Gearing up for class

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jeannette Robles, a volunteer from Harmony Health, talks with a family picking up backpacks Aug. 17 at St. Gall School. The St. Vincent de Paul Society distributed school supplies and food to more than 2,000 families that day. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

For families living in poverty or near poverty, school supplies are a luxury their children often do without. If they must choose between the rent and groceries or pens and paper, rent and groceries win. That’s why free school supply distributions like the one organized by the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Gall School, 5515 S. Sawyer Ave., on Aug. 17 had families lining up three hours early.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society Food Bank at St. Gall recently moved from nearby St. Clare de Montefalco Parish because it outgrew the space as need for its services increased, said Barbara Lakomiak, vice president of the St. Vincent de Paul District 9 and a parishioner at St. Turibius. The food bank at St. Gall serves about 8,000 people a month through distribution and a year-round lunch program for children.

“We usually run out of food before we run out of people,” said Lakomiak.

Each Wednesday, the food bank holds a distribution at St. Gall where they pass out produce and other items purchased at a discount from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. On Aug. 17, the families received food along with school supplies and backpacks. Businesses and other St. Vincent de Paul groups, called conferences, donated supplies or money for the day’s distribution.

For many of the families who lined up Aug. 17, these would be the only school supplies the children received.

Maria Grajales brought her family to the giveaway at St. Gall.

“I’m only working part time and I need more help,” said the mother of four elementary school students.

She said the supplies she received were helpful “especially with the economy right now.”

Frieda Bertello, executive director of the Chicago Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, called the efforts of the society like the school supply day a grassroots effort on the part of different society conferences and local business.

“It’s person-to-person,” Bertello said.

This personal touch is a hallmark of the society, she said. Many of the society’s volunteers have been through hard times and volunteering “is a way to give back.”

The society has 127 conferences in the Chicago area. Most are based out of parishes, but they operate independent of the parish.

The continuing economic instability has increased the need for the society’s services, in some cases by 40 percent, she said. While need is up, donations are down, she said.