Despite a presence on a highly visible corner on the city's south side and a sprawling 50,000-square-foot store, St. Vincent de Paul of Waukesha County remains one of Waukesha's best kept secrets, the organization's administrators say.
Perhaps area residents are unaware that the group is celebrating its fifth anniversary of the store at 818 W. Sunset Drive, and its 10th anniversary at its Oconomowoc location, on May 6. Or maybe they haven't heard about St. Vincent de Paul's plethora of self-funded ministries aimed at helping the needy.
The Waukesha County stores are overseen by the Waukesha Council of St. Vincent de Paul, made up of 24 groups with parishes in each community in the county. The council and parishes serve the poor not only through the thrift stores, but with home visits, meal programs, food pantry support, a jail ministry, rent and utility assistance and other services.
Regardless of whether they receive public recognition for their work or not, Julie McIntyre, Rod Colburn and Zoltan Eszes all said they believe in St. Vincent de Paul's mission and find meaning in their service.
'It's a great place to do community service and give back,' McIntyre said. And she would know; she's worked with the organization, in some capacity, since 1986.
The group's history stretches back much farther than that. It started with Frederic Ozanam, who founded the organization in 1833 to assist the poor living in the slums of Paris. Today, the group serves those with physical, spiritual, social and economic needs in the spirit of confidentiality, and although the society is a Catholic organization, it provides assistance regardless of religious beliefs.
The first Waukesha store opened in 1954 — the same year St. Vincent de Paul was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, McIntyre said — at 305 E. Main St., just east of downtown. In May 2011, the society moved into its new, considerably larger digs at the southwest corner of Sunset Drive and Prairie Avenue.
The society wanted to open a store in western Waukesha County, a comparatively affluent area, because there is evidence of an increasing need there for assistance to lower-income people.
'We operated there (on Main Street) for a long time and eventually kind of outgrew it,' said Eszes, the Waukesha council's board president. 'This opportunity (to move) came up and we jumped at it.'
The Oconomowoc store opened in May 2006 in a former Piggly Wiggly on Brown Street and has recently been undergoing extensive renovations, said John Erdmann, an Oconomowoc resident who was a member of the parish group there that pushed for opening the store.
'The (Oconomowoc) store in the past year has had a total transformation,' he said. '(The anniversary) is almost like a grand reopening.'
That store was opened with 18,000 square feet of retail space, Erdmann said, to help bolster St. Vincent de Paul's revenue stream, given that, at the time, the Waukesha store was not making a lot of money — a considerable problem because revenue from the retail stores is used to fund the organization's aid programs.
The plan worked.
As soon as the Oconomowoc store opened, 'We instantly were able to start receiving income to help people in need,' Erdmann said.
That trend has continued, Eszes said.
'Sales have just taken off' at the Waukesha store, he said.
In the fiscal year that ended last September, St. Vincent de Paul contributed $1,376,601 of direct services to the needy, according to information provided by the organization.
The organization's volunteers made more than 7,000 home or jail visits during that same time period, and disbursed aid that included food, school supplies and mentoring services to more than 10,400 people in Waukesha County.
The stores, in 2015, also provided $154,857 in clothing, furniture and household goods to those in need through a voucher program.
Eszes said, moving forward, St. Vincent de Paul is hoping to partner, or expand existing partnerships, with other local charitable organizations to help reduce a possible duplication of aid programs and 'make the services overall to the needy more effective.'
More than a store
'I think most people think of St. Vincent de Paul as just a store that they may have passed by,' Eszes continued. 'I don't think they realize all the other work that we do.'
He said all that behind-the-scenes aid work is the 'secret' of St. Vincent de Paul.
'Our customers and our donors are a part of (that work),' McIntyre added. 'They don't realize the impact they have, and the success we have, because of their shopping and donating.
'They play a big, integral role in what we do.'
Colburn, the council's director of business operations, summed up just how important that role is with a popular tagline in the Waukesha store: 'What you purchase today changes tomorrow for someone in need.'
Wanting to give back
McIntyre, Eszes and Colburn all said they got involved with St. Vincent de Paul because they believed in the society's mission and wanted to give back.
'Back in the day, I just wanted to do something and give back a little bit,' McIntyre said.
She started out volunteering part-time with the organization, but steadily grew more involved and eventually became the Waukesha store manager and later took on her current role as executive director.
'I was just given great opportunities,' she added, 'and found a love.'
Eszes said a combination of things drove him to his work with St. Vincent de Paul.
'One is to actually be able to meet the people you're helping rather than just cutting a check and sending it off. Also,' he said, 'I felt it important that people be empowered to help themselves if possible.'
Eszes said he was also inspired by the cooperative attitude of his parish group — from St. James Catholic Church in Menomonee Falls — which was just beginning its work with St. Vincent de Paul's when he joined in 2006.
Colburn, who has worked for St. Vincent de Paul since November 2012, said he fell in love with the organization's mission while working for Goodwill.
'Every time I came in here I heard another story about how (St. Vincent de Paul) helped someone,' he said. 'I just made a decision one day that this was a better place for me than where I was at.
'I'm blessed to be able to look in the mirror every morning and know that I work for someone that makes a difference. Not many people get to do that. I'm lucky.'