|November 23, 2015 • VOL. 53, NO. 20 • Oakland, CA|
Gift of giving
New president is a first for
St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County
Maura Bonnarens of the Cathedral Parish of Christ the Light began her three-year term as president of the Board of Trustees of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County on Oct. 1. Her enthusiasm for the organization started long before that.
Something else came to mind: a description of St. Vincent de Paul as serving "the poorest of the poor."
When she heard the cathedral parish's initial goal was to conduct food drives, she had another thought: "We've got to do more than that."
The cathedral parish is one of 38 parish-based conferences throughout Alameda County. The newest, Bonnarens said, is at Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City. "They're just up and running and it's very exciting. Four years ago, we, the cathedral, were in those shoes, stepping forward and not knowing what was in front of us."
They have been stepping forward ever since.
"The heart and soul of the Vincentian charism is to grow in holiness through our service to others," she said. "We look for the face of Christ in those we serve."
That is accomplished through home visits, in which usually a pair of Vincentians meet the person in need where he or she lives.
"We get a phone call from someone who needs assistance — whether it's someone who's been homeless and needs furniture, or someone who has been homeless and doesn't have the money for a deposit, or someone who's struggling to make ends meet and got behind on their water bill or their electric bill. We get these phone calls, on the conference level, and we go and we visit with these people."
While the visits bear fruit for the caller — a bill paid, a bed purchased, a deposit made — the Vincentians themselves benefit.
"It's totally changed my perspective," Bonnarens said. "It has changed my life in a very powerful and profound way. It's that Pope Francis' 'getting your hands dirty.'
"I'm not going to say I wasn't nervous when I first started but now if I don't do a home visit in more than a week, I get kind of antsy. Because they ground you. We say the poor are our masters."
That personal visit is essential. "We're not a social service agency," she said. "Even if we have no money to give, we still visit. Give a referral, listen, help convey the love of God, that there's hope, things can change. "
Bonnarens is an engineering supervisor for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and has participated in several ministries, including jail ministry and in liturgical ministry at the cathedral.
She has served as a master of ceremonies at the cathedral, notably leading the procession of priests at the installation of Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, in May 2013.
Bonnarens is the first woman to be elected president of the board of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Alameda County.
"I'm really excited to be in this position with St. Vincent de Paul," she said. "There's an amazing group of people out there. I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm to help them come together and help move us forward as an organization.
"We have developed a strategic plan that focuses on four key areas: One is our spirituality; one is sustainability, keeping staff, making sure we are here for the long haul; special work, which is much of the work we do at the district council level, which is at downtown campus, where we have our dining room and men and women's centers," she said.
"Then we have what's called systemic change: working with those we serve in helping them lift themselves out of poverty," Bonnarens said.
These programs include the Kitchen of Champions, which trains people for food service careers; and the Champion Workforce, which works with the probation department to train janitorial workers, warehouse workers and sales people in the St. Vincent de Paul retail stores.
"Both of our programs target populations that are challenged in finding employment," she said.
The conferences are at the heart of serving the poor, and many have a core group of less than a dozen members. Some conferences serve beyond their parish boundaries when there are neighbors in need and no one closer to assist.
"Every conference would love to have more members," she said. "There's plenty of work to do." Young members would be welcome. "They are important for the continuation of our ministry," she said.
It's a personal ministry. "We try our best to not be judgmental, because there but for the grace of God," Bonnarens said. "You lose your job, you could be in their shoes. A death in the family, or an unexpected illness ... things happen.
"What never ceases to amazes us, is when we get a phone call, the person is so excited that we have called back. So you can imagine the number of people they have reached out to that they've never gotten the call back."
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