A mass exodus of around 17 long-term volunteers at the Byron Bay St Vincent De Paul centre is being downplayed by management, despite claims of poor treatment and a change in management direction.
An increase in the cost of clothing and apparel appears to be also a factor in the fallout.
Confirmation of the exodus has been provided by former vollies Bill and Suzanne Wallington, Janet Kershaw, Cathy Stavert, Graeme Gould and wife Lien Dao, Bruce Catlin, Alana Vallentine, Josie Altamura and Lynn (last name withheld).
Bill Wallington told The Echo the management initially sacked about five or six volunteers, ‘and made life unpleasant for the rest’.
‘Long-term volunteers were accused of being petty thieves and lining their own pockets. There was never any proof provided of those claims.’ Mr Walling-ton said he had been involved with the charity for 30 years and worked in the shop for five years. ‘There was no recognition of the work these volunteers did. There should have been more respect given,’ he said.
Shock price rise
Former volunteer Cathy Stavert told The Echo issues arose in June after the store started selling women’s dresses between $45 and $125 and handbags for $45.
She says she had ‘strips torn off me’ from all levels of management for asking about the price rise.
Complaints about management behaviour also fell on deaf ears, she says. A complaints determination by St Vincent De Paul’s resolution project officer, as de-scribed to The Echo, says the matter of bullying and discrimination was ‘investigated and is now concluded.’
No information about what action, if any, was taken owing to the ‘confidentiality of others involved.’
Another former volunteer Jane Millar’s claims were previously published in The Echo’s letters pages. Ms Millar wrote, ‘All [dismissed volunteers] were devastated and felt totally disrespected,’ adding that long-term locals stopped coming to the shop.
Yet a spokesperson from the organisation has told The Echo the seventeen long-term volunteers ‘left of their own accord,’ and that, ‘The long-term relation-ship between volunteers and shop managers has in-variably been excellent, with few complaints ever received.’
St Vincent De Paul also sent a press release last week announcing a new manager for the shop and outlined the assistance they provide to those most in need.
A spokesperson for the charity said that the organisation is trying to implement a nationwide strategy for its 240 stores.
‘The key is to increase revenue,’ they said, ‘So we can increase the services we provide. Some volunteers at the store strongly resisted the new direction of management and didn’t come on board with how we run our shops.’
‘The Byron store has burnt through three managers in four years,’ they said.
The spokesperson rejected the suggestion that higher prices for some items denies those on low incomes the ability to buy nice clothing.
‘Sixty to seventy per cent of all our stock is still at basic prices,’ they said, adding that these prices reflect the entire region, not just Byron Shire.
According to the St Vincent De Paul Society, the three shops in Byron Shire – Mullumbimby, Brunswick Heads and Byron Bay – are among the most successful of St Vincent de Paul’s 29 shops between Tweed Heads and Port Macquarie.
The spokesperson said, ‘The issues raised by these volunteers were not ignored, nor were the individuals personally disrespected. The Society is a caring organisation and to act otherwise would be contrary to our ethos. Many long-term volunteers continue to work in the shop. The shop currently has around 20 volunteers, and there are regular expressions of interest to join the team. The previous manager left to pursue other interests and her departure was not related to any complaints raised.’
Despite management claiming Byron is among the most successful stores in the region, former volunteer Cathy Stavert says she and other volunteers were ac-cused of underperforming.
‘We were also told we couldn’t give away anything free under any circumstances, even if the homeless or disadvantages came in wet and desperate.’
‘Even items with holes in them were not to be given to them for free. We had suggested to put out a free box for these items under these circumstances, but this was not allowed either. I can recall one very sad occasion, when an underprivileged local came into the shop all wet asking for a blanket. The manager said that would be $3. it was obvious he couldn’t pay, and was told it wasn’t for free. So another volunteer said, “Give it to him and I’ll be happy to pay for it myself”. After the issues I raised with management, out of my concerns, I was told to go home for a month. If I was to return, I would need to make an appointment and would need to sign something.’
Ms Stavert rejected management’s claim that the Byron store ‘burnt through three managers in four years’
‘This is not true,’ she said. ‘In the 16 years that I was volunteering, the manager that has just left was the first employed paid manager. All previous manager were volunteers or day coordinators.’
‘Our services have not been recognised, we still haven’t received a thank-you.
‘We were told that visitors from Sydney commented that our store was selling goods too cheaply; our comments were that they come from Sydney and are able to holiday in Byron Bay but they don’t live in the community. This is Byron Bay and people are re-ally doing it tough and cannot afford to shop here now with these prices and feel they are being discriminated against.
‘Vinnes are showing a lack of compassion.’
Co-ordinator sent home
Ex-volunteer and day co-ordinator from 2012 to 2018, Josie Altamura told The Echo she was ‘sent home for a four- to six-week break.’
‘It’s yet to be shown where the value or agenda to drive revenue, to capitalise on limited volunteer goodwill, and to commercialise at any cost to staff satisfaction and sense of community, appears in the Vinnie’s Code of Conduct – a document that all members at all levels have sworn to adhere to.’
‘The regional management appear to be working hard to undercut the values that have historically been the calling-card of Vinnie’s, as the recent loss of long-term volunteers indicates. Nor has it been shown that revenue has increased to any noticeable degree from the highly controversial re-pricing initiatives, the stealth corporatism, and the disconnect from community donations (over-the-counter only).
