Liam O’Dowd is in his final year of studying Politics and Philosophy, while also taking on the role of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) UCD auditor. His journey from first year to now is a bit of a blur to him, like any wide-eyed fresher, he wanted to be involved in a handful of different societies, but in the end, it was SVP that stuck. While some auditors of large societies take a year out of studying to facilitate the amount of work that is involved, that is not the case for Liam and most students in these roles, and it is very difficult to balance leading a society in the largest university in Ireland while also trying to study.
He tells me that they’ve had a very high turnover in committee this year; he’s one of the only committee members that continued on from last year, with most members graduating. ‘We lost a lot of experience, but it means we’re quite fresh as well, which is nice.’ Despite missing the students who have left, Liam is happily shocked by the interest of new students, ‘We’re doing far too well on engagement this year, we usually take on five OCMs, this year we got 28 applicants and we pretty much gave everyone an interview and the standard of people interviewing was so good.’ It’s a nice start to the year when the auditor’s main complaint is the standard of committee applicants being too high.
The society’s most consistent activity is their ‘Soup Runs’, which have been renamed ‘Street Outreach’. Liam tells me the reasoning behind the renaming is because ‘just giving people food, as we did in the soup run, it’s not effective in actually helping anyone in the long term.’ This is not just a society move, but a wider decision to refocus the activity on providing both food and conversation, but also actively trying to link people to services where they can receive more support. ‘We try to educate our volunteers on all the different services that are available, and all our volunteers carry around contact details for those services.’
Street Outreach is happening three times a week this year, but students need to be trained, approved by the national SVP office and Garda vetted before they can participate, which can be difficult to encourage students to do. ‘It was four times a week last year, but it was difficult to get the people because Garda vetting was so slow.’ Liam recognises that it’s an important process, but can often be a roadblock in maintaining members, ‘it’s not something you just show up and start doing, which is difficult when you’re trying to get new people involved in the charity, but it’s for the best.’ For those who have not yet been vetted, SVP also does Flat Decorating once or twice a weekend, ‘which people don’t need to be vetted or trained for because it’s a non-contact activity.’
Liam has some more activities in the works, like visiting the SVP homeless shelters, sending volunteers to the youth club in Donnybrook and consolidating links with organisations like Sunshine House. They also hold Social Justice meetings every two weeks, where their Social Justice Officer picks a topic for discussion, with the aim of encouraging engagement and awareness on issues like poverty and direct provision.
SVP can also provide support for UCD students that need it. ‘We have a welfare fund, we have our own welfare officer, so people can apply for short-term financial assistance from us, the process usually is that they’ll apply and then be interviewed by our welfare officer and our senior treasurer and they’ll assess it.’
UCD SVP is different to most other societies on campus because it has a dual existence, with the charitable activities on one side and the campus social events on the other. Liam says that they’re increasing their emphasis on social events this year, hosting at least one or two every week; Coffee mornings, BYOB bowling, Techno and Spicebags (there are even whispers of an ABBA and Spicebags evening – You heard it here first folks!). These events are an easy way for students to get involved with the society, before going through the volunteer vetting process.
As a long established society, SVP UCD has a lot of traditions and seasonal events. There’s pride in remembering last years Christmas ‘Genorousitree’ Appeal, that resulted in an entire van full of new gifts purchased by students. The society had aimed to collect gifts for 140 children but received more than double that amount.
Liam reckons the society’s biggest event is the sleep out during Homeless Week, which is coming up this semester in Week 9. It’s a ‘massive awareness campaign and a big fundraiser’ and ‘visually our biggest thing that happens.’ The event is by no means an attempt to imitate the actual experience of homelessness, students can clock out for lectures or coffee breaks, but in terms of visually confronting students with the issue, the sleep out is incredibly effective. Students sleeping on newspaper outside James Joyce library, arguably the most passed spot on campus, are unavoidable.
For Liam, the Sleep Out is a ‘big tradition, which is nice too.’ Though, Liam does want to make sure the society never becomes stale with traditions. ‘I think we should always be constantly reassessing the society to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in the most effective way.’ ‘Soup runs have been going on for so many years, but we can’t just take for granted that this is the right thing to be doing, we need to be constantly refreshing ourselves and what we think the purpose of the society is.’
SVP is one of the unfortunately small number of charitable organisations in Ireland that have not been involved in some form of financial or abuse scandal, and Liam, like most people these days, harbours some conflicted feelings about the bureaucracy of larger charities, ‘The further up you go in the organisation, the further removed you can become from why I became involved in the first place.’ And yet, Liam is confident in his role and the purpose of the society, ‘In my opinion, one of the really important long-term aims of the society is not just the work we do, but we also have to look at what we’re doing for the students, and I think we have to be very aware of the limitations of our society, we can only really help in terms of short-term assistance for people, like having a chat with them on the street or being that safety net, we’re very aware that we’re not saving the world or anything, but if we can get students and young people involved in all of these different social issues, then they can change things further down the line.’
For Liam, it seems like things are all about striking the right balance; between being the auditor and finishing his degree, between the important administrative work, like Garda vetting, and keeping students engaged with the society, and between the social events that students expect from a society and the charitable activities. As we hit the halfway mark of semester one, it looks like he’s getting that balance just right.
By Muireann O’Shea – CoEditor