Volunteer of the Month: Their work endures

GLADSTONE – For Irene and Larry St. Martin, volunteering is an endurance sport. Because of their nearly three decades of service to the community through the St. Vincent de Paul Society they have been selected as the Daily Press and NewPage Volunteer of the Month.

The couple’s involvement with St. Vincent de Paul can be traced back to the very beginning of the society in Gladstone. Irene was at All Saints Catholic Church one Sunday when the idea of creating a local branch of the society was presented by fellow church members Matt and Grace Gasperich.

“They came over and talked to me and they said somebody had contacted them, and they wanted Gladstone to start a St. Vinny. They had so many people going over there,” said Irene, referencing the Escanaba St. Vincent de Paul store. “They weren’t able to handle everybody from all around.”

The simple suggestion became a 30-year project for Irene. Larry also dedicated much of his time to the Society throughout the years – even acting as the president and food pantry manager between 1990 and 1996 – but health problems have limited his recent involvement.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is organized into local Conferences, and in July of 1984 the All Saints Conference in formed in Gladstone. Despite the many changes that have taken place since the Conference’s inception, the St. Martins have always been a part of the story.

“We started in the (church) basement, just (offering) food, and we knew people where coming for clothes and that sort of stuff. It just mushroomed,” said Irene.

Not long after the creation of the Conference, it became apparent to the Conference’s members that the ministry needed more space than the church basement could provide. At the same time, the J.C. Penney store in Gladstone became vacant.

With the help of Conferences in Ishpeming, Ironwood, Ontonagon, and Escanaba, the All Saints Conference purchased the store and renovated the building to include a food pantry, offices, and meeting space. On March 3, 1986, the store opened its doors.

“We were in the Penney’s store for quite a few years until someone broke in, stole things from our store, and set it on fire,” said Irene.

The building burned to the ground on Nov. 2, 2001. The arsonist, a man from Green Bay, was later caught. In response to the fire, the Conference moved its operations into the American Legion for 13 months.

“We fed the people from the Legion Post and we moved into this place and we’ve been here ever since,” said Irene, referencing the new building that opened in late 2002.

Irene still volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul store for five or six hours a day, two days a week, and does laundry at home for the store on a third day.

“I take a lot of clothes home and I wash them. Especially baby clothes,” said Irene.

When Larry was the pantry director in the 1990s, the Gladstone St. Vincent de Paul used to deliver food directly to those in need.

“Around Christmastime, oh this is maybe 15 or 20 years ago, we used to deliver Christmas baskets to elderly ladies or even a family, so they wouldn’t have to come and carry it out,” remembered Larry, noting deliveries were made as far away as Garden.

While the Gladstone St. Vincent de Paul does not provide food deliveries anymore, the Conference makes sure that those in need still get as much assistance as possible.

“If somebody’s down and out we will definitely make sure that they get the food to the house,” said Irene.

The couple’s involvement in the Conference has become a family affair. Their daughter, Gale St. Martin, works in Client Aide at St. Vincent de Paul and quickly has become a key player in the organization.

“(I’ve been there) a year in April, and I’m the president of the Conference,” said Gale, adding that she had only been working for the Conference for six months before she was selected for the position.

Like the majority of the people working with the Conference, the St. Martins are not paid for the work that they do for the community, and Irene notes even parties for volunteers are not funded by the organization.

“We don’t take funds from St. Vinny. It isn’t right, the people donate money and that’s supposed to go to the people that are hurting, not to pat ourselves on the back,” said Irene.

In addition, the St. Martins want to express that while organization and they themselves are Catholic, some of the other volunteers are not and religion is not considered when assessing an individual’s need.

“That’s never brought up,” said Larry.