‘Neither has it been established that enacting non-transparent (transparency being another Value of Vinnie’s) policy changes upon staff with little or no explanation, minimal introduction periods, and a discouragement of discussion of these changes, has improved volunteer sign-ups, community satisfaction or direct assistance to the needy.
‘It comes of no surprise that disenchantment with the organisation as a whole, expressed in this case by volunteer walk-outs, is a consequence of an untested, unscrupulous commercialisation initiative that is antithetical to the Vinnie’s name.’
Huge economic gap
Another ex-volunteer Lynn (last name withheld) told The Echo, ‘If Byron Bay is ‘one of the best performing in the region, then why were we told that we were “underperforming,” and why the huge changes without consultation? Not talking to the longstanding volunteers was so disrespectful. Individuals were most definitely personally disrespected – I was – so were customers! [Some were] yelled at in the street, in fact. Many stories came back to the shop and other op shops talked to me.’
‘For me personally, I’m “wound up” about the whole Vinnies bad taste. I’m really glad that this whole thing has been taken up by The Echo and that community is finally seeing the side of the volunteers.
‘First, not all the volunteers are elderly. Quite a few have felt the benefits from the Vinnies within their own life and others just want to support their community through the Vinnies. It also became a semi-social outlet for some volunteers.
‘We are all aware of the huge economic gap here in Byron and know that some members of this community are at a financial disadvantage – they need to be able to purchase good quality items at a reduced price. Volunteers know the people who are struggling and the new prices were not affordable to most of these people. Since the new manager, they have reduced, so there is already a backtrack.
‘When I made a comment about the high prices, I was told that the people who donate “quality” clothing expect the Vinnies to get as much as they can for the item. I made the comment that I thought when one gives something away, they relinquish it and let it go unconditionally, otherwise it is not a “donation”.
‘I said that the higher prices were just enabling people who could afford expensive clothing to get them at a bargain price. By allowing the greater community to enjoy a piece of clothing that they would never ordinarily afford – it gives poorer people pleasure.
‘Being poor is inherently stressful: maybe that’s a new piece of clothing that they may not usually buy for themselves or anyone else. I know customers bought gifts at the Vinnies,’ Lynn said.
Increase revenue to increase services
‘The key is to increase revenue,’ Vinnies management told The Echo, so they can ‘increase the services we provide’.
But Lynn questions this motivation.
‘Is the Vinnies only a money making enterprise? Poor old ‘St Vincent de Paul’, I think I just saw him turn over in his grave.
‘I understand that the Vinnies “provides assistance for those in need” through programs such as breakfast at schools. What about those families whose children are in need who don’t attend the specific schools?
‘Through the shop, we were able to assist with clothing and comfort items immediately, without the need to go through ‘the system’ and having to bare their personal stories. Perhaps some families “in need” are too proud to attend a conference and just need a little occasional boost with things and money saved for food. The long-term volunteers knew these people and families doing it tough.
‘Management claim the society is “a caring organisation and to act otherwise would be contrary to our ethos.” Oh yeah?
Rough sleeper refused blankets
‘After a long bout of rain, a guy – obviously poor – needed some dry blankets and clothing. I was told that I couldn’t give him anything, in fact not to discount any items and that he should go through conference and “fill out the right papers”. I didn’t know if he had, but he needed the items then. Conference is not there every day.
‘During winter, a fellow came rushing into the shop one day and put on a jumper. It was actually a woman’s style. He looked at me on the register and called out: “I’ll come back and pay you soon. Four thousand dollars!”
‘He rushed back out of the shop. A customer had seen the whole incident and we glanced at each other, shrugged and had a giggle. [A former manager] also saw this and opened the front door and called to the man to stop. He stopped and turned to her as he was in the middle of the road, then continued. She yelled to him that he could not have the jumper and that he was a thief and not welcome to come back to the shop. The customer then offered to pay for the item and was told that was not the point, people cannot just have stuff without paying.’
‘I wonder how many times the police had been called, over the period of time before [the former Vinnies manager] and how many times during their regime? Judging from her stories, they called them frequently.
Complete disrespect for community
‘Another time, [the former manager] threatened to call them on an obviously emotionally disturbed man. He was at the back door needing a shirt. Another volunteer and I were talking to him. [the former Vinnies manager] had come through from the shop after sending him into the street. They tore out through the back door and continued to yell at him in the laneway, telling him never to return that he was not welcome. Another volunteer knew the man and said he was harmless. She looked at me and said, “I could have defused that.” I said, “I could have given him a shirt”.
‘In the last week I was there, a guy needed to sit on a chair for a couple of minutes. Another volunteer asked me to watch him for a second while she filled up his water bottle. He did not smell of alcohol, was cleanly dressed and quiet. We were both told off by [the former Vinnies manager] that it was none of our business and she just about lifted him from the chair and took him outside the front door. He came back a couple of minutes later for his hat and she stopped him and told him not to return. I knew where his hat was and gave it to him.’
’So not only were the volunteers disrespected, I have seen on several occasions complete disrespect for the community. Those who were are supposedly here to serve.’