BY STEPHANIE DAVIS
PHOTO BY DOUG KHRENOVSKY
“The real work of our organization is largely volunteer-based via help with food, rent and utilities in an emergency (short-term) sense,” John Litten, executive director of the Society, says.
Volunteers are as diverse as the communities they serve – all ages, ethnicities, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds are represented.Not to mention, volunteering has a side benefit of connecting those who serve.
“Being a volunteer-based organization, we put our mission and those we serve first, and let the networking opportunities, and other residual benefits, flow from there. We wouldn’t be able to exist without volunteers, and find that being ‘mission first’ in this way creates an obvious win-win for corporate folks (and others) seeking to be more involved in their community,” Litten says.
By partnering with the Diocese through 64 church-based groups, the Society provides emergency help locally that translates to helping train the mentally- and physically-challenged for jobs to offering short-term funds for utilities and rent, as well as food, clothing, bedding, and school needs for families.
The mission of the Society, which is part of an international organization, has strayed little from its beginnings in Paris in the 1830s – it’s a “face-to-face, person-to-person way to help through emergency aid,” Litten says. Its aid reaches an eight-county swath of Northeast Ohio (Ashland, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Summit, and Wayne counties) through eight pantries. The Society coordinates with area pantries, including Greater Cleveland Food Bank, Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, and Second Harvest Food Bank to distribute food to more than 10,000 people.
Now, as the 501(c)3 organization readies to celebrate its sesquicentennial year, it’s evident the Society has come a long way since its 19th century origins.
Today “the Society is very locally based,” Litten says, emphasizing how regions operate according to community needs. One pantry at St. Agnes in Elyria operates as a client choice pantry, where clients shop for specific food needs versus being handed a standard bag of groceries.
Contrast that to the Woodland Pantry, which serves 1,000 people monthly on Friday mornings. They distribute food within the shared-space Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority building. This pantry actually threatened to close. “This is in a location where 95 percent live below 200 percent of poverty level. We found a way to keep it going —to ‘save a neighborhood,’ to quote a food bank,” Litten says.
Food pantries aside, the Society also regularly partners with other nonprofits. An annual fall collection dubbed “Blanket Sunday,” an effort started in the 1980s that collects blankets, hats and the like to keep underprivileged people of the city warm, connects the Society with Westside Catholic Center, St. Malachi, and 2100 Lakeside.
“Using the term ‘blanket’ as a noun and verb, people are literally buying blankets and blanketing the community in warmth,” he says.
Additionally, SVDP has also been reaching the corporate community. “This began with a renewed interest in corporate sponsorships in 2012, which have grown … to include help with committees for both fundraising and celebrating our 150th anniversary this year. Most recently, we have begun the process of engaging corporate sponsors in more hands-on volunteerism through projects or volunteer days. Ultimately, we hope for our corporate partners to develop into future board members, or possibly members of an advisory council,” Litten says.
Generally speaking, many volunteers are retirees, and many of them are creative in approach to helping others.
For example, in impoverished areas, it’s not uncommon for many homes with school-age children to not have computers. “The volunteers have found affordable ways to get furnished laptops that they then store in their car trunks and make available to homes where kids would directly benefit,” he says.
While retirees are critical, Litten says the Society has a growing commitment to attracting younger ages. “Last year we created our first student-based St. Vincent de Paul group at St. Edward High School and we are now trying to lay the groundwork for more schools. There’s been real success with this group,” he says.
The organization hosts and participates in several events yearly to help raise awareness. Next up is the first pitch on June 24 – the Cleveland Society’s actual 150th anniversary – at a noon weekday Cleveland Indians game. In September the Society will hold an anniversary gala. In December, a guest speaker will address poverty at the City Club. Next March marks the annual volunteer awards event.
For more information: svdpcle.org