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St. Vincent de Paul leader honored for his work at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Easton, Md.

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For The Dialog

EASTON, Md. — Alex Handy downplays his impact on the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Ss. Peter and Paul Church here.

“What I’ve done is I’ve assembled people who are smarter and more talented than me around me,” said Handy, 72. “My job is to step back and let them do it … to just love my people to death.”

The society has experienced tremendous growth since Handy became president in 2008. The St. Vincent de Paul Society had some 25 to 30 members then and operated a food pantry out of a storage unit, recalled longtime member Kathy Weaver. “If we were giving out 30 bags (of groceries) a week that was a large amount, and there was no thrift center.”

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot  (left) presents the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award to Alex Handy for his work for the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Easton. (Courtesy  Barbara Sauers)
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (left) presents the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award to Alex Handy for his work for the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Easton. (Courtesy Barbara Sauers)

Last year the society distributed more than 9,500 bags of groceries, an average of more than 180 bags a week, with a total value of $722,215.

The pantry now operates out of a 5,000-square-foot society-owned building that includes a thrift store; money raised goes to aid more people. Other services include home visitations to help people with rent, utilities, medical and other bills on an emergency basis, which totaled nearly $70,000, and “Friendly Neighbors” who visit or call those who are homebound.

There are about 300 St. Vincent de Paul Society volunteers, of whom “200 are active on a regular basis,” Handy said.

On April 9, Handy received the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award for Talbot County. The honor, named for a former Maryland governor and comptroller, is given by Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office to someone in each of Maryland’s counties. One of the award’s criteria is “directly aiding the most vulnerable in society.”

That mirrors the society’s goal, but Easton’s work, like every St. Vincent de Paul Society’s, includes a spiritual dimension. Its mission is “To see in those in need the face of Christ.”

Handy is uncomfortable with the spotlight. “To single me out is very awkward. It’s a great honor; I don’t mean to pooh-pooh that. But I also think it’s a great honor for St. Vincent de Paul. That’s how I am able to deal with it.”

Others think Handy personally deserves the award.

Those who receive aid from the society “are happy with the way we operate and happy with how they are treated, fairly and with dignity,” Weaver said. “Alex personifies everything we do.”

“His Catholicism means a great deal to him and I think that’s exhibited in how he interacts with clients and how he interacts with people in general. You can just tell he’s a good man.”

Society vice president John Wafer said Handy is at the thrift center and food pantry when it is open every Tuesday and Saturday. He meets people who come for groceries or to shop, to help assess their needs, and “tries to meet [volunteers] and match them to their best ministry. Being understanding and appreciative with both clients and volunteers is really the key.”

Conditions in Talbot County when Handy became president made the society’s growth necessary. “The financial needs in the community were becoming greater, and the need for food was becoming greater,” Weaver said. A large retirement community provided a pool of potential volunteers.

All it needed was a good leader. Handy filled that role. After a career in advertising and marketing, and running his own business, he moved to the Eastern Shore in 1983 and attended a St. Vincent de Paul meeting. Soon he and his wife of 46 years, Stephanie, were volunteers at the food pantry.

“That was pretty much what I did until I became president in 2008.”

In 2008, after speaking at weekend Masses at Ss. Peter and Paul, a parishioner sent him a note.

“She had been praying to God to show her how she could serve him,” Handy recalled. “Her last line was, ‘Now I know what God is calling me to do.’”

He understood what the woman said, since he also feels called to work with the society.

“This has totally changed my spiritual life and deepened my faith,” he said. “I believe the St. Vincent de Paul Society has had that same impact on many of our volunteers.”

“We have become a very close-knit and supportive family.”