It's fascinating to think that the first social service organization brought to Buffalo by its first bishop is still around, going stronger than ever 170 years later. The St. Vincent de Paul Society came to the Diocese of Buffalo in 1847, just after Bishop John Timon was named its first bishop. Bishop Timon had heard of the charitable organization while visiting Ireland and brought it first to St. Louis, where he served in the late 1830s.
Today, the society operates a dining hall and thrift store on Main Street in downtown Buffalo, where over a thousand volunteers work to show their love of God and neighbor.
Mark Zirnheld, executive director since 1990, has seen much growth in recent years. When he started, the offices were on Huron and Oak streets, along with the store and warehouse. The dining room was in the former Our Lady of Lourdes School cafeteria on Main Street. Now everything is under one roof at 1298 Main St.
"We put about $2 million worth of renovations into the place to make it a functioning headquarters and service center for the community as well as our members," Zirnheld said. "When we came here, nobody was thinking about Main Street as anything exciting. Now we have all sorts of stuff up and down the street around us that has changed with the Medical Campus and the revitalization of a lot of the housing, but we still have a lot of folks that need our services still in this neighborhood. I don't think we'll be going anywhere soon."
In order to be good stewards of their funds, solar panels have been installed on the roof, saving $8,000 per year on their electrical bill. The building was relamped with efficient LED lights. Zirnheld points out that everything in the office conference room, except for a TV/VCR combo and a telephone, were donated.
"We're finding ways to lessen our expenses so that the money people give us can be better used to take care of people," he said.
The society also tries to recycle and reuse as much of their donations as possible. Torn or stained clothes can be turned into rags and insulation, so they're acceptable. But refrigerators and televisions are considered hazardous waste and cost money to have recycled. Zirnheld shows four televisions in the warehouse, big screens that cost 35 cents a pound to be disposed. One challenge they have is educating the benefactors on what is a "good donation." Some donations might hurt them because they have to pay to have it recycled.
According to the international bylaws, all money raised by the St. Vincent de Paul Society is to go towards its own good works. No money is donated to other charities or causes. Everything that is collected by the society is used in the community. Nothing is shipped to another state. This makes them not only an independent organization from the diocese, but independent of other organizations. To survive, the society relies on donations of money, food, clothes and furniture from parish conferences.
"There are a lot of charitable people in our community who know people who have been in tough situations or they have been. They want to help, and they want to find a place that will help folks that are living down the street from them. When they realize that the society is that vehicle, they're very happy to support us," Zirnheld said. "We try to be a good citizen, we try to be a good steward, and we realize as much as we provide to this community, we would not be able to provide that help if we did not have the support of this community."
Often, the people they hire have developmental disabilities or are seeking a second chance after serving jail time.
The society, which has conferences in parishes across the diocese, will open a second office in Niagara Falls thanks to a donated storefront that will be converted into a thrift store and service center for the people in Niagara County. There have been a series of short-term spaces used in Niagara Falls in the past that they quickly outgrew.
"We're trying to plan outreach in a smart way to collaborate with providers already in different areas where there is a great need and try to strengthen their efforts as well as ours in taking care of those people. It's an exciting time for the organization," Zirnheld said.
Artist renderings of a remodeled floor plan for the Buffalo store litter the office. The dining room was refreshed just over two years ago, and now they plan to do the same with thrift store. It's due too. Nothing has been done to it in 21 years.
"We'd like to modernize it, make it a little bit more exciting place for people to shop," Zirnehld said.
The store carries a vast array of clothes, furniture, books, dishes and radios. Customers can pay with cash, credit or vouchers. Most other thrift stores have moved to the suburbs to generate money for that agency.
"We made a conscious decision to stay in the city because that's where the people we serve are."
For more information on the society, thrift store or local conferences, contact 716-822-3360 or www.SVDPwny.org.