Sister Helen Vinton: environmental virtuoso in the bayous
Sister of Providence Helen Vinton (formerly Sister Helen Jean) credits “a deep passion for the land” for her life’s journey from the Sand Hills of Nebraska to the Louisiana bayous where she ministers today as senior executive officer and life quality director for the New Iberia, Louisiana, based Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA).
Her mission, she says, is to empower the multicultural communities of farm families and fisher folks in the parishes (counties) of lower Plaquemines, Lafourche and Terrebonne, Iberia and Vermillion in Louisiana with principles of sustainability.
“Sustainability is the ability to move forward without depleting the land or the resources of organizations or communities,” says Sister Helen. “It is having good reasons for innovating by listening to needs and responding appropriately.”
Sister Helen says growing up on a ranch in the panhandle region of Nebraska sparked her deep love and concern for the land. “The ranch was important. It was our sustenance and source of income. I grew to love the land, especially its aroma after a rainstorm,” Sister Helen reminisced.
In the fall of 1951, she arrived at Saint Mary of-the-Woods for college. “I was overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the campus. I was struck by the diversity in the land, its lakes and ravines. I heard quotes from Mother Theodore’s Journals and Letters that deepened my love for the land,” Sister Helen said.
Biology to ecology to stewardship
As a biology teacher in the 1960s at Ladywood (later Ladywood-St. Agnes) High School in Indianapolis, encouraged by her principal, Sister Ann Casper (formerly Sister Kenneth Ann), Sister Helen developed an ecology curriculum for her students. From there, Providence led her to the staff of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, where she assisted in the conference’s efforts to promote “sustainable agriculture and responsible stewardship in response to environmental problems caused by the intensification and industrialization of agriculture.”
Sister Helen first learned of the SMHA mission “to build healthy and prosperous rural communities in Louisiana” while visiting a friend there in 1980. The chief executive officer, Lorna Bourg, was so impressed by Sister Helen’s openness and willingness to listen and learn from the land and the people assisted by SMHA, that she offered her a position. That position has stretched into three decades of organizing people and programs to improve the lives of those in Louisiana communities and people across 12 southeastern states and Puerto Rico.
“Sister Helen is truly one of the most amazing community organizers with whom I have ever worked. The threads in her life and her Sister of Providence perspective on breaking boundaries and creating hope have made her a perfect fit for SMHA,” Bourg said.
Sister Helen has collaborated in many projects with lasting impact. Among others, in 1992, she cofounded the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG). She serves on the board of directors for SMHA and its affiliate Southern Mutual Financial Services, Inc. She was the first private citizen and woman ever named to the Louisiana State Pesticide Commission.
Following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav in 2008 and the 2010 BP oil disaster, Sister Helen assisted fisher and farm families to recover from losses to their farms, boats and other sources of livelihood. She and SMHA created an honor loan program based on the ‘personal capital’ of the borrower.
“We offer loans to fishers and farmers who have little collateral but who we trust will repay what they borrow as their businesses become more profitable. So far, it’s been working, with some borrowers even repaying larger sums than they received. We are trying to raise $25 million to underwrite the fund and its administration to assist families in five southeastern coastal states. Our goal for Louisiana from that total is $5 million and, so far, we have raised about half that amount. Using the fund also helps the farmer or fisher family to gain standing with the banks for when they need larger loans to buy animals or boats or repair equipment.”
A deep love
Currently, Sister Helen is a leader on a team helping to redevelop the historically African-American west end of New Iberia. Sister Helen and SMHA focus on “rebuilding the spirit and pride of a community, not just buildings.” In February, 2015, the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, recognized her work, presenting her a 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Award.
“I have always had and think I will have a deep love for the land until the day I am part of the earth myself,” Sister Helen said.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)