A faltering economy and business setbacks brought Adam and Stephanie Brandt into a huge financial hole, but with some help and determination they are working toward stability, if not a rebound.
The problem was compounded when they purchased a house, then couldn't sell their previous home when an economic slowdown hit St. Louis and its housing market hard. They foreclosed on the homes and are now renting.
"We just had several bad breaks," Stephanie Brandt said recently.
One of the difficulties was the need for adequate transportation.
A neighbor across the street from their rental home, a volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Clare of Assisi Parish, had told the Brandts about the Society's programs, including Vinnie's Autos, a car donation and transfer program to help individuals and families secure basic transportation.
By the time the need for a vehicle became more acute, the Brandts had moved again, into a home in Ascension Parish. Though they are not Catholic, they called the parish and talked to Joe Viviano, a Society volunteer at the parish, who started the process with Vinnie's Autos, a program of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis.
A van has been provided to the Brandts at significantly below market price. "It's been a huge help. It's a lifesaver," Stephanie Brandt said, helping transport the family's four children and assisting with her babysitting work and getting to other part-time work.
Though her husband is still looking for work -- he has experience in the financial industry and other areas -- "We're on our way up the ladder and thankful that God placed people in our lives along the way to be the hands and feet of Jesus to bring us through," Stephanie Brandt said.
She noted that "we are making it on our own now," but appreciates that Viviano has checked in with them on occasion to see how the family is doing.
Viviano said Vinnie's Autos "is a good program that fills legitimate needs."
In 2012 Vinnie's Autos provided 74 families with vehicles.
Examples of other recipients include a young, struggling family who needed the vehicle to allow the mother to continue her education and the father to do his independent subcontracting work; and a single mother in rural area who was able to keep a job.
Greg Marino, Vinnie's Autos program coordinator, is proud of the people helped by the program as well as the more than 30 volunteers who make it happen.
First, there's the donors who provide vehicles that can be inspected, repaired and provided to clients or sold for cash that assists with repairs of other vehicles.
"We take any kind of car whether it runs or not. The good cars we can turn over to families. Sometimes we get cars that are not a fit for families, and we sell them on the open market for a fair price, with the funds helping fix cars for the families," Marino said. "We always need more donations, and we also accept boats, motor homes and motorcycles" to be sold to help the program.
Last year the program received 190 car donations.
Vinnie's Autos has 43 strategic partners throughout the archdiocese who make repairs, offer services such as towing or wholesaling cars or provide material at deep discounts.
Also essential are what Marino calls "car czars," Vincentians who work within a district and are involved in publicizing the program and working with clients.
Other Vincentians, those he calls "porters," assist by picking up cars at donor houses as well as picking up cars after they are repaired.
Generally the families receiving cars are charged $400 for cars worth $2,000 to $3,000 in "Blue Book" value -- a standard auto retail evaluation of models.
Marino said the need for cars is crucial in rural areas where people have no other way of getting to work. "There's so many stories of people who have had their lives improved and empowered from having been provided a car. For one thing, it lets them know we care about them -- our partners and our volunteers -- and it's a great blessing to do what we do."
Many clients have "paid it forward" by helping others after receiving a car, Marino noted.
Stuck in a ditch
Poverty, he said can be compared to being stuck in a ditch. "We try to provide a winch so they can winch themselves out. My old supervisor, (the late) Declan Duffy, used to say it is great to tell someone to 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.' But what if they don't have a pair of boots?"
Established in 1845, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis provides utility assistance to thousands of families, operates or facilitates 83 food pantries and offers services to prevent homelessness for veterans and others. With community support, it also makes available no-cost prescriptions, manages its nationally recognized criminal justice ministry and operates four thrift stores to support and serve others.
Within its extensive region of suburban, city and rural communities, the St. Louis Council Office supports the grassroots efforts of nine districts of 143 St. Vincent de Paul parish chapters. Almost 2,900 dedicated Vincentian members serve the chronically poor, the "new poor" of the middle class and individuals and families who are temporarily struggling due to issues resulting from a slow economy, unemployment or any number of unexpected, short-term family crises.
Marino calls the Society "an exciting, dynamic apostolate. We try to see the face of Jesus Christ in all the people we help."
WHAT: A car donation and transfer program
MISSION: To help individuals and families maintain or expand employment and improve quality of life
NEEDS: Donated cars, volunteers; Donors receive a tax deduction
CONTACT: Greg Marinio, Society of St. Vincent de Paul of St. Louis, (314) 881-6005 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A special thank you to Joseph Kenney and the St. Louis Review for allowing us to post this article in its entirety. ---Mike Najjar