Hillsboro’s farmland and neighborhoods are Oregon picture perfect, wisps of mist framing comfortable farmhouses, copses of woods and tidy homes with well-kept gardens. So the shopping carts, filled with plastic garbage bags lined along a street and dotted here and there, are jarring, as is the man who lies collapsed on steps leading up from the sidewalk in a comfortable neighborhood.

“What’s most surprising are the number of homeless,” agree Dick Hertel, a volunteer at St. Matthew Parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Conference, and Sandy Zajdel, president of the conference.

Zajdel says that a decade ago the conference handed out a handful of lunches for the homeless every week. Now it’s 35 to 40 sack lunches a day, except for Wednesdays, when the Blue Bus comes to the parish and St. Vincent de Paul volunteers use its stoves to cook up 80 to 200 hot lunches for the area needy.

This conference, founded in 1969 on the centennial of the founding of the Portland St. Vincent de Paul Council, had within 30 years grown to be the largest in the Portland Council in terms of food and beds delivered.

Today the conference does even more. An average of 20 volunteers a day, Monday through Friday, staff the food pantry and drive the truck and two vans needed to collect donated food from Costco, Whole Foods, Winco and other outlets. They distribute between 500 and 600 boxes of food every month.

So far this year, with two months still to be counted, they’ve helped 6,435 families with food, with some of those families consisting of nine or more members. They’ve also distributed more than $82,000 in rent assistance and $50,000 in utility assistance.

The conference served 49,248 people last year.

“I love it,” says Zajdel, who admits she was drafted to be president. She has worked for the church all her life but says this has been the most fulfilling. “It’s energizing,” she says.

For Hertel, the care that the neediest show one another also touches him. He was alerted to a potential problem situation earlier this month, but when he investigated he found one of the homeless men helping another out with a beard trim.

Zajdel says an important part of her job is reminding volunteers that their Vincentian mission is to see the face of Christ in everyone they serve. “And to be the face of Christ,” she adds.

It was Dick Hertel’s father, Raymond Hertel, who founded the conference. “I helped my dad for years, but now that I’ve started volunteering regularly I’m in awe of all the situations that come up, and how they get resolved,” says Dick Hertel. “Sometimes they come in without hope. I can’t imagine how humbling it must be.”

In addition to the food distribution, the conference can point people in the right direction for assistance, from food stamps to shelters for victims of domestic violence.

That morning, Hertel had seen a client in tears. A volunteer simply said, “We’ll help.”

Twenty or more volunteers help out every day, Monday through Friday.

Zajdel thinks the strong base of volunteers is partly because of the parish’s tradition of volunteering with St. Vincent de Paul, but also because of the strong support from the clergy here.

Because so many people help out, it means that volunteers can get time off over the year — meaning that vacations are still possible. “Although we do have shortages, between illnesses and traveling,” says Hertel. “But this morning three new volunteers walked in the door.”

On another morning that same week, seven new volunteers arrived.

Foy Gonzàlez, a member of St. Anthony Parish in Forest Grove, says he began volunteering when he was out of a job and had some extra time after dropping his children off at St. Matthew School. “The experience here, working with the older people, is very nice,” he says. “They are all so positive, always with a smile.”

Amanda McGraw, 90, says the work keeps her young. She also volunteers as a lector and eucharistic minister.

In addition to St. Matthew parishioners (probably 80 percent of whom are retirees, estimates Zajdel) members of the Latter Day Saints community, students from St. Matthew School, and clients and a supervisor come from a nearby brain trauma rehabilitation house might be helping out. Some local corporations encourage employees to volunteer, and it’s often those same large businesses that provide matching funds for donations.

“We’d fall on our faces if it weren’t for the generosity of parishioners, not just giving time but also money,” says Zajdel.

A number of volunteers at the conference are quietly working to solve other aspects of the needs in Hillsboro and the rolling countryside around them. The conference members have reached out to civic leaders, the police and others in the community to advocate for solutions to homelessness and for addressing the needs of the homeless.

The volunteers know they’re doing good — both for those they’re helping and for their own relationship with God. “Because you see God everywhere here,” says Zajdel.

Kristen Hannum