Sr. Virginia Schwartz and Steve Konop volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Rice Lake. The conference, which serves all of Barron County, provides a local food pantry and meal service in addition to home visits for neighbors in need. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

When Jayne Stewart was a young teenager, she had two experiences that marked her for life. While both were negative, she has used them for good not only for herself but countless others throughout her 16 years working with the St. Vincent de Paul Conference in Rice Lake.

She was assaulted twice in a short period, once by a group of white boys who stole her Girl Scout money, and then later by a Black man. The question her father asked her was what the experience taught her. The lesson, he said, was that you can’t judge a person and what their actions might or might not be based on their age, race or the color of their skin.

“You need to know each person and see what’s in their heart,” Stewart said, recalling her father’s words.

For 15 years, Stewart was executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society that serves Barron County until her retirement in early December. Under her leadership, more than 94,000 neighbors have been provided assistance through the organization’s home visits, store vouchers and food services. More than 3 million pounds of food have been collected and distributed.

How she came into her role, Stewart said, was “God’s plan.” After moving to the area with her husband in 2006, they got involved with St. Vincent’s hoping to meet some new people and give out some gifts at Christmastime.

“That backfired,” she said with a big grin. “We were all in right away.” Her work experience in management was a good fit for the position, especially given that the organization at that time was looking to reorganize and align more closely with the St. Vincent de Paul Society on a national and international level. Stewart also had experience living with a servant’s heart.

While she was employed as a school photographer, it was brought to her attention that many families don’t order their children’s school pictures because they can’t afford it, while many teachers can afford the pictures but weren’t interested in the packages. Stewart set up a program for teachers to donate the amount needed to help cover students’ needs.

Many are familiar with St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores, which generate income for charitable works and provide employment, but the organization is much larger. Since its founding in Paris in 1833, the society has become a global Catholic lay organization for those seeking holiness through works of charity.

Conference members are Catholics who come together twice monthly to receive formation and organize their charitable works, but the group is not exclusively Catholic. Anyone is welcome to become an associate member and receive all the same training, although SVdP leadership is always Catholic, holding to their mission as being founded on Gospel principles.

Stewart explained, “Home visits are done by two trained Vincentians who go out and meet with an individual or family to see what they are struggling with.”

After receiving a call on the SVdP hotline, a trained volunteer will go visit the neighbor at home to learn more about the request. “While in the home, they may realize there’s a need for furniture or food is scarce,” Stewart added, “so we can offer more. We really want a relationship with that neighbor, and if they are going to have future needs, we welcome them to call us back. It might be ongoing for awhile to help get them to a better place in life.”

The use of the word “neighbor,” rather than clients or customers is characteristic of the group’s mission to uphold each person’s dignity and respect.

Dana Nelson was hired in July to shadow the outgoing director. Her experience in management was a good fit, although the fact the she is not Catholic made some of her family members question her interest.

“Something just moved me to apply,” she offered. “I looked at the mission. This sounds like where I want to be. This is everything I was missing” in previous jobs.

During her first months, Nelson’s experience has been “absolutely amazing, going from top-down management approach to a bottom-up where I can connect with the people we’re helping, our employees and volunteers.” She feels very grateful to be serving in Barron County, where she grew up.

When Nelson was asked about taking over the leadership, Stewart said how prepared her successor was. She believes that the new director will grow the organization and “take it to the next level.”

Nelson added how supportive a network she has to lean on, including Stewart and the other directors from around the state.

In the Diocese of Superior, there are three other St. Vincent de Paul Societies – in Superior, Merrill and Phillips. Stewart hopes more conferences will start in the region. Nelson added that every conference needs more members to increase how many relationships can be built and sustained.

One of the challenges for the local St. Vincent de Paul is to help make people aware of just what the needs are. Many don’t see obvious signs of homelessness or extreme poverty. Others struggle to understand how, if they themselves are working poor or middle class and have pulled themselves out of trying financial times, someone else can’t do the same.

Both Stewart and Nelson recognize that the Midwestern “pull yourselves up the bootstraps” mentality can create a hurdle to compassion as well as just how difficult it can be to make that initial request for help.

“We go as neighbors because everybody needs help sometimes,” Stewart said. “They call in with some basic information, but we go to them so that they’re not inconvenienced. They don’t have to find transportation or childcare to get this assistance. It’s easy for us to give the help; it’s very hard to ask.”

She said the society exists to help “fill the gaps, which have gotten more pronounced these last few years,” especially with inflation and the ending of Covid-19 relief programs.

“Our numbers are rising rapidly. Not everyone prepared for when those programs would end,” Stewart added. “The middle class has gotten squeezed ridiculously – we’re seeing it more and more.”

Nelson commented on the role local business owners and donors play. “A lot of people don’t realize how much they have to give, or how much what they’re giving helps.” She added that it can be as small as starting as conversation with family or friends about all the organization does.

As for engaging a new generation of givers, she said, “Young people don’t know about volunteer or giving opportunities. They just don’t know how much they can affect people.”

A mother of a teenager, Nelson knows that the person-to-person methodology is “huge.” She has been intentional about involving her son, who is interested in biking and donating time to work on bike trails.

“We don’t have as many opportunities for people to volunteer with their kids,” she acknowledged, “but even cleaning out their closets and bringing stuff to the store – they need to understand how much that gives back.”

Parents taking the initiative to involve their kids in conversations and donating goes a long way, Nelson believes.

Stewart has been doing this for years with her grandchildren. Whenever they come to visit, time is spent helping at the food pantry or soup kitchen; they’re surprised their friends haven’t ever done any of these things, because it has become so natural for them.

Another aspect of involving young people in volunteering is that they learn people in need aren’t the stereotypes they might see on TV, but relatable and ordinary people.

In the October newsletter for Barron County’s St. Joseph Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Nelson offered statistics from the prior month: 1,057 meals served, 247 households visited the pantry, 35,510 pounds of food distributed and 29 new families received services. Twenty calls were made to the hotline and more than $5,000 in financial aid was given.

Stewart and Nelson also noted the challenge to their ministry of people believing there aren’t homeless in the community because they don’t see them. “They don’t gather like in a larger city,” Stewart said. “They might be living in their car or couch-surfing” between friends and family.

“For years we’ve been hearing about how close people are to being without, that we don’t have enough savings,” she added. “That is a reality. They’re not just saying that as a scare-tactic. We see people all the time that, especially through illness or a divorce, all of a sudden don’t have the income they did and can’t afford where they were living.”

It can also be a mistaken assumption that government programs cover all these needs. Stewart pointed out that St. Vincent’s is very intentional about not duplicating services, instead focusing on filling gaps. She said they have well-established relationships with local agencies and services and appreciates how well they all work together.

“One agency can’t do it all. We’re always working as a team,” with the neighbor and what they can contribute to help themselves as well.

Nelson wrote about the journey of an item donated to the thrift store, one that “doesn’t end when it lands on the thrift store shelf; instead, it becomes a lifeline for those in need” within the organization. This lifeline includes being aware that all proceeds from the store fund SVdP’s charitable programs providing food, shelter, clothing and financial assistance.

The power of a donated item, Nelson asserted, “lies not just in its material value, but in the positive impact it has on people’s lives. It represents a cycle of giving where generosity multiplies.”

More information can be found at Anyone desiring to contribute to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Holiday Season Campaign can donate electronically online or mail checks to P.O. Box 11, Rice Lake, WI 54868.