Each month, Effie Labrecque and Ray Urban see people who desperately need food, people who can't afford their medicine and children who may have to live in a house with no heat when it's below freezing outside. Sometimes, they can help, other times they just don't have the resources to help. And it weighs on them heavily at times.

But that doesn't stop them from doing what they're doing.

They are both members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul St. Mary Conference in Goldsboro.

SVDP is a worldwide Catholic group whose goal is to serve the poor and those in need regardless of their creed, ethical or social background, health, gender or political opinions.

But the underlying purpose of the group, Urban said, is to help its members grow in spirituality, and that's what happens then they help others.


SVDP was formed in 1833 by students at a university in France.

"It grew fairly rapidly," Urban said. "The first organization in the United States began in St. Louis around the 1850s or 1860s. It's an international organization in 50 countries."

Each unit is called a conference, and St. Mary Conference is one of four in eastern North Carolina.

St. Mary Conference came out of a small Bible study at the church.

"One of the five members of the Bible study suggested studying the document 'Of One Heart and Mind' by the North Carolina bishop," said Labrecque, who was a founding member of the St. Mary Conference in 1998. "It focuses on social concerns and problems facing many of our brothers and sisters, and what the church should be about.

"It had such an impact that the five members of the group decided to make a financial contribution to get a Society started here to reach out to help those in need. One of the group was a former member of a parish with an SVDP and helped get the Wayne County group started."

SVDP St. Mary Conference began with five members and has grown to 17 members and 14 auxiliary members.

Funding comes from quarterly collections from the parish, grants, special donations from the children at St. Mary School and private donations.

And the group holds a fundraiser the first Sunday of every month -- a breakfast consisting of eggs, sausage, bacon, grits, pancakes and a fruit tray, which members of group prepare themselves.

It may not be a huge amount, but it allows SVDP members to give between $1,200 and $1,500 in financial help to people in Wayne County each month, Labrecque said.

To keep from duplicating assistance each month, the members use a spreadsheet of help given in the past.

Urban said help could be in the form of paying utility bills, purchasing medications and help with gas.

"We helped one person get a bicycle once for transportation," said Urban, who has been a volunteer for almost four years. "We really don't have any hard and fast criteria as to who we'll help and who we won't."

He said assistance averages about $250 per family. It could be as low as a water bill that's $30.

And help always comes in the form of food from the group's food pantry.

Urban said that's nonperishables.

"Generally we take two grocery bags of food, but if we know it's a large family, we may take four bags," he said. "Food comes from donations from parishioners, and we also participate in the letter carriers food drive each May."


One unique thing about SVDP is that members go into the homes of people they help.

"The originators felt like it was important to go to the home of the people they were assisting," Urban said. "The person needing assistance is more comfortable in their own home rather than going to an office. And they are more willing to tell their story. And some people have trouble with transportation.

"We don't have an office; we have a cellphone."

The group has a phone number that those needing assistance call and leave a message. An on-call volunteer returns the calls, makes suggestions and referrals and determines if the need is something the Society can help with. If it is, then a visit is scheduled.

"As far as I know, we're the only charitable organization here that makes an in-home visit," Labrecque said. "And we go in pairs."

She said this gives the volunteers a better insight as to the need of the person.

"We do a lot of counseling," she said, "especially when it comes to conservation of electricity and water. If they say, 'My water bill has been extremely high,' we might ask if they've checked the spigot outside, that maybe one of the children has cut the spigot on. We do go through a lot of conservation items."

Urban said some people needing assistance have had an unfortunate situation, maybe a medical problem or maybe getting laid off of a job.

Sometimes he sees people who are disabled and unable to work. Others he sees were born with a learning disability and have a hard time getting a job.

And sometimes he sees people who have had substance abuse in the past and it's affected their ability to function at a high enough level to be self-sufficient.

