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Helpers need help

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune David Britt, left, Cliff Brown, John Vinatieri and Ken Hoevet prepare food Monday at St. Vincent de Paul in Medford
St. Vincent de Paul seeks volunteers to ease burnout among regular helpers

After nearly a year and a half of providing a virtual lifeline for homeless and struggling community members during pandemic closures, St. Vincent de Paul officials are calling for some desperately needed backup.

Gearing up for a complete reopening, the social service organization is attempting to boost its ranks with some needed help for its kitchen and dining area, store, warehouse and urban rest stop.

With a combination of recommended closures and even a COVID-positive report among its own ranks last year, the organization has come up with creative ways to serve those in need while complying with public health advisories.

When its offices had to close, they screened clients over the phone. When concerns were raised about safety of donated items, they devised a quarantine system before processing sale items for the store. Because maintaining an open dining room was too risky, they found ways to distribute to-go meals and still keep in contact, providing thousands of meals to those in need.

John Vinatieri, president of St. Vincent de Paul Society Medford, said his organization and volunteers had faced a slew of challenges to continue serving the community this past year.

Their next challenge, he said, would be meeting volunteer staffing needs while protecting older and at-risk volunteers who still need to stay home.

With a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Vinatieri said, the organization would be mindful of ongoing changes to public health advisories but hoped to get new volunteers signed up as soon as possible. Current volunteers who have maintained regular schedules throughout the pandemic, he said, are facing burnout.

“We desperately need more volunteers to fill the void. We have older volunteers, people who lost their homes in the fire … the hits just keep on coming. Some are working even though they lost their homes. We just need some fresh recruits. We need backup,” he said.

“We’ve faced a lot of challenges to staying mostly open. When we had to close our dining room, it was unfathomable not to be able to have the community come for meals and fellowship when they needed each other the most.”

He added, “We found a way to still provide, but now we need the community’s help to keep it all going.”

Vinatieri said the shelter and store had reopened, but getting the dining room and other social services back up to full capacity would hinge on filling volunteer jobs.

“'I know right now that we for sure don’t have the bodies that we would need, which would make reopening very difficult,” he said.

Local resident Patricia Worley said St. Vincent’s had been one of few constants for local homeless people for the past year of business closures and limited resources for survival.

“They’ve been, like, the only place that’s a constant, and they feed us enough food to keep us full. They give more than any other place in the valley,” Worley said.

“I volunteered here for about six months where they have the showers. That was before I moved out to the bushes. They do so much. St. Vinny’s helps people get their IDs, helps them get housing, pay for shut-off utilities, diapers for the babies. They go above and beyond helping people and they still come down and cook these wonderful meals.”

St. Vinny’s client Josh Boring said the variety of services provided by the organization are life-saving.

“It’s great that they stayed open as much as they could during everything that’s happened. I’ve been using St. Vinny’s for a few years now. I had used them before (being homeless) for rental help. The food is awesome. They’re just always really punctual and reliable about being there and doing what they say they’re going to,” Boring said.

“A lot of people count on them to make it. COVID took me and really ruined me pretty good. Before COVID, I had a place, a car and a job. Everything’s gone now. It’s been a rough year for me for sure. They’re just really great to help people when they’re having a bad time.”

Vinatieri said the past year had been an exercise in patience and flexibility. In addition to serving clients as best they could, St. Vincent has helped other local agencies with funds and supplies when it could.

“We’re giving a lot of food to Gospel Mission and Rogue Retreat. We get calls for stuff like a pallet of water pretty regularly. We are just really trying to fill whatever need we can, and we want to get things opened back up and get the community together as soon as it’s safe,” said Vinatieri.

“When we had the dining room open before, with the trays and being able to sit down, it was mostly just, ‘What would you like?’ with some conversation and small talk. Since we’ve had the pandemic, we know first names, and there is more talk even with the to-go meals. Not that we weren’t appreciated before, but we have more of folks saying thank you for serving a meal and for just being here. … I think people really have missed that human connection.”

Vinatieri said bilingual volunteers and younger volunteers who are not in a high-risk category are especially needed.

For information about ways to help, see www.stvincentdepaulmedford.info or call 541-772-3828.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.