Gift helps lift people from poverty

Published 1:00 am Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In 2006, Patrick “Pat” Brown, a member of Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Washington, found himself faced with an interesting problem.

Among the members of Mother of Mercy Catholic Church and officers of the local conference of St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity dedicated to helping the poor, are (back row, from left) Joe Rella, Carol Baker, Julie Finn, Patrick Brown (front row, from left) Louise Stehmeyer, Cathi Brown and Marie Voos. (Contributed Photo)

At her death, Elda Flynn, a Mother of Mercy parishioner, had bequeathed a substantial sum of money to the church’s conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, of which Brown was the president at that time.

Brown, a retired engineer, had been involved in the charitable organization since the early 1980s, having served as a member and conference president at his former parish in St. Louis.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a Catholic lay organization, with some 700,000 volunteers worldwide who seek out and provide person-to-person aid to the poor and needy. The society, founded in 1833 in France, is named after Saint Vincent de Paul because he cared for the poor, forgotten and down-trodden of Paris during the 1600s. The organization expanded into America in 1845 and is headquartered in St. Louis. Mother of Mercy has about 40 “Vincentians” within its congregation’s conference.

The society is unique in its personalized involvement that may take the form of intervention, consultation or direct dollar or in-kind services. An essential precept of the society’s work is to provide help while conscientiously maintaining the confidentiality and dignity of those who are served.

“We spent about eight months figuring what we ought to do with this tremendous gift,” said Brown. “By the SVdP Society rule, you are not supposed to just stick money in the bank and sit on it. You are supposed to help the poor.”

“We noticed higher-than-average dropout rates as well as illiteracy rates (as measured by the Literacy Council),” Brown said. “We saw a real lack of opportunities to connect adults with education. Using this data, we established adults as our target base.”

In the end, Brown teamed up with faculty and staff at Beaufort County Community College to help people get the education and training they need to find jobs and raise themselves out of poverty.

Brown then contacted the college and asked to set up a meeting with the officials who could help him develop a system by which good candidates could be identified and worked into the education system.

After meeting with representatives from BCCC’s offices of student services, financial aid and basic skills, as well as representatives from the Beaufort County Department of Social Services, Brown and other volunteers established a system to remove the barriers preventing their clients from getting an education.

Someone had to track the students’ progress and decide what to do when people failed classes or did not complete coursework. This is when Sue Brookshire, director of retention services at Beaufort County Community College, stepped in. She was appointed to be a college liaison to the local SVdP chapter.

«It›s not just a handout,” Brookshire said about the program. “When we first started, people came out of the woodwork seeking money for tuition and books at Mother of Mercy. They would tell the volunteers that their paperwork or financial aid was messed up, but in reality, they had failed everything and were no longer eligible for any other assistance.»

Most referrals are a good fit with BCCC’s Division of Continuing Education because many of the candidates need the basics — like a GED or short courses of study in high-demand areas like nursing assistant, and truck driving to make them employable in shorter period of time.

Fees for these programs — tuition, insurance, books and uniforms add up to more than $250 — which is a daunting amount of money for most of the applicants. Because this program runs through the Division of Continuing Education, the students are ineligible for traditional financial aid like Pell grants or foundation scholarships.

“Without the support of SVdP, we would not have been able to train the large number of students who were able to enroll in our (nursing assistant) program. The support of the Society has been vital to the success of our program,” said Cindy Stringer, BCCC’s nurse-aide program coordinator/instructor.

SVdP funds are available for curriculum programs like cosmetology and industrial-technology programs like welding, automotive mechanics, electrical-engineering technology and machining.

To date, the SVdP conference and the program Brown helped form have handled 276 adult referrals for students to receive training at BCCC. About half of these have received some type of financial help from SVdP, which cumulatively amounts to more than $24,000.

“Sometimes people just needed a little assistance to remove barriers to getting an education,” Brown said.