Mini Vinnies fulfill mission of St. Vincent de Paul to serve

When Melena Hammon has a hankering for a snack, relief is just a few feet away in her pantry at home.

Some children her age don't have that option, though. When a family has to choose between feeding everyone or paying the rent or mortgage, the latter is usually going to win.

As the school year comes to a close, Melena and her eighth-grade classmates at St. Charles Borromeo pulled together to make food boxes to sustain more than 50 children in need in the neighboring Orchard Farm school district.

The May 26 project was just the latest mission of the Mini Vinnies, a group of about 50 seventh- and eighth-graders who share in the mission of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Charles. One hundred and two boxes were filled to the brim with canned fruits, veggies and meat, juice and shelf-stable milk, peanut butter and jelly, cereal, oatmeal, pudding and assorted snacks. The food will cover roughly four weekends worth of breakfasts, lunches and snacks over the summer.

"It's more than just helping out," Melena said. "It teaches me to be humble and brave and to stand up for others. It teaches respect." In religion class, "we learn about Jesus — he's not the wealthiest person, but He appreciated what He had. We're trying to model the image of Jesus."

The Mini Vinnies at St. Charles Borromeo started five years ago. Paula Wagner, a St. Charles Borromeo parent and volunteer with the parish St. Vincent de Paul conference, was at a youth event in Belleville, Ill., where she met Sister Sheila Marie Hart, a Daughter of Charity who was manning a booth there. "She shook my hand and she called me by name, which wasn't fair," Wagner said with a laugh. "She believes so strongly about what she does with the youth in the St. Vincent de Paul program. Her evangelizing and asking is all it took."

The group is one of about half a dozen known Mini Vinnies groups in the St. Louis area, said Steve Rupp, manager of member support with St. Vincent de Paul's Archdiocesan Council of St. Louis. Their work models the three Vincentian pillars: spiritual growth, friendship and service.

"The main mission is for these Mini Vinnies to grow spiritually," he said. "That's the essence of the society. It's not to fix lunch boxes or to fix electric bills. They grow spiritually by bringing the face of Christ to those in need. We're so happy to see these young people experiencing their own spiritual growth through their service to others."

In addition to the summer food boxes, the Mini Vinnies prepare weekly backpacks of food for Orchard Farm students throughout the school year. The food was paid for by money raised at the parish's annual rummage sale, a grant from the Boeing Employees Community Fund, and donations from Operation Food Search, which started the backpack program.

The Mini Vinnies do other charitable works throughout the year, including monthly visits to the Salvation Army soup kitchen; programs with the St. Louis Crisis Nursery; helping the "Big Vinnies" at St. Charles Borromeo with the Advent giving tree and other holiday programs; fun bags for patients at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital; and welcome home bags for former prisoners via the Criminal Justice Ministry.

The lessons that the Mini Vinnies learn will hopefully stay with them as they get older, Wagner said. Many continue that service into high school.

"At the food bank, we may process 7,000 pounds of food," she said "I have huge eighth-grade boys — their parents will send me an email saying he was home a half an hour and he crashed on the couch. They're exhausted because they've worked a full shift and they're tired, but they never complain."

"We're called to serve, but at the same time we're called to teach them how to serve and how it feels to serve," Wagner said. 

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul's National Council of the United States offers a youth and young adult handbook, with guidelines for serving the society's mission. See www.stlouisreview.com/brj.

To learn more about starting a Mini Vinnies group, call Steve Rupp at (314) 881-6018 or Paula Wagner with the Mini Vinnies at St. Charles Borromeo at p-jwagner@sbcglobal.net. 

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