St. Vincent store staying busy through pandemic

Photos by Christine Stephenson/The Herald
Sharon Hopf, 78, of Jasper, sorts through donations Friday at the St. Vincent de Paul warehouse in Jasper. Donations such as clothes and blankets are checked for stains, rips, odors and more before it is decided whether they can be sold.

By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
cstephenson@dcherald.com

JASPER — Employees like to joke that it's like Black Friday every day.

At about 10:40 a.m. Friday morning — 20 minutes until the St. Vincent de Paul store opens — there are already at least two dozen people lined up on both sides of the entrance.

One man arrives at the store every day around 9:30 a.m. to make sure he’s first in line. A group of women waiting a few feet away talk about how they come here at least two or three times a week. Today isn’t even a busy day, one of them says.

“Tuesdays, the line is usually down the sidewalk,” she says with a laugh. “If you have anxiety, stay away.”

Another woman explains how therapeutic it is to shop at the store. Some of her family recently died from COVID-19, and this is her escape.

“This is my way of getting out and doing stuff,” she says.

Strangers and friends chat while they wait for the clock to hit 11. As soon as the doors open, though, the chatter is replaced with the squeal of shopping cart wheels.

Jasper’s St. Vincent de Paul store has always been popular in the community. Even through the pandemic, besides when the store briefly closed during quarantine, this has remained true. In fact, the store might be even more popular now than before the pandemic, as people are under stress and seeking ways to cope.

A line wraps around one of the checkout counters Friday morning at the St. Vincent de Paul store in Jasper. Shoppers arrive up to 90 minutes before the store opens every day to get a good spot in line.

This is a good thing, Assistant Store Manager Johnna Gilbert said, because the organization needs constant donations and purchases to stay afloat, and nearly all of the money goes back to help the community.

Proceeds from the store go to the St. Vincent de Paul Society Jasper District, which distributes the funds to local Catholic church groups — called conferences — in Dubois and Spencer counties. Then, those in need contact a parish for assistance, and their information is passed on to the parish conference.

“You don’t have to be Catholic to get assistance, though, that’s just the contact,” Gilbert said. “You don’t have to be Christian. We don’t care about sex, race, sexual orientation. That’s not our place. It’s our place to help those in need.”

Usually, Vincentians — members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul — make house visits to help those in need. Since the pandemic, though, these visits have been mostly replaced with phone calls, although home visits are “the hallmark of what we do,” Gilbert said.

Otherwise, the store and warehouse are operating under fairly normal conditions. The location closed for a few weeks during the early stages of the pandemic, when Gov. Eric Holcomb issued the stay-at-home order, and kept older employees home for a bit longer. But the store needs to run somehow, and the people want to shop.

“When we first came back, it was pretty quiet for the first three or four weeks,” Gilbert said. “But as people started feeling more confident, it ended up getting crazy busy.”

The warehouse also had a big uptick in donations around the same time, so now donations are down.

“The pendulum has swung the other way, so our donations are really, really down right now because everyone cleaned out,” Gilbert said.

A lot of the donations that do come in are unusable, such as used mattresses, TVs and computers, and have to be thrown away. As a result, the trash bill is about $3,000 a month.

Additionally, like many other businesses across the country, there’s a need for employees, too. Some other St. Vincent de Paul locations operate solely on a volunteer basis, but the Jasper location is so busy that it’s not possible to do that. There are currently 39 employees on payroll, and the location is looking for a few more.

Thankfully, despite the shortage of employees and donations, Christmas season is always a success. And for St. Vincent de Paul, Christmas season starts in early October, right around the corner.

One room at the warehouse is dedicated almost entirely to Christmas decor, with cardboard boxes filled to the ceiling. Another room is just for trees.

“We jokingly call it the Christmas tree rental program because a lot of people that live in apartments don’t have a place to store one, so they’ll come buy one for 20 or 30 bucks and then bring it back in January,” Gilbert said. “If you come in around the first weekend after New Year's, it’s like a Christmas tree-palooza.”

Shoppers especially love Christmas season, Gilbert said, because decorations from elsewhere can be pricey.

“There’s a tradition in this county of wanting to get a good deal,” she said.

There’s no financial requirement to shop at St. Vincent de Paul. Many of the shoppers treat it as a normal store. Gilbert understands, she said, and is thankful for the thrifters because their money then goes back to a community in need.

“There’s this misnomer that there’s not a lot of need in this area, but there is,” she said. “There is a homeless problem. There’s an issue with finding rentals that are affordable. There’s food insecurity. There’s children staying home alone, just like every other area, it’s just not as visible. It’s a very proud area, and people don’t like to ask for help, but that’s what we’re here for.”




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