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Brian leaves Vinnies in good hands


As Brian Spencer reflects on his past four years as president of the St Vincent de Paul Society in South Australia, he gains no satisfaction from the fact that the organisation’s services have grown significantly over that period.

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Brian Spencer describes as “disturbing” the steady increase in the number of people seeking assistance from one of the State’s largest not-for-profit agencies but at the same time is proud of the way people keep “stepping up” to help others.

The outgoing president of Vinnies is also pleased that the organisation has been able to embark on a process of renewal, following some necessary but at times unpopular restructuring prior to his election as president.

“We went through some tough times and had to restructure,” he says.

“My period has been one of consolidating and starting the renewal process. Now we are in a position financially where we can look at new ways of serving people. Our State Council, CEO David Wark and his team have done a great job in bringing this about.”

He says domestic violence is one issue the Society is looking to respond to through the development of a women’s emergency services program, with a major announcement expected soon.

Another new initiative is the development of a response team to work alongside disadvantaged families and individuals in areas of high unemployment such as Elizabeth. “We want to try and understand how we can help them to take more control of their lives and develop a network of people to support one another,” he explains.

Brian has witnessed an “overwhelming” increase in the number of people seeking assistance from the Migrant and Refugee Centre at Hindmarsh.

While the Federal Government made a “big announcement” about accepting 12,000 refugees from Syria, he says few people would realise how little support they receive after arriving in Australia.
“The Government gives people very few resources so they turn to us, and that’s really stretching our people in terms of numbers and assistance,” he says.

However, Brian says he has been inspired by the people working at the Centre with many refugees returning to volunteer. “You have Christians, Muslims, Hindus, people of different ethnic backgrounds all coming together – it’s a really vibrant mix of people and I really enjoy seeing the way they support one another.”

Much of his time as president has been taken up visiting conferences and regions to look at the issues they face and help them to provide opportunities for new members to join.

“We’ve worked alongside the conferences, looking at how they’re operating, how they welcome new people, what their approach is,” he says.

“Our Vinnies conferences are primarily based around parishes but it’s about getting them to see what might need to change, such as meeting times and the type of roles, so people can fit into the process if they are working or busy.

“They might not be able to do home visits but what else can they do to be involved?”

At the outset, Brian saw the need to increase the involvement of young people, bearing in mind that the Society was founded by university students in Paris, and he says progress has been made through the development of “a dedicated youth group and representation of youth on the State Council”.

Young people are gaining exposure to the Society through conducting buddy days for children and volunteering or work experience in Vinnies Shops, helping out with Fred’s Van and fundraising activities in universities.

“We have the most conference members and volunteers we’ve ever had, which is a good result,” says Brian.

But he acknowledges that more needs to be done to attract younger members and the Society has recently recruited a dedicated coordinator of school groups, including Mini Vinnies at primary level and secondary students involved in food and clothing drives.

Brian says Vinnies has been doing “a lot of thinking about our relationship with people” and the core values of the Society which is reflected in a change in the language used to describe the people it assists.

He wrote a paper about using the term ‘companions’ which has been backed by the national council and widely embraced.

As for his own ‘companion’, his wife Lyn, he is grateful for her support, without which he couldn’t have fulfilled the role.

“It can be very demanding, time-wise…but being with people who share your values and live them out makes it all real and fulfilling,” he says.
“I’ve seen so many people who I’ve thought, ‘gee whizz they’re good’!”

As for the future, the father of four plans to stay out of the way of the new State president Cathy Beaton to enable her to take her own direction. He and Lyn will head overseas to southern France and Scotland to rekindle family ties – and are also hoping to travel to Shanghai to watch Port Adelaide play football.


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