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Simulation helps volunteers aiding poor ‘to walk a mile in their shoes’

Thomas J. Abbate, CEO and executive director of

Thomas J. Abbate, CEO and executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Bethpage Credit: Howard Schnapp

Some say to really understand the poor, you must walk in their shoes, so Long Island’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, based in Bethpage, trains its volunteers through poverty simulation exercises, said executive director and CEO Thomas Abbate. Many people know the society by its Christmas toy drives, but each year it helps more than 200,000 people on Long Island, spending more than $7 million in aid and assistance.

Part of the group’s funding comes from its thrift stores in Garden City and Huntington, and it works through 1,300 volunteers who visit the poor in their homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The organization can help with mortgage payments, heating costs, food from its 40 food pantries, furniture, job training and drug rehabilitation. It recently opened a shelter for men coming out of prison to help them transition back into society.

Abbate, 59, began his retail career in high school as Christmas help, and rose through the ranks at E.J. Korvette’s, which merged with Gertz and, later, Sterns. After working 13 years as St. Vincent de Paul’s director of stores, he was promoted to CEO and executive director in 2012.

How are things different when you visit the poor at their homes?

We find out the real needs. We’ll see the place they live in. And a lot of people don’t ask for things. We’ll walk in and say, “It’s cold in here.” [They’ll say,] “Well, I can’t afford oil.” We’ll add that to the list. We’ll say, “You have two kids sleeping in one bed; you need another bed.” So by doing the home visit, we feel people open up a little more, and we get a lot more of their needs than they usually bring forward themselves.

How do you train volunteers to do home visits?

We do spiritual training because we are a Catholic organization, training on how to approach people, and a poverty simulation where they go through a day living as a person in need.

Explain the poverty simulation?

You break volunteers into groups, and they have assigned roles: mother, father, kid. And then we have the [Department of Social Services] set up; food banks, and you have to get your kids to school and [deal with] all the dilemmas that people go through, day in and day out . . . getting to DSS; finding food. And [we say] here’s all the money you have, are you going to pay the rent? Are you going to pay the heat? Are you going to buy food? And it’s a very interesting day; a lot of people really leave there saying I understand it a little bit better now.

If you could speak directly to neighbors in need on Long Island, what would you say?

If you need help, ask for it, and somebody will be there to cover whatever particular need you may have. There are a lot of organizations and generous people on Long Island.

And to potential donors?

We’ve been operating on Long Island since 1948. We have great people working for us, and all of the money that’s donated stays right here on Long Island. So when you’re donating to us, you’re helping people right here.

How have the faces of those in need changed on Long Island?

When that economic meltdown hit, there were a lot of people in nice houses, families, and unfortunately, things happened. You’re seeing a different group of people. Long Island’s a very expensive place to live. and you can very easily fall into a situation where you might have need for assistance. Most are young families.

Are you seeing anything else surprising?

People in their 20s and their 30s are coming in to volunteer with a lot of enthusiasm. It’s really refreshing to see the younger group coming forward.

Can anyone get involved?

Yes. Catholics can get involved through their church. If you’re not Catholic, call the main office, 516-822-3132.

Name: Thomas Abbate, executive director and chief executive, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Bethpage

What it does: Provides aid to individuals and families experiencing hardship

Budget: $7 million

Employees: 80 full time; 2 part time

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