December 6, 2010

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Bernie McCracken, local Society of St. Vincent de Paul president, and Peter Ouellette have devised a strategic plan for development of the Catholic volunteer charity.

RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is trying to attract young people to help replace its aging volunteer base.

The move is part of an overall plan to improve the organization, whose mission is to help the poor meet their basic needs.

Over the past decade the society has experienced a tremendous growth in volunteers, going from a handful of people in one conference to 400 volunteers in 18 parish-based conferences.

"In 10 years that's excellent growth," says Peter Ouellette, a member of the executive of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

"But we have the issue of sustaining the volunteer base we currently have. We are talking replacing them because we all get a little older.

"Many times our volunteers are close to 70 years old. That's why we are turning to youth as well and changing our practices that will allow youth to participate."

The society spent most of the past year surveying its volunteers and meeting in focus groups to develop a strategic plan. The plan calls for changes in almost every area of operations.

"We've had wonderful success but we need to improve the services that we provide. Our goal is to make St. Vincent de Paul a more efficient organization to serve the mission of St. Vincent de Paul, which is to serve the poor," said society president Bernie McCracken.

"The entire emphasis in the strategic plan is to continuously improve in how we do our volunteer work."

Ouellette, the man behind the plan, said the society is looking at other models for serving the poor used in centres across North America and around the world.

The strategic plan has several action plans to be accomplished with hard targets over the next year or two.

Ouellette stressed that the strategic plan didn't come about because of a crisis in the organization but out of the recognition that in order to grow the society has to bring in more volunteers.

Recruiting more volunteers means raising the profile of the organization, he said.

Society of St. Vincent de Paul logo

Many organizations do similar work "and what we try to do is identify and distinguish ourselves separately as an organization that is Catholic faith-based and that is modelled after the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul."

The number of clients of St. Vincent de Paul has grown continuously and will continue to grow. "I don't think we'll ever have enough volunteers to serve all of the clients that require assistance in the Edmonton community," Ouellette said.

When a client says he needs assistance, St. Vincent de Paul will send visitors to assess the client's needs.

The visitors recommend action, which could be delivering a bed to get the children off the floor or the delivery of a kitchen table because there is none. It could also mean providing bus tickets or food.

"All of that is done at a cost that is extremely low," Ouellette noted. "Our assessment is $20 for an adult client served. That represents the cost of our trucks and the cost of our gas and the cost and maintenance of our clothing and distribution centre."

The St. Vincent de Paul Society served more than 2,000 families in the past year.

"What's unique about St. Vincent de Paul is the home visitation person to person. That's our great strength," McCracken said.

"We go right into the home, see the parents, see the children, see their environment and do the assessment of what their needs are."

Clients include refugees, immigrants, people who are homeless and coming in off of the streets, people who have some kind of mental illness and families who have lost their job and their source of income.

The plan also calls for collaboration with other city groups and for more education and training for volunteers.

MORE TRAINING

"That's an important part of our strategic plan, to develop training," Ouellette said.

The society's main volunteer source is people in early retirement. The strategic plan calls for the recruitment of more baby boomers and young people.

McCracken and others regularly make presentations at schools and parishes in an effort to attract more youth.

Volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul include retired university professors, engineers, administrators, managers, truck drivers and auto-mechanics.

"We have people who can solve many, many problems and those talents are there available to be accessed," Ouellette said.