This week is National Youth Week in Australia, and one of the country’s most well-known charities is using the opportunity to celebrate the “growing number of younger people who enthusiastically give their time and expertise to help others”.
“This year in particular, we recognise the role of young volunteers – that often unsung cohort of 28,500 people under the age of 40 – who make up more than a third of our volunteer base,” said Jacob Miller, National Vice President of Youth for the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia.
“Young people from primary school age to their late 30s are in our shops, in our soup vans, talking to people experiencing isolation and disadvantage, and taking up senior leadership roles.
“Nationally, seven of our advisory committees are led by young people, with more than 60 individuals shaping how our organisation responds to public policy challenges of the day.
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“Young people are not the future of the [St Vincent de Paul] Society, they are the here and now – without their contribution Vinnies Australia would be a very different organisation.”
Miller said young people are able to lead new ways of responding to local community needs, particularly in the face of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and bushfires, flood and other natural disasters.
When some talk about young people in Australian contemporary society, the words “volunteer spirit” rarely appear. But Vinnies sees young people serving those less fortunate every day. Even more impressively, this has always been the case, even in the earliest days of the charity’s formation.
“The past 12 months have showcased the adaptability, innovation and forward-thinking spirit of our young people – and their connection to the founder’s mission to make positive change, even in the face of significant challenges,” said Miller.
“A young Frédéric Ozanam founded the Society on his 20th birthday and that spirit of youth is thriving in the Society today.”
Born in French-occupied Milan on 23 April, 1813, young Spaniard Ozanam founded St Vincents in 1833 in Paris, when he was a university student.
Ozanam was inspired by the legacy of the famous French saint of the poor, and decided to name the Society after him.
Having had to walk through the poorer suburbs on his way to university lectures each day, Ozanam became deeply moved at the hopeless state of families left without the support of their breadwinners after an epidemic of cholera swept through Paris in 1832. Up to 1200 people were killed each day.
“In former times Christianity worked wonders, but what is it doing for mankind now?”
Yet it was reportedly “the taunt of an anti-religious opponent in a debating society founded by the students that stung him to action”.
“You are right, Ozanam, when you speak of the past!” his opponents jeered. “In former times Christianity worked wonders, but what is it doing for mankind now? And you, who pride yourself on your Catholicity, what are you doing now for the poor? Show us your works.”
So, on April 23, 1833, Ozanam and friends met together to discuss how they could assist the poor.
Their first deliberate act of service happened after the meeting when Ozanam and his flatmate took the remainder of their winter wood supply and gave it to a widow. The group adopted the name The Society of St Vincent de Paul,after the Catholic Patron Saint of Christian Charity.
Together, they sought the wisdom of Sister Rosalie Rendu, a Daughter of Charity who was visiting poorer families, and met weekly to plan how they would serve.
On September 8, 1853, 40-year-old Ozanam died of consumption, having given two decades of service to others.
Today, St Vincent de Paul’s Society in Australia consists of 60,000 members and volunteers who operate on the ground, through more than 1,000 groups located in local communities across the country.