The Vinnies cap sits comfortably on Vince Ryan. The Regional President for Vinnies is intimately involved in helping the growing number of people in the Manning and Great Lakes who need a hand up, not a hand out, to pay their bills, put food on the table, and feel a sense of hope.
Vinnies is a trusted charity that works to feed, clothe and assist people who are forced to the margins of society. How do you serve the community as its Regional President?
I support the conferences, which are volunteer groups, in Taree, Wingham, Forster, Tea Gardens, and the staff and student conference at St Clare’s High School in Taree. I am also a member of the Vinnies State Spirituality Advisory Committee, which focuses on maintaining the spirituality of St Vincent de Paul amongst the wider organisation of the Society. I recently handed the presidency role at Taree conference to someone else, who has kindly taken over that role for me after 18 months.
The conference is where people come to see us, we interview people, and try to help address their needs … it might be giving them food, helping them with their bills, advocating on their behalf, or connecting them to other support services.
What is your experience of supporting vulnerable men and women who seek Vinnies for help?
When a person is stressed, and they come to us, it is because they are desperate. They are awake at night worrying about their bills, their future, their income, and if they have children, it complicates it even more. They come in really distressed and vulnerable.
We could simply address their physical needs, but that doesn’t solve their pain. We need them to know that they have been heard, that they are among friends, and they are not going to be judged by their situation.
One of the things that I have always said that I do as a Deacon and Chaplain at St Clare’s High School with families and students is that I sit in their pain. It’s such a gift and a wonderful thing to do because you can connect on an intimate level. There is a deep sense of empathy, and compassion, and the real need people have is to be accepted as human beings and encouraged.
You know, the sense of hope is a really important thing for people; to be able to offer hope, to encourage them, and to be able to say, look, it’s OK, we are here for you if you need assistance. We are not about keeping people dependent on us; we provide people with some wonderful support, to enable them to get on their feet. So if we need to make phone calls, if we need to do things, if we need to access services for them outside of Vinnies, then that’s what we do to give them the best chance of getting a hand up.
Is there a shift in the number of people seeking help from Vinnies?
We have definitely noticed an increase in the number of people needing help, and it’s very challenging. Taree is a very poor area and has a low socio-economic rating, so there are a lot of people who struggle here.
Part of my vision for Vinnies was to move into better premises, because we could only interview one person at a time. The office was very small and impersonal, the walls weren’t sealed, so if people were in the reception area they could hear the conversation – it was just everything it shouldn’t be if you were trying to provide people with dignity.
Vinnies has provided us with a new premises in Macquarie Street, and it has three beautiful offices, a big training area, storage and a kitchen, which is really wonderful – because we want to get into enabling and educating people. St Vincent De Paul is about giving people a hand up, not a hand out, and that was part of my vision for moving into new premises.
What is the major driver of increasing demand on Vinnies?
Our biggest challenge is Newstart. It is a real problem. People cannot possibly survive on Newstart; it is nigh on impossible. The only way they can do it is to miss out on basic services like electricity, and that’s now become a big issue.
The demand in our old premises was horrendous. I was looking at the statistics for last year, and I would say 30 to 40 per cent of people who came to see us over the last financial year were on Newstart. So then you encounter a lot of people who couch surf, who are homeless. It’s not young people that we see the most on Newstart; it is the older people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s who are struggling. In Taree, where are the jobs?
Fortunately, Taree Community Kitchen run by CatholicCare is doing a great job feeding people five days a week, which means they can get one good meal a day, and then we have a few bits and pieces that we can offer in an emergency.
How does your faith inform how you help people?
I’m not a confident person; I have an essence of shyness about me. I’m a gentle mover; I integrate and then see where I am needed, and that’s how I best work, and I’ve learned that over the years of sitting with people and hearing their painful stories. I don’t do this on my own; God and I are partners, and we do this together — it’s never about me. Given my life and His involvement in it, I never see what I do as just me. When people come to me and say, Vince, that was truly beautiful, I’ll wink at Him. Along with the love and support of my wife, Denise and three children and five grandchildren, I have a realistic appreciation of the challenges families have. They also reflect God’s love to and for me.
God is goodness. Wherever goodness is happening, while ever people are doing good things, in the biggest things, the medium things and even the tiniest little things … the smile, the look of love, the compassion felt in our hearts, God is there, and that’s God’s work, and how our God operates. All of those millions and millions, and myriads of good things that happen every day — that’s God.