With more and more people seeking help from the Society of St Vincent de Paul – and their problems becoming more and more complex – it is vital that the society’s volunteers receive the support they need to help others.
This is the aim of Windgap native Geoff Meagher, began a three-year term as the society’s national president in May.
It is this direct assistance for people in need that has drawn him two work with the society’s St Canice’s conference for the past 30 years, having initially joined at the request of a friend.
There are two major challenges that the society faces today, according to Mr Meagher.
“One is the number of requests that are coming in to the society, and whilst we don’t have the statistics for all of our regional offices, certainly in the four biggest ones over a three-year period the number of calls has gone up by 80%. That is mirrored here in Kilkenny, where the demand on our members has increased enormously over the last two years,” he says.
“The second issue is that in many instances members are faced with far more complex issues, particularly issues around large debts, whether it is mortgages or other debt.”
The best way to meet these challenges, he says, is to ensure that the society’s 10,500 volunteers – or members, as they are known – have the proper training and support.
This should also involve increasing the number of members to ensure that the current ones are not overloaded with demands, he says.
“Also within that we will be encouraging conferences to get in people with special talents and skill sets,” Mr Meagher adds.
Someone with a financial background could be able to give advice on debt issues, for example, while someone with IT skills could assist with the software that the society is giving its conferences to maintain their records.
It is also helpful to have members with children in second- or third-level education, he says, as the society often receives calls from people struggling to meet the costs of education.
The Society of St Vincent de Paul currently has 10,500 members in its 1,250 conferences, Mr Meagher notes, “and we would estimate that at any one time we are probably dealing with 30,000 families. Annually there are about 400,000 visits and the volunteers put in two million volunteer hours a year.”
This is in addition to the more than 150 charity shops, 14 hostels, 1,000 social housing units and 11 holiday homes that provide about 5,000 holidays a year, plus youth clubs and family support centres.
And in seeking to build on its volunteer base, Mr Meagher says one particular area of growth is the aim to bring in more young people as members.
“It is often forgotten that the society’s founder Frederic Ozanam was 20 years of age when he founded the society in 1833,” he notes. “All of the original founding members – except for one, who was in his 40s – were in their early 20s. So it is something that we are promoting.”
This includes a Youth for Justice programme, linking up with secondary schools and conferences in third-level institutions.
“We certainly are encouraging more youth involvement and younger people in the society,” Mr Meagher says.
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