(EDITOR’S NOTE: April is National Volunteer Month and this week The Miscellany takes a look at one group of the many volunteers across the Diocese of Charleston.)
CONWAY-Most people think of a big orgganization when they think of Catholic Charities, but in the Pee Dee of South Carolina the agency is run by volunteers out of a converted locker room in a gym.
Diane Bullard is the director of Catholic Charities for that deanery; before she had been on the job a year, she found herself unable to keep up with the demand for services, too busy to develop new ways of doing things. Enter the volunteers. “It just happened,” Bullard said. “The need was there and this whole thing evolved out of that need. These people are not only generous with their time but they are reliable.”
The volunteer corps, retirees from Conway and Myrtle Beach, are so reliable that Bullard is no longer tied to her office. Each volunteer has a key to the office, which is located in the gymnasium on the campus of St. James Catholic Church. One of the toilets is now a closet and clothing hangs on hangers in what used to be shower stalls. The volunteers used grant money from the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy to pay migrant workers to paint and renovate the place. Bullard’s office is the former coaches room.
Clients come to the locker room for clothing and other goods, but most of the volunteer effort is directed at getting the material collected out to the rural areas of inland Carolina where clothes closets offer help for the destitute. Driving to the remote outreach centers served by Catholic Charities has been an education for Russ Hilsher and Henry Reyns.
“People know the poor are out there, but they don’t know the extent of it,” Hilsher said. “We come back with stories that would curl your hair.”
Some of those stories involve people living under bridges and in the woods, according to Reyns, and pregnant teens who can neither read nor write.
Imelda Thorp once suggested buying cloth diapers for needy mothers instead of the more expensive disposable ones, only to discover a shocking fact of life as the 21st century approaches in the world’s richest nation: “Some of them don’t have running water or electricity. I baked cakes for the ladies guild before, but I never did anything like this.”
Long-time volunteer Alberta “Chickie” Wargus spoke for the entire unpaid staff when she said, “We are enjoying ourselves. You can’t just sit around and do nothing.”
These volunteers have already raised families and worked a lifetime, but they seem energized by their new-found project. Hilsher said that the work “makes us feel younger,” but the experience of the Catholic Charities volunteers is a key ingredient to the success of the effort.
Barbara DiAngelantonio, who originally hails from New Jersey, said that her career helped her in the volunteer work – Up to a point.
“We all did for our families, but never on this scale. And this is not just for Catholics,” DiAngelantonio said.
Indeed, most of the recipients of the charity shown by the Conway volunteers are poor and needy non-Catholics in the rural reaches of South Carolina. Catholic Charities programs in the Pee Dee are the real beneficiaries of the volunteerism, however.
“What I’m able to do as one person is limited,” Bullard said. “These volunteers develop and implement programs; they’re coming up with ideas I could never have thought of. They’re really doing the work of Catholic Charities. They bring a wealth of experience to us. The needs are not as overwhelming now. I can feel free to walk away from the office.”
The director said that the volunteers have authority and have come up with such events as baby showers, field trips and bringing meals to terminally ill patients. They stock outreach centers and an outlet store run by disabled people; they use their own gasoline to visit migrant communities.
“These volunteers are really carrying on the Catholic Charities tradition,” Bullard said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on all they do.”