West Virginia Conference allows people in need to Grow your own
The saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The St. Louise de Marillac Conference, also known as the Conference of Southern West Virginia, has taken this saying to heart and initiated a program called “Grow Your Own,” that helps people supplement the food provided by the Conference’s food pantry.
The St. Louise de Marillac Conference began in 2003 as a joint endeavor of the Eastern Region of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, its Councils and Conferences.
The Conference is located in Appalachia, at the center of coal country. While the area is home to beautiful mountains and friendly people, it is also one of the most poverty-stricken regions in the United States.
The last County Economic Status Report by the Appalachian Regional Commission reported that in Appalachian West Virginia, the poverty rate was 17.6 percent. The national poverty rate according to the U.S. Census Bureau is only 15.6 percent.
Many people living there rely on the coal-mining industry as their source of income. However, the industry continues to decline. Therefore, more and more people are finding themselves jobless and living in crippling poverty.
Appalachia is not home to many Catholics. The St. Louise de Marillac Parish currently has only 18 members. Therefore, it cannot support a SVdP Conference on its own. That is why the Conference is supported by surrounding Councils and Conferences from the Eastern Region.
The Conference currently has two major programs. One is a warehouse with a full-time case worker that distributes free used furniture, appliances, building materials and coordinates emergency home repairs.
The other is a food pantry that the Conference began operating in 2005. The pantry currently serves more than 500 families each month, and projects to serve more than 700 families in November and December for the holidays.
Over the past decade of SVdP operation, the food pantry has seen very few changes. However, the number of clients in need and operation costs have continually risen. It became evident to Conference leaders that a change needed to be made.
“Systemic change is vital in the ending or lessening of poverty. But so often, Vincentians see systemic change in the big picture,” said Arnold Simonse, Conference president. “Systemic Change also needs to happen on an individual level.”
Systemic change is a process that aims to achieve a radical transformation in the lives of those living in poverty. Systemic change goes beyond looking at short-term needs of food, clothing and shelter to identifying and resolving the root causes of poverty (such as needing education, a job, stable finances and other issues).
These new long-term strategies include: mentoring, collaboration with other organizations with similar aims, and advocacy to change unjust systems. The goal is to move people permanently out of poverty by empowering them to improve themselves, to make life changes, and mentoring them to take on roles leading to self- sustainability.
These programs have helped and will continue to help individuals on a new journey out of poverty into middle class.
Conference members were faced with the task of determining how to work as partners with those coming to the food pantry each month. Their overall goal was to work with the pantry’s patrons to assist them in beginning to take care of some of their own needs.
They developed the idea that people coming to the food pantry could also begin growing their own food to supplement what they were receiving. The plan became known as, “Grow Your Own.”
“We immediately recognized two major roadblocks to Grow Your Own. The first was that the terrain in the area is vertical and rocky, making gardening difficult. The other was the people themselves. They had all but given up, and feel hopeless in the face of poverty,” said Simonse.
They developed three stages to implement the plan and overcome those barriers.
The first stage included giving 500 families four tomato and two pepper plants. After a few months, leaders asked if they had planted the plants and reaped any vegetables, the response was very positive.