Sister Helen Vinton, second from left, continues to mentor staff members such as Gabe Schwartzman, left, and welcome visitors such as Julia Sampson and Keith Richards, right, to Southern Mutual Help Association.Families in coastal Louisiana have suffered greatly.
Families in coastal Louisiana have suffered greatly. Devastating hurricanes. Oil spill disasters. The ongoing impact of climate change. Many forms of injustice. In the face of these struggles, Sister Helen Vinton and the work of Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA) have provided an extraordinary source of blessing.
Located in New Iberia, Louisiana, SMHA is celebrating 50 years of ministry to these rural communities. Sister Helen has been at SMHA for 40 of those 50 years. “I can tell you that it has not been boring. Forty years ago I was not even sure I would stay,” she said. The first family she met was a Cajun family, and being unfamiliar with the Cajun accent, she had a hard time understanding what they were saying. “Everything was different for me, and different for them, too. In the first few days, though, I was plunged into ‘deep water.’ I was so busy and soon became absorbed by my work.”
Still teaching science
Co-founder, president and CEO of SMHA, Lorna Bourg, says Sister Helen, being a scientist, brought significant skills to SMHA. “When she was appointed by the Louisiana Secretary of Agriculture to the State Pesticide Commission (the first non-industry representative), she was able to use her science background to educate the Louisiana population. She used media and citizen hearings to explain the effects of the misuse of pesticides on health, fisheries and crop yield.
When Sister Helen worked with sugar cane workers, it was an uphill struggle to get them to understand how destructive their methods were. Lorna says, “Helen ultimately is responsible for a major reduction in the burning of cane, the reduction in use and misuse of chemicals and in convincing farmers to devise equipment that would leave healthy organisms in the field instead of burning into the air.”
Sister Helen said, “I have great pride in what Southern Mutual has accomplished. A passion for justice and commitment to women’s leadership are at the heart of our organizational culture these past 50 years. Our hallmarks have been innovation, an investment approach to building community and taking on the challenges and unjust systems in education, health care and housing that nobody else was addressing.
Also, we bring an international perspective and global lessons learned to local work on the ground.”
Sister Helen Vinton and Southern Mutual Help Association President and CEO Lorna Bourg at the Whitney Plantation and Museum where some of SMHA’s early work is featured in an exhibit from August 2018 through August 2019.
The biggest threat
“Currently, climate change is the biggest threat to many Louisiana families, changing how and where they live and make a living,” says Sister Helen. “The most visible impact is of course the increase in both the frequency and the intensity of natural disasters like storms and flooding. The Louisiana coast is eroding at an alarming rate, losing area roughly the size of a football field every hour. Every hour!”
Even a climate-change-induced disaster in other parts of the country, Sister Helen says, can have an impact on Louisiana. Water from the extreme weather and flooding in the Midwest travels down the Mississippi River, bringing flood potential to Louisiana.
Sister Helen meets with SMHA staff member Denise Galatas.
The actions the state is taking to mitigate the impacts of climate change also affect coastal families and communities. Diversions, where fresh river water and the sediment it carries are rerouted to adjacent wetlands, will change the measure of salts in the water and impact fish populations. This will change where fishers can live and work.
Sister Helen founded the 13-state Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (Southern SAWG), which annually brings together 1,300+ farmers to learn sustainable practices from one another. Sister Helen has also served for years on an international board of directors working on world food security. “SMHA received a United Nations award in 1996 due largely to Sister Helen Vinton’s work,” Lorna said.
Sister Helen is the only Sister of Providence in Louisiana. She says she has always known the support of the Sisters of Providence and has never felt lonely. “My ministry here has brought wonderful people into my life and has taken me into communities I never could have imagined, like the Grand Bayou Island in Plaquemines Parish that is the traditional home of the Attakapa-Ishak native people. I think it is one of the most beautiful, peaceful and spiritual places on Earth. I would say that not only have I been absorbed by my ministry, over the years I have become absorbed by Louisiana itself.”
Southern Mutual Help Association: lasting help
For a decade after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, SMHA recovered 1,064 homes, businesses and churches in 1120 villages with 10.5 million dollars, all in private donations.
SMHA responded to the BP oil spill which severely impacted family fishers. SMHA created an “honor loan” program that gave fishers a way to pay their bills in the short term while they could not fish.
SMHA established a permanent Fisher Loan Fund for the long-term sustainability of the industry. This fund was started from the 90% fishers pledged to repay when and if they received a settlement from BP. This fund remains a source of affordable capital for fishers now and in the future.
(Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of HOPE magazine.)