'Calls to SVP have multiplied; it's heartbreaking'
Gillian Buckley counts her blessings when she arrives home every Tuesday night to her three children in Ballincollig, Cork.
As a St Vincent de Paul (SVP) volunteer, she will have just finished visiting the homes of families struggling to stay afloat.
"I always think they are people just like you and me. I look at my children and I know how lucky we are," she says.
After a two-hour meeting with up to 12 other volunteers in Ballincollig, the 41-year-old makes several house calls to people in need of the charity's help.
As Christmas approaches, the volunteers are working their way through local cases referred to them by the SVP, which has taken a record 75,000 phone calls so far this year.
The Irish Independent has partnered the SVP in appealing to our readers to give the charity whatever help it can.
A spokesperson for the charity paid tribute last night to the generosity of readers.
"There has been a big increase in calls and we thank everyone for the support, which is deeply appreciated."
Times are tough for everyone, but they're tougher yet for thousands of vulnerable families, some of whom cannot even heat their homes or provide food for their children.
"You can see the calls have multiplied," says Gillian. "It's actually heartbreaking."
In Ballincollig, just outside Cork city, more than 150 families are getting help over Christmas. When Gillian began volunteering, she estimates the SVP dealt with half that number.
She took on the role in 2009 after seeing the society's Christmas TV advertisement in which a pensioner in a cold home with no food, is given warmth and sustenance through the society's efforts.
Gillian is one of the unsung 10,500 volunteers across Ireland who organise help through local chapters. After calls are filtered through to local areas, the volunteers make a home visit.
Though some training is provided, little can prepare them for the reality of what people are facing in their daily lives: fear, overwhelming debts, a loss of hope, and hunger.
Some of the calls for help are from people unable to pay mortgages and bills and the society does its best to help with advice on payment plans and negotiating over debts. But it cannot possibly pay the bills for anyone and an aim of the organisation is to help people to help themselves.
A recent case of Gillian's involved a woman who had no food for the children's breakfast. When she called, the woman was watering down the milk.
Gillian also has to arrange her visits to be as discreet as possible. "People are very embarrassed. They want you to call when children are in bed, when neighbours are out, so nobody knows the desperate situation that they may be in."
TOMORROW IN WEEKEND REVIEW: 'I WORKED FOR THE SVP – AND WAS JUST WEEKS AWAY FROM ASKING FOR HELP'