The volunteer walks the length of the snow-covered sidewalk. She turns around when the front door of the subsidized housing unit swings open. A man steps outside and waves before he bends to pick up the groceries from his front step. This is a special delivery of COBS bread and groceries. The groceries include milk and cream with best before dates two and three days hence and it’s delivered to families the day it’s donated. Some families get the extra food every week, others on the weeks when they get bi-weekly or monthly deliveries of donated bread. These families can also call for a full hamper with fresh produce, frozen meat, cheese, milk, eggs and grocery store gift cards. The Thursday drop is extra for families who welcome some extra help. They never know if the extra food box will include school snacks or fresh fruit and a bakery pie. They do know this delivery is an act of kindness. It’s the food hamper equivalent of a neighbour sharing extra food—and they are grateful.
The woman at the next drop is one of three grandmothers on the Thursday List who are helping to raise grandchildren. “God bless you,” she calls out to the volunteer. “I had extra milk last week so I gave it to a neighbour,” she says. “That’s perfect,” says the volunteer.
Nine short months ago, the volunteer, one of Calgary’s 900 Vincentians, would have chatted with people at each drop. These days, she and others leave groceries on front steps, ring door bells and step back. They also wear masks and use disinfectant when they can’t wash their hands—because this is what Jesus would want them to do. “There’s a pandemic, but Christ’s work continues,” adds Theo van Besouw, president of the Calgary Central Council for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP).
SSVP is an internationally-renowned lay Catholic charity with roots on the mean streets of 19th century France. The organization operates in 150 countries, including Canada. Here, much of SSVP’s work with the economically-vulnerable focuses on delivering emergency food hampers and helping people avoid homelessness by assisting with temporary crises.
In Calgary, the Central Council oversees the work of 23 conferences and three particulars. Each conference works within parish boundaries. The North, South and West particulars meet with conferences in their geographic areas. “We get together to see how we’re doing and those with more resources help the others,” explains Rina McDermott. The president of a conference in northwest Calgary, she also represents that conference on the West Particular.
“St. Vincent de Paul gets a lot of attention during Advent, but our work is year-round,” adds van Besouw. Across the nation and in Calgary, SSVP is the single-largest faith-based charity on the front lines of poverty. “We help everyone, regardless of faith. If you call, we answer,” says van Besouw.
People who live in the Calgary Diocese may learn about SSVP after calling a local parish to ask for help. Others get information from the website, ssvpcalgary.ca. In Calgary, 211 operators with the City of Calgary also direct people who need food to specific conferences or to the Central Council phone number. Every week, Central receives up to a dozen calls or emails from people asking for help. Those folks are matched to conferences who can bring them help. “St. Vincent de Paul is also aligned with other charities who can bring people food. We’re building relationship with other groups all of the time,” says van Besouw.
Conferences with lots of Vincentians (SSVP volunteers) continue to provide food hampers during the pandemic. Others have suspended their hamper programs due to concerns about their volunteers. “But we are certainly not closed,” insists van Besouw. “Some of the conferences now give people grocery store cards instead of food. The pandemic has helped us be more creative. We’re learning to do contact-free deliveries of food and grocery store cards and we’re keeping in touch with people by phone. We want to keep the people we serve and Vincentians safe, but we also want to feed people.”
On-boarding new Vincentians is bit complicated, because the pandemic makes it difficult to conduct security checks. “But if you want to get involved with SSVP, or to start a conference at your parish, please reach out. We welcome new ideas at the table,” says van Besouw.
Written by Joy Gregory
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers