Mary Bettencourt, left, and Allison Munden are leaders in Vinnie's Little Helpers. With them is Jill Lucia, principal of St. Agnes School in Concord, where Mary has just completed seventh grade and Allison is a 2014 graduate.
MICHELE JURICH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE
Helping others knows no age limits at St. Agnes
It was teacher appreciation week at St. Agnes School, with colorful posters covering the doors, special snacks being served, and even a rare free dress day being enjoyed by students. But some of that appreciation at the Concord school was reflecting back on the efforts of pupils who, on their own initiative, quietly forged a ministry of caring for others in the greater community.
"They were seeking it out," said Principal Jill Lucia. "That's what's so special."
Last summer, seventh-grader Mary Bettencourt, with her mother, asked the parish youth ministry coordinator Linda D'Souza if young people could join in the work of the parish St. Vincent de Paul conference.
There is an active adult conference at the parish, but its work involves home visits, which might not be appropriate for young people to make.
So D'Souza found another path. She researched the idea and found information about starting and running a young Vincentian group.
"When they ask, they need to be listened to," D'Souza said.
Another St. Agnes student, Allison Munden, one year older, was quietly doing volunteer work with the poor.
"I wanted to be more involved," Allison said. The two girls knew each other in passing at school. "Over the summer, we teamed up."
What a team it has been. With D'Souza's guidance, the students formed Vinnie's Little Helpers. They enlisted like-minded classmates to join them.
"It started with us," Allison said. "We expanded it to the school."
They found an ally in Principal Jill Lucia. "It started with the costumes," Lucia recalled. "At Halloween they wanted to do a costume drive. Our student council has service projects actively throughout the year. But this was separate from the school. It wasn't a student council activity. We brainstormed how this would happen."
Vinnie's Little Helpers put out bins to collect costumes. They placed an item in the school newsletter.
Eighty costumes came in; Vinnie's Little Helpers took them to the St. Vincent de Paul store in Pleasant Hill.
Families came in to the store and were able to pick out costumes for their children. Vinnie's Little Helpers received a thank you note from one family, Mary recalled. "They weren't planning on going out trick or treating," Mary said.
But when they found those costumes, those plans changed. "They were able to go trick or treating," Mary said.
To prepare for Thanksgiving at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room in Pittsburg, Vinnie's Little Helpers turned once again to their classmates. They asked for donations of dental floss, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioners and other toiletries.
"We collected them all and put them in little Ziploc bags," Mary said.
Eight hundred bags.
Thanksgiving dinner at the dining room made a big impression on the young volunteers.
"We got to hand out kits and we got to see people," Mary said.
"It was kind of hard to see how people were living, because they all seemed to be having such rough times," she said, "but they seemed to be very happy when we gave them the kits and some hot chocolate."
The personal nature of reaching out to people on the margins hit home at Christmas, too.
"We raised money and bought Christmas gifts for 16 to 17 children and delivered them to their houses," Allison said. "For me, that was the first time I had gotten so personal, going into their houses."
The topic of poverty had come up in their meetings. "When we talked about poverty at the beginning of the year we thought of the homeless," Allison said, "but when we got out and started working with the people, we found that poverty is a lot more than that.
"It's not just homeless: It's people who can't always afford bills, or sometimes need help paying for food. It's much more than what you think."
The Christmas gift project was funded by the proceeds of a magic show put on by Father Mathew Vellankal, and the sale of cookies made by D'Souza that Mary said sold out at $1 apiece.
Allison and Mary, armed with a list of children, ranging in age from babies to teenagers, provided by the adult conference, went shopping online. At the next meeting of Vinnie's Little Helpers, everyone wrapped.
In the course of their work, the helpers developed leadership skills. D'Souza, in addition to helping them help others, taught them to run a meeting, take minutes, and present a treasurer's report.
Allison already sees Vinnie's Little Helpers in her future. "I do hope I can bring it to Carondelet and make it bigger," said the member of the Class of 2018 at the Concord high school.
"I hope even when we graduate, it's still going," Allison said. "I hope Vinnie's Little Helpers of St. Agnes Parish is still helping people."
At a school Mass toward the end of the school year, Vinnie's Little Helpers board members and helpers were awarded St. Vincent de Paul medals in hopes it will inspire others, when they reach middle school, to become involved in the ministry.
"It is truly a blessing to be working with them," D'Souza said.
The student leaders have high praise for D'Souza. "Without her none of this would be possible," Allison said. "She helps us get the ideas and book the events."
Mary agreed. "She wants to make sure that everybody knows exactly what's happening."
A fine example would be a winter dinner at a family shelter In Martinez. Vinnie's Little Helpers cooked the meal — spaghetti, garlic bread and cupcakes — in the kitchen at St. Agnes and transported it to Martinez, where the students served and visited with families.
Sometimes, D'Souza said, "you throw in a cooking lesson."
The observation skills of the helpers has grown throughout the year. Always eager to learn from each service, Allison said, "Next time we're going to bring milk and formula. A lot of the mothers were feeding their babies crusts of bread.
"Every time we go to an event we're learning, so next time we're a lot more prepared."
As the end of the school year approached, Vinnie's Little Helpers were looking to cram in one more bake sale, after all the Masses, to fund a summer project, Mary said.
All this is fine with their adviser.
"I'm hoping it will continue to grow," D'Souza said.
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