St. Vinny’s goes on serving Madison community despite unprecedented challenges

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul kept doors open, mouths fed and people clothed after 96 years.
St Vinny Coat Sale
Photo courtesy of Morgan Murphy Media
In a typical, non-pandemic fall season, the gang over at St. Vinny’s would put on a massive $1 Coat Sale.

If you like to indulge in a thrift shopping, odds are you are more than familiar with the tubs upon tubs of clothing and other secondhand goods sold at the Dig & Save outlet off Park Street or the St. Vincent de Paul Stores.

But beyond providing a place for folks purging their closets and a primetime spot for deals on unique clothing, the Madison chapter of the global philanthropic organization Society of St. Vincent de Paul does a whole lot of good.

With a mission of providing basic-needs services to individuals and families facing poverty in Dane County, the Society has a multi-pronged approach to helping those in need. Housing programs, the Charitable Pharmacy and utility assistance are all available for folks needing of life-saving medications, a place to sleep or keeping the lights on.

During the snowy season, St. Vinny’s has various programs set up to make sure children and families have access to winter coats and other warm clothing each year.

In a typical, non-pandemic fall season, St. Vinny’s would host a massive $1 Coat Sale, which would have been in its 22nd year.

“In recent years, 8,000 to 10,000 coats have been sold for $1 each over the weekend of the sale,” says Julie Bennett, St. Vinny’s local associate executive director.

Bennett says coats donated throughout the year are held in reserve specifically for this event, which is highly-anticipated and held on the first Thursday every November.

“Many people in the community purchase coats to then donate to other organizations that are helping individuals in need,” she says.

From local elementary teachers looking out for their high-need students to parents ensuring their kiddos are adequately bundled up, this event’s impact reverberates across town winter after winter. This year, the event was more spread out — this time across two locations, and a week to allow for social distancing — but was successful nonetheless. Bennett says about 9,000 coats were sold.

One attendee from this year’s sale, a former counselor for ESL students at Madison East, has made the coat sale an annual tradition.

“For seven years, I’ve come to this event to purchase 50-plus coats for those families,” she says. “Some can’t afford one … this helps a lot.”

But for those of us that missed out on this year’s sale, the Society has another campaign to ring in the new year.

“Our 28th annual Recycle the Warmth blanket drive will take place in January,” she says. “Gently used blankets are accepted, as well as financial gifts to purchase blankets throughout the month.” Bennett says the blankets are donated throughout the course of the year to folks who need them. “This year we are promoting online donations to purchase blankets, simply to maximize safety for everyone,” she says.

Outside of these things we typically associate with being warm and secure — blankets, coats, the works — there are lots of other needs to be met in the community this winter, too.

“Not surprisingly, the level of need has been unprecedented this year,” says Bennett. “Our food pantry is averaging double the number of families each pantry day, including a record-setting day just before Thanksgiving of 204 families who received food in a four hour shift.”

Financial donations are always accepted, but believe it or not, your in-store purchases make more of an impact than you may think.

“Sales in our seven Dane County thrift stores provide much of the income to fund the charitable work of the Society,” says Bennett. “[But] the stores were closed for two months early in the pandemic, and since reopening, foot traffic has continued to be lower than previous years.”

During the 2020 fiscal year that ended in September, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul provided free goods and services to Dane County neighbors valued at more than $3 million.

Bennett says St. Vinny’s currently has a surplus of donations, since many folks have been clearing out their crowded spaces during the pandemic, but material goods donations have a tendency to dwindle during the colder months.

For folks who cannot afford winter jackets, hat, etc., Bennett says they should call the Society’s Service Center to request a clothing voucher, as often as every six months. Vouchers are also available for household goods (annually) and furniture (after five years).

Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"