Straight Talk from the Heart of a Veteran Vincentian
Dora Castonguay has been a member of the Society and volunteer at St. Anne's Food Pantry in Hazel Crest for 30 years and a member of St. Anne's Church for 52 years. She's a remarkable woman who exemplifies the Vincentian mission and provides more than just food to those in need. She transforms lives.
"If I keep you coming here every single month and I keep giving you bags of food and I don't see a smile on your face, and I see sadness and grief on your face, I see lost hope. So let me come to your house, let me get a picture of what's going on there and find out what would make you happy, not for the rest of your life, but just for this month. What's missing from your home that you would like to see here. And if I can get someone a new stove, they are in heaven because now they can prepare meals for their children."
Why did you join the Society?
It started out as a favor to a friend. I went to a meeting and really didn't think this was my cup of tea but then I started helping my friend out with the shopping for the pantry and began meeting some of the clients. That's what pulled me in. Meeting people who had this problem for 2 or 3 years and I thought people just can't be plodding along like this so I wanted to help them...help initiate change so they didn't have to stay in the pantry for the rest of their lives...essentially becoming career pantry users.
How would you describe yourself as a person?
I'm tenacious. I won't let go. If you have a problem and we can't solve it right now - I'll turn every stone I can, call everyone I know, bring in all my troops and eventually we will resolve what goes on. Alone, sometimes you can't do much. Christ had help carrying the cross. In the beginning, I didn't want to ask anybody, I didn't want anyone to think I didn't know what I was doing. Shame on me but when I started asking and people reached out so generously, I realized you know we can really do more for this person if we bring in the troops. And that's what I did and I've done that with most of the clients that are here. We also network with other agencies such as the Salvation Army. Sometimes, when they get stuck, they call us and it works out beautifully. So God's in the mix...God's in the mix.
How would you describe yourself as a member of the Society? In other words, what particular strengths or skill sets do you bring to your volunteer work?
I'm resourceful, persistent, thrifty and I think outside the box. For example, when we get extra money, we give out $20 gas cards. But now I'm going to go to the gas companies and ask them, "Will you give me a $20 gas card for every $100 I buy?" I'm also creative. If I can't do it one way, I'll find another way. I will find a way for you. That's my strongest quality. I don't give up.
What keeps you invested in the mission?
The need...the need. And the volunteer team here are so great. And the people we meet, after you sit down and talk to them and they open up their hearts and lives to you, you actually get more from them than they do from you. Many of our clients are so up...you'd think they'd be down in the dumps and saying "I give up, I'm walking away" but they have such faith that God is going to make it better.
Do you think you have changed in any way since you first began as a volunteer?
I think I'm a lot smarter. I'm building relationships with not only the clients but with the community as well. Now I can really help them...now that I have all of the tools and the experience. I have contacts at the Salvation Army and CEDA. CEDA is a government agency and they help with gas and electric bills. I also know people at social security disability and the high schools. I didn't have these contacts starting out but now I do and when someone finds out what you're doing, they tell somebody else and help is on the way. When someone has something they want to give away, and a lot of it is beautiful stuff that comes from affluent communities in Orland and Palos, they call us and then we become a conduit between what's here and what we can bring to the client. We're their connection.
If you could change one thing, what would it be?
I would like to see this area (pantry) and what we do more centralized. We need a bigger space so we can consolidate the intake, have the pantry at the same place and then maybe expand some of the services. What would you say to someone who is thinking about joining the Society? I would have them come to one of the meetings. I would also ask them, "What do you expect this conference to do for you?" People join different programs for different reasons. And sometimes when they come, they think it's something entirely different. They want to make themselves feel good about doing something and you don't always get that when you do this. Sometimes you get a lot of negativity too. So then you don't want to do it. You can't expect an immediate gratification when you join an organization like this. It's a building process. So they would have to come and test the waters. And what do you think you can bring? What is it you're looking to do? Someone might say, "Well I volunteer at the hospital and I read stories to the children in the pediatrics department and it makes me feel so good". So if you're just looking to feel good about something to make you feel good, then you need to come and try this because it may just not work for you.
What's the best thing about being a member of the Society?
That's hard because everything about being here is great. This is where it all happens. The volunteers really care about what they're doing and the clients feel that. They feel that warm energy and they give us lots of hugs. It makes us feel good so if I were to choose one thing, it would be the clients, but I can't leave the staff out because we're a team. We're a team and when you're feeling down and say "Oh, I can't do this anymore, I give up, it's 30 years and I'm burned out", somebody will say "Take a break...let's go have lunch and we'll talk about this" and then you feel good...and renewed.
Can You Make A Difference?
When you join forces with more than 2,000 other people who volunteer their time and talents to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Chicago the answer is "yes." We need volunteers at our main office, thrift stores, food pantries, fund-raising events and at conferences. To volunteer, contact Frieda Bertello at 312.655.7181.