Changing lives, one at a time

Nina Harrison

The St. Vincent de Paul Society

The WorldCom scandal and bankruptcy were much more than just headlines to Vonetta and her 8-year-old daughter, Brianna. Transferred from New York to work at WorldCom in Atlanta, Vonetta found that the job she counted on to support her and Brianna no longer existed.

In her struggle to find a new job, Vonetta fell behind on her rent and car payments. As her situation became more desperate, she decided to call the St. Vincent de Paul Society for help. Today, after receiving both financial and moral support from the Society, Vonetta has a new job, and she and Brianna are living happily in their new


There are literally thousands of similar stories like Vonetta's. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, has been working quietly throughout Atlanta and north Georgia since 1903, yet relatively few people know about the full scope of our work. Those who do typically just know of our thrift stores or our food and clothing drives. But how about these



North Georgia

Individuals Assisted: 166,361

Value of Clothing: $247,000

Families Receiving Clothing: 6,406

Individuals Receiving Clothing: 14,128

Cars given to Clients: 118

Value of Food: $333,512

Individuals Receiving food: 24,453

Learning Center Students (GED, ESOL, Literacy, Computer, Life Skills): 800

Direct Aid for Rent and Housing: $2,197,887

Direct Aid for Transportation: $169,678

Direct Aid for Utilities: $1,012,813

Other: $352,417

Volunteer Hours: 247,062

Efficiency: $0.90 of every $1 goes directly to client services.

With a staff of 18 and 2,400 volunteer members, the society provides these services to individuals and families on a daily basis, year in and year out. Like many charitable organizations, the society is a vital member of the broader north Georgia community.

In Gwinnett County alone, more than $704,000 were directed at basic services for individuals in need during 2003-2004. For many of these people, the small amount of aid they got meant the difference between staying in their residences or living in their cars. For some, the aid meant getting a reliable vehicle that allowed them to get to their jobs or take a new one. And for others, the aid meant being able to give a decent and dignified burial to a loved one.

We are proud of our "good works," but there are real costs associated with our business. Nonprofit organizations always have faced adversity, but the first few years of the 21st century have posed challenges like none before. Issues such as hiring new staff, recruiting new volunteers, retaining current volunteers and developing new programs and services immediately come to mind. But the common bottom line, literally, for these issues and others is the reduced funding that nonprofits have faced over the past few years.

Specifically, government grant money has decreased, and private foundations are becoming more selective. Individual donors, facing higher costs of living and minimal increases in personal wealth, have reduced or even stopped donating to their favorite charities. As a result, many nonprofits are facing a cash crisis - they have barely enough money to pay for their existing staff and programs.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society's Atlanta Council has taken a hard look at its operations and our goal of helping our clients achieve self-sufficiency. We decided that we couldn't demand something of our clients that we weren't doing ourselves. For too long, we depended on the "soft money" of grants and donations, both of which are good, but rarely sustainable. Instead, we decided to get into the "business" of running a nonprofit, building on the strengths of our thrift store operation, our car donation program and recycling of clothing and other items.

By working smarter, we build a stronger organization and are better able to serve those in need and fulfill our mission of changing lives, one at a time.

"People Helping People" is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County. Today's article was written by Nina Harrison, executive director of The St. Vincent de Paul Society. She can be reached at 770-986-4209.

Need help or know someone who does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.