The St Vincent de Paul Society, the Catholic charity I work for, has a simple task: to help the poor. But poverty itself is not a simple matter. For instance, many people today are isolated and hidden behind locked doors. An illness or a disability can severely limit someone’s capacity to carry out everyday tasks most of us take for granted. Grocery shopping, arranging a household repair, meeting a friend for tea or even simply attending Mass can be beyond anybody who is sick, housebound or in hospital.
All too often, illness is the beginning of a downward spiral: being too ill to go out can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, and eventually cause a breakdown in material security as a person finds themselves unable to work or fulfil usual responsibilities.
How can we reach people in these situations? SVP volunteers – also knows as “members” – are on the frontline of the challenge. Every week, members dedicate their free time to offering practical and emotional support to people too ill to leave their homes or hospital beds.
One such person is Patrick. He was born with spina bifida, a fault in the development of the spinal cord that leaves a gap in the spine and means the nervous system is open to infections. He has always been deaf and has associated poor speech.
At the age of 15, Patrick lost his mother, and with his few relatives scattered widely, he became increasingly isolated. Regular “shunt” infections have meant that Patrick has frequently been admitted to hospital. His worsening age-related deafness made Patrick dread going out alone – he feared being unable to hear people approach as well as the teasing of neighbourhood children. He also worried about having to enter residential care.
Our members have been visiting Patrick for more than 30 years, overcoming problems and accessing medical support and social services as well as buying food and clothes. Most importantly, they have combatted his isolation and shown Patrick that he is appreciated as an individual.
Vincentians have arranged Lourdes trips, seaside visits, dinners out, and social excursions to pubs and football matches (Patrick is a fan of the local team). They have also arranged respite care for him at a home where Patrick has made some friends through the years. Members are finally seeing some hopeful signs in his health as the debilitating shunt infections have ceased.
He has been assessed and found suitable for cochlear implants, which will give him a sense of sound and, his friends hope, significantly enhance his quality of life.
Thousands of people like Patrick depend on the help and support of SVP members each and every week for friendly visits and more practical assistance.
This month, our Beyond Boundaries campaign is raising awareness of our work. Week One has been focussing on the sick, hospitalised and housebound. Next week, we look at the Society’s work in feeding people who are hungry, parents who need a little support providing for their families, and those suffering the anxiety of not being able to put food on the table.
Because SVP members belong to a network of charity, they provide an organised infrastructure of financial resources, transport, expertise and spirituality. It can make all the difference to someone who is on their own. The poor are all around us. But by breaking the barriers of isolation, we can offer them the hand of friendship.
Anita Boniface is senior media and communications officer at the St Vincent de Paul Society.
If you would like to learn more about the SVP’s work, and find out how to volunteer or donate, visit www.svp.org.uk, telephone 02077033030 or email [email protected]