The St. Vincent de Paul Society is a Catholic nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting members of the community during times of need. The organization offers a variety of services and programs in the form of financial aid, food, clothing, temporary housing, and education. A chapter of the society was first established in the state in 1903, and today the organization serves the needs of thousands of residents in north Georgia.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society originated in Paris, France. In 1833 nineteen-year-old Frederic Ozanam met regularly with fellow Catholic students to discuss and debate the issues of the day. At a public meeting Ozanam was challenged with a question about what, as a Catholic, he was doing to help the needy. Unable to respond, Ozanam and his friends conceded the questioner’s point.
Shortly afterward, Ozanam, with the help of several friends, created a group whose mission was to serve the poor of Paris. He impressed upon conference members the need to offer kindness, respect, and compassion to the people they visited. In his view, this was as important as the food or clothing they brought with them. Ozanam chose as patron of the conference the sixteenth-century cleric St. Vincent de Paul, known as the “Apostle of Charity.” Subsequently, the Conference of Charity was transformed into the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
As the society grew, the volunteer groups that had formed in parishes became officially known as conferences. In 1903 the first St. Vincent de Paul Society conference in Georgia was formed by parishioners from the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta. The Atlanta Council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society was instituted in 1914 and exists today as a resource and support system for conferences. The council also administers programs through the Community Outreach Center, located in Atlanta.
As of 2004 there were 63 St. Vincent de Paul conferences in north Georgia, with more than 1,800 members serving communities in 27 counties. In order to provide personal and neighborly assistance, volunteer members, known as Vincentians, serve a local geographic area. Vincentians begin service by visiting the home of a person or family requesting assistance to determine how the society can improve the situation. Members offer help in the form of financial assistance, education and training opportunities, or clothing and food vouchers. Each year, the Atlanta Council helps more than 60,000 people throughout north Georgia. The Atlanta Council also supports a community outreach center that operates a learning center, thrift store, food pantry, clothing voucher program, and car donation program.
The learning center offers the community a variety of educational opportunities, including a series of life skills workshops; computer proficiency and citizenship classes; a General Educational Development, or GED, preparation course; and English instruction for speakers of other languages. Clients are also given mentorship opportunities and computer laboratory access. All services are free, and instruction, training, and mentoring are provided by volunteers.
The society also operates eight metropolitan Atlanta thrift stores that offer affordable clothing, furniture, and household items. In 2003 the society’s thrift stores also distributed more than $285,000 worth of free goods to those referred by conference members and partnering agencies. Each store participates in a clothing recycling program that serves the needy in other countries.
The society’s operating expenses come from donations and parish collections. The society manages a car donation program through the Community Outreach Center and within various conferences. Proceeds from the sale of donated cars, trucks, and recreational vehicles are used to help fund the society’s other programs. Additionally, more than 120 cars were given to families in 2003 through this program.