Conference Calls

Since October, I have been volunteering as a member of St. Vincent de Paul’s St. Patrick’s Conference, the group that serves the needy people within Clonard Parish.

Most Tuesday nights, I get a lift down to St. Michael’s Hall to join a handful of other volunteers for a two-hour meeting. We receive whoever has come down to ask for help in person, hearing their stories and requests one-by-one as they come in to talk with us. After that, we review the call sheet from the week to discuss all the people who have texted or called the conference mobile to make requests for help.

Most people need food vouchers to buy some groceries or otherwise enable them to divert cash toward other bills and expenses. Sometimes, people need coal to heat the house or a check to subsidize their electricity bills, which have often gone into arrears. Whatever the request, it is the charism of the Society to make the visits in person rather than sending envelopes through the post.

So each Tuesday night, the call sheet turns into a schedule of visits, assigned to pairs of volunteers to go out and make the visits, splitting 10-20 calls into sets that two or three pairs will to tend to in the coming days.

This week, I went out on visits again, and I am starting to get the hang of it. I’ll never be able to catch up to the Irish ability to catalogue the details of the locals’ lives and families; they have a disposition toward internalizing everyone’s stories that feels a bit gossipy at times but is mostly evidence of their compassion. I am often briefed by my partner as we drive from one visit to the next so that I can have a basis from which to begin listening to our next conversation partner.

We hear stories of people waiting on welfare programmes to pan out in their favor or efforts to renegotiate balances on outstanding bills, of people on the cusp of bouncing back while others are mired in debt and must be referred to financial consultants. I find that they do most of the talking – listening is maybe our greatest service – while my Irish partners do most of the responding, bantering back and forth at a pace and rhythm that leaves me half a step behind. I try to sit back because I’m just a temporary helper trying to broaden my perspective in order to see the whole of local life here, but occasionally, I want to ask a question or put in my two cents. This week, we visited one lady who was intrigued by my accent, spoke just as much to me as to my partner – an unusual departure from the norm of being the third party to what is usually a one-to-one discussion – and even asked me questions about myself toward the end of our encounter. She was very complimentary of what I said I was doing here and wished me the best of luck.

Sometimes our work hours revolve largely around planning and administering different things from our seats in the office or putting voice and music to the praise of God from our corner of the church at masses, so I can start to feel a bit detached from the people who I hope are helped by what we’re doing.

Being with the Vincent de Paul volunteers and going out with them to visit our neighbors is not only grounding and humbling; it’s fun. It’s a great chance to embrace a servile, humbler, complimentary role and just be present to the conference’s volunteers and to those we try to serve.