By BREANNA PRICE, Intern for The Voice-Tribune
It’s that time of year when it’s virtually impossible to turn on the TV without seeing multiple Black Friday advertisements. When select radio stations broadcast nonstop holiday tunes and each house in the neighborhood slowly but surely adorns itself inside and out with glowing Christmas lights and festive decoration. When counting calories seems downright impossible. When putting on sweatpants and curling up under the covers with hot chocolate or a good book – or preferably hot chocolate and a good book – becomes an almost nightly routine.
More than that, it’s the time of year when the Holiday Cheer Bug really does seem to bite everyone and smiles on Monday mornings don’t seem unbearable. The time of year when happy days and evenings are spent passing time with loved ones. And it’s the only time of year when the typical chaos slows down just long enough for each individual to take a moment to be still, look around and think, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
That’s what the holidays mean for a lot of people. But with the holidays come a season of harsh winds, below-freezing temperatures and unpredictable appearances of snow. It’s time for the holidays, yes, but it’s also time for winter. For many, there’s no difference between the two. The holidays and winter go merrily hand-in-hand.
For others, the two couldn’t feel more disparate. To some, low temperatures are a threat, not an inconvenience. Good meals mean the food is warm and it appeases your appetite, not stuffs you until you can’t stand up. And the possibility of getting any presents is a hope, not a guarantee.
At St. Vincent de Paul, the staff and volunteers do what they can to help make the difficult realities that a growing portion of the Louisville population faces less severe. This portion of the community is currently estimated at 11,000 people, of which 20 percent are children. Ed Wnorowski, Executive Director at St. Vincent de Paul, has seen firsthand those numbers increase since he came on board in 2008. That year, the organization’s Open Hand Kitchen served 86,000 meals. Since the recession, that number has increased to more 120,000 meals a year and hasn’t stopped.
“That’s a lot of folks walking through,” Wnorowski said. “We don’t ask questions of who’s coming into the kitchen. We say, ‘You’re hungry? Come on in.’ But if you look at who’s coming in, it’s younger families and a lot more kids, whereas in the beginning of 2008 there were a lot more men and singles. It’s been a transition towards more families and younger families
“And a lot more working force, too,” Linda Romine, Director of Communications, added. “It’s not just homeless people. A lot of them work. The parents get up and go to work, the kids go to daycare or school. Our clients work jobs just like everybody else but it can be hard to make ends meet.”
A common misconception is that all homeless people are lazy. “Homeless people – most, or over 50 percent of them – are employed,” Wnorowski said. “Not necessarily full-time, but they’re employed and they’re absolutely willing to work. It’s usually not because they don’t want to work. It’s maybe that they don’t have adequate employment or they don’t have full-time employment in order to be able to afford an apartment.”
To truly assess any given situation, it becomes necessary to look at the big picture. Daily routines that aren’t even given a second thought, such as a morning commute, can become a real problem both when approaching a job and even when trying to take care of one’s own health.
“We’ve just started a pilot program,” Wnorowski said. “We took an assessment of the public population that we’re serving and the bottom line was that a huge percentage of our clients have underlying mental illness issues that are largely unaddressed. And the reason it’s unaddressed is because mental health services can be very difficult to ascertain.” Transportation, daycare, all the things that are sometimes easy to take for granted are barriers. One might wonder, “why not just show up to an appointment?” But the answers become complex after realizing the obstacles clients face. The pilot program on St. Vincent de Paul’s campus in Smoketown aims to enhance long-term outcomes for clients, and its team of over 1,800 volunteers knows that positive long-term results require long-term investment and have risen to that challenge since day one.
“We literally serve every constituency from kids to seniors, folks that are developmentally or mentally challenged, those with drug and alcohol addiction,” Wnorowski said. “And there’s no way we could generate enough revenue to pay a staff like that to do everything that needs to be done, so volunteers really make a difference between success and not.”
St. Vincent de Paul is one of the oldest social service charities in Louisville, having worked to provide homeless shelters, supportive housing programs and professional case management services for the community for nearly 160 years. But in order to keep its broad base of 13 programs running, the charity organization is run like any other smart business.
“Businesses have to have revenues in order to have expenses and all those things that are normal for a profitable business,” Wnorowski said. “The difference is that our products, hopefully, are positive outcomes for the people that need it.
The line outside the Open Hand Kitchen.
However, the question then becomes where that revenue is coming from and, more importantly, what’s being done with it.
Like most social service charities, the funding to keep St. Vincent de Paul running comes from a variety of sources. Wnorowski expanded, saying, “We have some legacy-type donors, who we refer to as our Good Samaritans, and they’re folks that send us maybe $10 a month. Then we certainly have major donors; they’re individuals that have relative means and are generous to us.” After this, about 30 percent of total revenue comes from federal, state and local grants.
“Another big part is our thrift store and vehicle donation,” said Nancy Naughton, Associate Executive Director at St. Vincent de Paul. “So getting the donations from the community to sell for our stores that we can then recycle is key.”
Forget everything you think you know about donating and recycling. If it can even remotely be used, the folks at St. Vincent de Paul will find a use for it. Wnorowski elaborated on the process of what happens from the moment someone decides to donate all the way to when that donation finds its new home. “We have trucks, and people call our number and schedule a pick-up, which we do on a regular basis. It’s taken to our warehouse where the merchandise is sorted, including if it isn’t sellable, which a fair amount of it isn’t.”
But then where does that shirt with that large coffee stain go? And what about that chipped vase no one likes to use anymore? The dedicated volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul will make sure they figure that out. “We’re one of the first great recyclers,” Wnorowski assures. “If something has a tear, or maybe the zipper is broken or just isn’t wearable, we bail that fabric and that clothing and we see a price per pound of that.
“It isn’t just clothing,” he added. “We also do a lot of business in furniture and household goods, televisions and kitchen appliances.”
St. Vincent de Paul’s best-kept secret isn’t even that the organization recycles practically every item that marches its way to their donation centers. It’s that all of that recycling in turn contributes a reasonably large amount of possible cash flow, which is then used for the other programs.
“Sometimes people are a little hesitant because they’ll think, ‘Well, they’re selling that but I want to give it,’” Wnorowski said. “But giving that old coat or a car you’re not using and allowing us to sell it helps us put cash into the programs that need it the most and will hopefully be the most impactful.”
As Naughton simply put it, “It stays here. There are operations and certain charities where a very small percent of their value actually goes to the charity. 100 percent of our profit stays.”
Between trying to snag the best deals on gifts to save your hard-earned money where you can, sprinting to meet end-of-year deadlines at work and juggling commitments to kids, friends and relatives, it’s easy to forget that outside the chaos of our own hectic lives, someone is wishing they had our problems. The holidays are a time to enjoy the warm season’s greetings that only chilly winters seem able to bring about. However we choose to celebrate the upcoming holidays – whether it’s by tree-trimming, calorie-splurging, book-reading or giving back – it’s important to examine what the holidays truly mean to each of us.
Photos By CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune