchen tables and mattresses of all sizes. A second large room contained stoves and refrigerators, along with about 30 washers and dryers.

“There was a study done in St. Louis that found that kids were not going to school because they did not have clean clothes, so we started a washer [and] dryer program,” explained Alber.

The group purchases used machines, but their supply still falls short of the demand. About 50 families are currently on a waiting list.

“There’s more poverty here than you realize,” Alber said.

This society serves Bloomington and the surrounding Monroe County, where about 20 percent of the estimated 147,000 residents are considered to be in poverty, according to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

When a client asks the society for help, volunteers schedule a visit to their home, or, if the person is homeless, the members meet him or her at a restaurant and pay for the meal. They assess the client’s needs, provide a list of community resources, and help the person make a plan of action to fill their needs.

Volunteers recounted that often a person will begin in a panic and gradually calm down as they realize that help is available.

“It’s not to make them feel ashamed or afraid or humiliated, and sometimes [they feel] all three,” explained Jo Gilbertson, the secretary of the society and a member of St. Paul Catholic Center.

“It’s going to them and hearing their story and assisting in any way we can,” she said.

If clients need furniture, they are invited to come to the warehouse. Here, they select their own items which can then be delivered to their residence by volunteers. The limit is five pieces per visit—with a table and chairs counting as one piece—or as much as can be packed in a pickup truck.

When the load is large, volunteers often get creative to make everything fit.

“We look like the Beverly Hillbillies,” laughed Ed Dolan, a volunteer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. He shared photographs of his pickup stacked with furniture to almost double its height.

About 70 people volunteer with the society regularly, which has no paid employees. On April 11, about four dozen volunteers and other supporters gathered to celebrate the new location. Prayers were said aloud and a member read the Gospel passage where Jesus exclaims, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

Deacon Ronald Reimer of St. Paul Catholic Center then zig-zagged through rows of furniture to sprinkle holy water around the building.

Finally, the group gathered around a loading dock and cheered as Ryan cut a blue ribbon to mark the official opening of the new space.

Members of the Bloomington Society of St. Vincent de Paul vow to keep going strong. They hope that the new warehouse will help them continue to impact lives across Monroe County.

Alber recalled a moment that proved to him the value of their furniture outreach. He was at the grocery store when a worker noticed his St. Vincent de Paul shirt and stopped to speak with him.

“She said, ‘I want to thank you. When I first came to Bloomington, I had nothing, and I came and you gave me furniture, and you helped me get my life started,’ ” Alber recalled her telling him. “ ‘It was St. Vincent de Paul that helped me get my feet back on the ground.’ ”

The new warehouse is located at 1999 Packing House Road in Bloomington. Donations can be made directly at the warehouse or a pickup can be coordinated through its website, www.svdpbloomington.org.
 

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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