We were very happy with our jobs, but something was missing. We felt we had to do something that gave more depth to our days. We had a connection with these mountains and now we are enjoying a great adventure.
The scenery in Wyoming County in southern West Virginia with its steep mountains that stretch up to the sky on both sides of the Guyandotte River is simply breathtaking. The people who call it home are friendly and welcoming. It was those attributes that spoke to Arnie and Kathy Simonse.
They first came to the area with a group of Catholic vounteers back in the 1980s. The Simonses brought their five children (two biological and three adopted) to these Appalachian Mountain communities for one or two weeks each summer during their summer break from their Maryland schools.
“We were a middle-class suburban family,” Arnie said. “We wanted to show our kids how blessed we were, and we should not take things for granted. They needed to know not everyone lived as we did.”
Year after year the family would make their annual pilgrimage, but once their youngest child went off to college in 1999 the Simonses made a life changing decision. They packed up their home in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and moved to Pineville, WV.
“We were very happy with our jobs, but something was missing,” said Arnie.
“We felt we had to do something that gave more depth to our days,” Kathy said. “We had a connection with these mountains and now we are enjoying a great adventure.”
Soon after arriving the two found themselves running the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) Center in Pineville, and later the Itman Warehouse in Mullens. Both locations provide much needed assistance to locals.
The county has seen a deep decline in population in the last three decades. In the 1980s the population in the area was about 50,000 people. Today, Wyoming County has less than 21,000. The main reason is loss of coal and skilled trade jobs.
The Society of SVdP and its members (or Vincentians) provide an endless list of services to help the needy and distressed. Whether it be to help fix a roof, pay a utility bill, provide furnishings or food, or other in-kind act the society like its patron saint believe, “Charity is infinitely inventive.”
Arnie Simonse serves as the president of the West Virginia Society of SVdP.
“He exhibits the spirit of St. Vincent in his daily works and finding Christ in the poor,” said Bob Hart, vice president of the state organization. He said the couple aren’t just handing out food they are pr
Last year the Simonses and their volunteers helped families put in 100 gardens with vegetable plants; and helped install and stock 30 chicken coups.
“We will help anyone, but we tell them ‘let’s work together’ that way we build them up and help them be accountable,” Kathy Simonse said. “We help them restore their pride and self-sufficiency as much as possible.”
Through the SVdP Center, 75-100 home repairs are completed each year.
“We like to get the homeowner involved if they are physically able,” Arnie Simonse said. “Therefore, we are working together and actually learning from each other.”
Self-worth is important to the well-being of a person, he said. Simonse, who has a PhD in Social Work, and was a professor at Mountain State University in Beckley until it closed in 2013. He has taught his students and now his volunteers about what he calls “poverty induced depression.”
“It’s a depression specific to those who have no hope, no job, no real place to go,” he said. “You have to try to understand people in order to help them. Heck, I’m still learning about myself.”
He said you find a lot out about yourself when you are working with people who have fallen on hard times.
“At any given moment WE could be in their shoes,” he said.
On the fourth Friday of each month the Itman Food Pantry in Mullens distributes more than 500 boxes of food and household items.
“Our doors open at 10 a.m., but we have had people come as early as 3:30 a.m. to be the first in line.
The pantry gives out both perishable and non-perishables. The perishables include meat.
“We might get in cases of pork loin, but that may total only 50. So only the first 50 families get that meat. For a growing family waiting six-and-a-half hours is worth it,” he said.
There are a group of 35 people who volunteer to keep the Itman Warehouse in Mullens up and running. The estimated annual cost is $85,000. Those funds are raised by local churches, grants, “and our friends from back in the Washington, D.C. area who care enough to help out folks they don’t even know.”
The SVdP Center operates on a $110,000 budget. It is funded through grants and SVdP conference resources, Catholic parishes and individuals outside of the area.
The center helps with utility bills to avoid shut offs, disperses infant formula, and helps with home repairs.
“We are doing what we like to do – help others as Christ would,” he said. “It is the most rewarding and frustrating task,” he said with a chuckle. “You get to know these people. You want to help them. It becomes frustrating, though when you know a family who needs a new sofa and chair, but our warehouse doesn’t have any. It’s hard to get big furniture items readily available. We are so remote. We are a long drive from the other St. Vincent de Paul Societies. Not many groups are willing and able to drive a truck full of those big items all the way down here. It’s a huge undertaking.”
But like the lifelong residents of the area that seclusion is what makes Wyoming County their happy place.
When Kathy isn’t at the warehouse or working as co-director of the St. Vincent de Paul Center, she is teaching music classes at three Wyoming County elementary schools three days a week – for free!
“She won’t ever brag. She refuses to collect a paycheck from them,” Arnie said. “She considers her voice and love of music as a gift, so she wants to share it.”
“I love singing with the kids,” Kathy said. “Their faces light up. They are happy. We truly live in the moment and have a wonderful time. They are such good kids. The best part is they make me happy and share their energy with me so I can do what I do (in the school and in the community).”
“This is the most wonderful place to live,” Arnie Simonse said. “It has been our ‘Almost Heaven’ now for about 20 years. We wouldn’t live anywhere else. The people here are beautiful. Everybody knows everybody. They speak and say hello. They make time for you. They take the time to talk. It’s safe and we help each other out.”
To learn more about how you can help the St. Vincent de Paul Center in Pineville or the Itman Warehouse in Mullens, email Arnie Simonse at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter Arnold Simonse, PO Box 1350, Pineville, WV 24874.
To learn more about the St. Vincent de Paul Society check out their website at www.svdpusa.org.