GROUP IS LIVING PROOF THAT CHARITY BEGINS AT YOUR HOMETOWN CHURCH

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DRACUT — Every third Saturday of the month, Dracut’s neediest residents know they can count on the helping hands at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Ste. Marguerite d’Youville Parish Center for their next meal.

The holidays are no exception. The 20 parish volunteers spend weeks preparing dinner baskets along with bags of other goodies to make the Christmas holiday special for families in need.

The shelves on the walls of the pantry are always stocked with nonperishable food items and the people behind the counter take pride in helping others.

“It makes you feel good to help people, especially today when there are so many in need,” said Mary Savard, a volunteer of three years.

The parish center pantry opened on 1340 Lakeview Avenue in 1998, servicing only four families. Now, under the leadership of Bill Sullivan, a 66-year-old retiree from Dracut, an average of 35 families turn to the organization to help make ends meet each month.

“We used to go out to individual homes but now we have so many we just have everyone come to the center once a month,” said Sullivan.

With more than 20 helpers, the Vincentians, as they like to be called, come from all wakes of life. Some are retired, some are active members of the Dracut community, but all serve the same mission; to help those in need.

Most of the food is donated by parish members to the church food box, but some comes from the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and a monthly food drive held by members of the Saint Mary Magdalene Church in Tyngsboro.

“We ask no questions of the people that come to us; we don’t even know if they go to church,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan said he and his group of volunteers become advocates for people who want to turn their lives around. Many are single moms or family members who have lost a job and are in need of a little extra help.

“We go to the houses and talk with people to find out how and if we can help,” he said. “We’ll help with food but also sometimes we help with electricity, heat and rent.”

The goal in helping with unpaid bills is to give people a chance to get back on their feet, according to Sullivan.

“We’ve had people come here for help, turn their lives around and now they are donating back to the program,” he said. “It’s the most rewarding feeling in the world.”

Volunteers can also help people navigate through other available area services like Uplift, a program at the Lowell Council of Saint Vincent de Paul, which can help families make mortgage payments in case of a lost job.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the pantry handed out 54 packages of dinners to needy families. They plan to feed at least 59 families for Christmas.

The Knights of Columbus, Dracut Rotary and Dracut House of Pizza donate the majority of the dinner baskets, while the pantry supplies the turkey or hams.

“We’ll draw 45 baskets from the Saint Vincent de Paul Society’s central office in Boston and then we’ll have to come up with 14 more to cover all of the families on our list,” he said.

Sullivan retired after working as a service department supervisor at MITRE Corp. in Bedford for 37 years. He began his volunteer work at the pantry in 1991 as a way to give back to the commumity.

“I really get enjoyment and a satisfaction out of helping somebody,” he said.

The organization receives about 80 calls for help a year and members make 45 house visits a year to needy families.

“It’s amazing the amount of people that donate money and food,” said Sullivan. “It means so much to know that we can help, especially when it’s a worthy cause, someone truly in need.”

Have a story idea? Contact Heidi Smith at 978-970-4653 or e-mail at hsmith@thevalleydispatch.com.