"You can't really go back and say, 'You shouldn't have been a drug addict,'" Urban said. "That's not helpful. We'll help folks like that if they need help until we've exhausted our resources. And that doesn't necessarily mean we've spent all our money. Sometimes we've exhausted the human resource. It is very tiring."

Urban also sees some people who have just made bad decisions.

"We may suggest a different course," he said. "One bad decision would be having your thermostat set on 80 degrees when you really don't need it that high. In that case, we would suggest to them to lower their thermostat to lower their electric bill."

Labrecque said the most difficult thing for her is to not be judgmental.

"For example, when somebody's asking for financial assistance and you walk up to the house and see lots of cigarette butts or you see they've been having their nails done, you can't take that into account," she said. "You can't be judgmental, there's a need there. And you're there to address the need."

But SVDP volunteers don't just give people help and walk away.

"We also teach them how to help themselves," Labrecque said. "A big part of what we do is education. Whenever possible, we strive to help the poor to meet the immediate need and improve their lives in the near and longer terms. Depending on the need, our assistance might go beyond the payment of a bill. We might provide a few days' food, advocacy, job search tips or help search for a new residence."

"Sometimes we encounter people who are in the red," Urban said. "Their income is less than their outgo and we don't know how they're going to sustain that going forward."

And there might be a follow-up visit to find out if the tips the volunteer gave helped that person. Labrecque said it helps the majority of the people they help.

"With everybody we sit down with, we do a high level budget, going through their income and expenses," Urban said. "We discuss any ways they can improve their situation and become more self-sufficient."

Something new SVDP volunteers are implementing is systemic change.

"The idea is that you lift people out of poverty," Urban said. "We may mentor somebody for a period of time to help them in a way more than just paying a bill for one month. We will spend a little bit more time with them and visit more often. I think it would be more rewarding to our members to know we're actually helping somebody become more self-sufficient."

Labrecque has been working with a man since September to help him find a place to live and get him some furniture. And she gave him some referrals for even more assistance.

"I've seen a change in him," she said. "He calls me at least once a month. We stay in touch with one another."


The group averages more than 100 calls in one week's time. The volunteers know they cannot help that many people.

"It is very difficult to try to decide who you're going to be in a position to help," Labrecque said.

She said she doesn't sleep much the week she is visiting those who need assistance.

"After you help, you get back and think, 'Should I have helped this one or should I have helped that one,'" she said. "You replay what you've done all day long.

"When it's someone we can't help, that's very difficult. It's very difficult to have to tell somebody no. Because everybody who calls in, as far as they're concerned, they have a need.

"It stays with you that week. Sometimes it stays after that time, especially when you start going back doing your follow-ups."

Labrecque said it's even harder when children are involved.

"There are times that you doubt, and you look at those little children and think it's 15 degrees outside and their electricity is going to be cut off and they'll have no heat," she said.

"It's not the children's fault. Children do sometimes play a part in your decision making."

Urban said there have been one or two that he's not been able to help that particular month, and that person's reaction made him regret putting him in the no category.

"For the most part, we have to accept the fact that we can't help everyone," he said. "I make the best decision I can and am thankful because of the generosity of the parishioners, United Way and SVDP USA that we're able to help some folks."

Labrecque said it's not an easy thing to be able to help one person and not another.

"And sometimes we get down and get to the place that you almost feel like you're burning out because you hear one sad story after the other," she said.

But it all becomes worthwhile when someone the group has helped writes a letter thanking them.

"Or when we go back and make a follow-up call and they say, 'Thank you so much, you just don't know, you really helped me out.' 'I'm doing fine now.' 'I've found a job.' 'Everything's going great right now.' That makes it worth everything," Labrecque said.

She said volunteers pray with each person they help and leave a card with them with a prayer on it.

"We tell them that when they get down, read the prayer, and maybe it will give them comfort," Labrecque said.

The prayer reads: "Have no fear for what tomorrow may bring.

"The same loving God who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Be at peace then and set aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations. Amen."