St. Vincent de Paul more than a thrift store

Gale Cerney is the president of St. Vincent de Paul’s St. Cecilia and St. Agnes Conference.

IRON RIVER—Mention the name St. Vincent de Paul to someone and then ask them to say the first thing that comes to mind. “Inexpensive clothes” would certainly be a common response. But Gale Cerney, president of St. Vincent de Paul’s St. Cecilia and St. Agnes Conference, wants the public to know everything else the organization does to help community members in need.  
    Founded in France in 1833, the Catholic lay organization leads women and men together to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to those who are needy or suffering. The society is an international one, with members in almost 150 countries. The St. Cecilia and St. Agnes Conference is one of over 44,000 conferences worldwide and is one of five conferences in the local district, along with Crystal Falls, Iron Mountain, Florence and Norway.
    Profits from St. Vincent de Paul stores, which are the special work of the districts, are split among each conference, enabling them to provide assistance in a variety of forms to friends in need at the local level.
    According to Cerney, providing those in need with food and household supplies is a large part of this assistance.
    “Neighbors in need come to the office upstairs in the store and meet with a Vincentian,” Cerney said. “Together they fill out a form to decide what food they would like.”
    Those in need can select food once a month, including meat, bread and canned and boxed items. Family size is a determining factor in how much food each person in need receives. Cerney says that although around 70 percent of food pantry items are purchased from district store profit sharing and money donations, local retailers step up to the plate with donations as well.
    “We got about 10,000 pounds of food donated last year,” Cerney said.
    Those in need of food and supplies do not need to provide tax returns or other documentation in order to receive assistance.  Cerney also noted that, although the general rule is that a family can shop for food once a month, special cir-
cumstances and needs are taken into consideration.
    “We are not a government agency, so we can bend the rules in special situations,” Cerney said.
    Assistance available to local neighbors in need is not limited to food and supplies.
    “We have provided gas cards to those with appointments or job interviews, helped people pay for pharmacy prescriptions and utility bills, and put people passing through the community without a place to stay in a motel,” Cerney said. “We even helped someone buy a pair of steel-toe boots needed for their employment.”
    The premise behind all these forms of assistance is a “non-judgmental hand up, instead of a hand out,” Cerney said.  “Sometimes people just have a setback and need a little help to get back on their feet.”
    The conference also helps people applying for assistance from external sources, such as the Superior Watershed Partnership of the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), which provides low-income assistance with heating and energy bills.
    “Our volunteers help friends in need fill out the forms required to apply for assistance with the program,” Cerney said. “The state lent us a scanner to help us with this cause, so it really is a coordinated effort.”
    Cerney wants to make clear that although most of the money needed to provide assistance comes from store profits, there is always abundant need for donations and volunteers.
    “Many people give at Christmas or Easter, but the need is year-round,” Cerney said. “And with the rising price of food and gas, and competition with other consignment stores, the needs only increase.”
    People can leave non-perishable goods on the stairs of the store, and there is also a donation jar available. Local businesses and organizations can and do provide valuable contributions and assistance to the cause, such as the TV 6 Can-a-thon, which is currently accepting donations. This is a big deal according to Cerney.
    “Recently the ‘100 Plus Women of Iron County’ group chose our Iron River and Crystal Falls Conferences for their quarterly charitable donations,” Cerney said, giving yet another example of local support.
    As for volunteers, the conference is always looking for extra help.
    “We historically have had about 25 volunteers at any given time, but we always need help,” Cerney said. “We had to close briefly this past summer due to a shortage of available volunteers caused by vacations or conflicting work schedules.”
    Those with solid technology and computer skills are particularly needed to volunteer their time.
    “Senior citizens in particular can sometimes struggle with filling out information on the computer for grants and such,” Cerney said. “We could really use volunteers who can help with the technology side of things.”
    With more than 100 local families assisted in just one month recently, Cerney also hopes new volunteers can help to increase the organizational efficiency of the conference.
    “Right now, we keep track of those we help on a big collection of notecards,” Cerney said. “We’d love to create a database to help us manage our system and keep it up to date. We’d also love to keep better track of our inventory going forward in order to keep track of what is coming in and out.”
    With the holiday season now in full swing, more than anything, Cerney just wants people to know that the conference exists, how much it really helps local friends in need and that those supporting St. Vincent de Paul’s mission who are willing to donate their resources or time will be welcomed with open arms.