Don Hewitt is the President of the Armidale Diocese of St Vincent de Paul. We find out how he and many other volunteers have selflessly dedicated years of their time to help locals in need.
> How long have you been with Vinnies, and what is your position in the Society?
I joined the Society of St Vincent de Paul in 1966.
Today the Society of St Vincent de Paul operates along the Catholic Church boundaries, and our region spans from Quirindi in the South to Mungindi in the northwest and up to Tenterfield on the QLD border. We have nineteen charity centres among these areas, and they are what I look after. All of the administration is done in Armidale, and that’s in an office with me and three girls.
> How many volunteers work in your Dioceses?
We have over one thousand volunteers; no-one is paid at all. The only people who are paid are some casual cleaners. We are proud of our low wage bill with 82% of our income going to the needy.
> What are ‘Conferences’?
There are three active conferences in Armidale. We do all sorts of charity work and we go out and visit people in pairs. We call ourselves brothers and sisters, because it represents equality. Our mission is to offer assistance where needed. An example is an old gentleman who lived out on a property on the outskirts of Armidale. I was personally involved with visiting this man for maybe twenty-five years. Due to having disabilities, we were the only communication that he had with the outside world. Every Wednesday afternoon two conference members would visit him. We would get his grocery order to LW Burgess, and every Saturday morning two other members would meet and deliver his groceries.
We also did lots of chores around his home, such as wood chopping and lawn mowing. We became so closely associated with him that he was like an uncle to many of us.
We have shared many great friendships with our clients. I am very proud of a shawl a lady gave me. In the old days, cars had no heating, so she knitted it for me to keep my legs warm while I drove my car. I’ll never forget the day she presented me with the shawl. I told her that we do not expect anything from helping clients. But she insisted that I receive the gift and reminded me that I had been cutting her wood for thirty years.
In the beginning, the Armidale conference members were all Catholic and used to meet every Sunday after church. Then they would identify people in need, regardless of colour or creed. Another very special and somewhat amusing case that springs to mind is when our members had taken up a collection during Mass (that was the only way we raised money in the early days – from our members’ own pockets). A pair went out on their bicycles (we always visit homes in pairs). They visited the area between the Armidale Cemetery and the railway line, where there was a tent camp. They were able to help a family with three children by giving them two and sixpence. The reason that they needed assistance back then was that the father had a bad week on the rabbits.
Our members are not all Catholics. We welcome all denominations today, and we still help all colours and creeds. The only stipulation for our membership is that we be willing to take on the philosophies of St Vincent De Paul.
> When did Vinnies begin in Australia and then Armidale?
The first NSW conference was founded by Charles O’Neill.
Vinnies was later established in Armidale in December 1927 – just before the Great Depression hit. We began with all men as members, and it wasn’t until years later that we were blessed with female members.
> When did Vinnies open its first “Charity Centre” in Armidale?
About 1960 Vinnies’ very first premises was purchased in Armidale. It was an old boarding house opposite the old Capital Theatre (near the old Woolworths store). The building was three stories high and was called Mrs Bett’s Boarding House. It was the Society’s very first home in Armidale. From that point on, locals started delivering clothing. This was our very first “Charity Centre”. The ethos is that we deliver charity to those in need. I always like to visit our centres and see the smiles on our volunteers’ faces. Smiles are very important to our staff, because that may be the only happy face that our clients have seen for who knows how long.
> How can locals help?
The many good works of the St Vincent de Paul Society are only made possible because of the generosity of locals … and thanks to the wonderful locals who have made ongoing commitments to donate to the Society.
We have special appeal times through the year and you can contact any of our centres for instructions on how to make cash donations. These days we can even take credit card donations.
We welcome also welcome material assistance. Food, clothing, manchester and household items have been generously donated to the Society for many years. Families in need are given these items free of charge, while surplus items are sold through our Vinnies Centres to support our good works. If donating your preloved items, it is helpful to the Society if they are washed in advance.
Items such as non-perishable food, warm blankets and good quality clothing are much needed all year round.
Unfortunately we cannot accept electrical goods, because we do not have the services to assure safety and repairs.
We also humbly ask people not to give us donations that really should go to the tip. Our volunteers spend hours and hours every day sorting the usable from the unusable.
You can also contribute to the good works of the St Vincent de Paul Society and help support people in need by making a bequest to the Society in your will. Over the years, we have been able to help so many people because of the generosity of those who have supported us through a bequest.
> How can one become a volunteer?
Volunteers can undertake a variety of roles within the Society, from answering phones to folding and packing letters to working part-time, while volunteers at a conference level visit families and people in need in their homes as well as in hospitals, prisons and detention centres.
You can contact any of our nineteen centres and the phone book should list the store nearest to you.
> Thank you Don.