Building Relationships in Service
It’s an incredibly challenging world for most adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
They’ve outgrown federally mandated public schooling which expires at age 22. There’s not even part-time work for 80 percent. And, typically, there’s little social contact outside of family and a few neighbors. Numerous problems such as depression, loss of skill sets and obesity can develop as a result of the isolation that many experience. However, being included in the local community through volunteer work can help adults with IDD gain a sense of pride and self-esteem while sharpening everyday life skills and developing meaningful friendships.
Helping provide opportunities for “inclusion through volunteerism” for adults with IDD are two first year Ignatian Volunteer Corps members: Maureen Kennedy Barney and Susan McHugh. Susan and Maureen are lead program coordinators for the Trinity Volunteer Corps (TVC). Maureen serves at Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago where the TVC main office is located, while Susan volunteers at their Dominican University location. In addition, both Susan and Maureen help with a variety of occasional TVC special events that strengthen the goals of nonprofit organizations throughout the Chicago region.
As an Ignatian Volunteer serving with TVC two days per week, Susan coordinates undergraduate interns and establishes service opportunities for adults with disabilities known as Trinity Volunteers. “At Dominican University we match Trinity Volunteers with Dominican students—usually psychology majors preparing to work professionally in Occupational Therapy. These Trinity Volunteer-student teams perform a number of tasks around campus such as washing tables in the university cafeteria, scanning documents in the archives, dusting books in the library and gardening outdoors and in the university’s greenhouse. They are also working off campus supporting the mission of community charitable organizations such as the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry.”
Susan uses her networking skills developed over years of service in her community to improve the experience of all stakeholders in this program. For example, last fall she brought in a member of the Rush Hospital Occupational Therapy graduate school faculty to speak to her Dominican undergraduates about next steps in their training. “These kinds of connections are especially important to our TVC interns who are often the first in their families to attend college,” said Susan. “They can really benefit from this type of insight and guidance on post-graduate opportunities.”
It’s equally beneficial to Trinity Volunteers and their families. According to Susan Finn, a member of the TVC Board of Directors and mother of Trinity Volunteer Jackie Finn, “It is amazing to watch the relationships and personal development of both our Trinity Volunteers and their partner students. The university students are learning professional skills in working with individuals who have different learning styles and abilities and Trinity Volunteers like Jackie are having an amazing experience as part of the university community.”
Working out of Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago’s West Loop, Maureen helps coordinate partner volunteering opportunities for 17 Trinity Volunteers some of whom work three days per week in places like the Little Company of Mary Hospital kitchen and others who work only once or twice a year assisting with special events.
“We try to work with each individual Trinity Volunteer and his or her family according to specific needs, interests and desires,” say Marty Kenahan and Greg Hunt, two of the founders of Trinity Volunteer Corps who have siblings born with Down Syndrome. “We realize from our own family experiences that some prospective Trinity Volunteers are limited by the disabilities with which they happen to have been born, and by things as mundane as transportation concerns and other challenges, but we like to dream big and ask what type of volunteer work would most delight him or her then do our best to make that happen.”
One individual dreamed of continuing her involvement in high school theater productions and through TVC is now a member of the Chicago Saints, an organization that provides volunteer ushers for local theaters. Another Trinity Volunteer longed to work with young children and, with the help of a partner volunteer, now offers presentations in nearby preschools about living with disabilities. This is part of a “Machines that Help” curriculum unit where the children see and learn about a Trinity Volunteer’s unique wheelchair and all it enables her to do within the life of the community. As Marty comments, “our hope is that the little ones will subsequently learn that there’s no need to be afraid of people who use wheelchairs.”
Among the many projects that benefit from Trinity Volunteers’ service are the 25 local, national and international Old St. Pat’s outreach organizations as well as the Old St. Patrick’s Church community itself. Trinity Volunteers and their partner volunteers, under the direction of Maureen Kennedy Barney, staff the reception desk at the parish’s Center for Social Concerns on Wednesdays.
Maureen’s troop of volunteers not only provide a warm welcome to the Center but, between buzzing in guests, they accomplish critical tasks that contribute to the success of various Old St. Pat’s Outreach projects. “Our Trinity Volunteers are particularly good at assembly line type work so they do a great job every week of creating food bags that are distributed from the OSP Security Desk to people experiencing homelessness,” says Maureen. “They are also a very steady workforce throughout the year preparing over 4,000 ornaments for the OSP Giving Tree that collects Christmas gifts for people served by the church’s outreach programs.”
Maureen has helped to plan and execute family oriented events at the six Chicago area Ronald McDonald Houses. She and her crew of volunteers, both with and without disabilities, prepared and served dinners that nourished families staying in the houses while their children are treated for serious illnesses in nearby hospitals. After the family meals, her crew decorated the houses and set up “valentine making stations” where residents could make old- fashioned valentines and relax awhile amidst the serious issues facing the young hospitalized children and their families.
Maureen finds true satisfaction and meaning in her service. “The TVC Valentine Cheer Project at the Ronald McDonald Houses is my favorite TVC program,” she said. “It is so beautiful to be part of a program which helps families to be happily and fully engaged with their child during a traumatic time filled with many concerns about the child’s health outcomes. These evenings have been very special.”
Maureen and Susan are both assisting with plans for the upcoming TVC Feed Our Community Day where over 300 volunteers will come together at Dominican University to create 50,000 shelf stable macaroni and cheese meals to give to local food pantries.
The relationships that Susan McHugh has developed on campus have been essential to the success of this project. She and her Trinity Volunteers and their student interns recently helped recruit over 100 Dominican University students through the DU Volunteer Fair known as “The Spring Expo.”
At the same time, Maureen was busy organizing partner volunteers from the larger community. She built on her creative, high energy skills as a former college recruiter when she invited Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois employees to participate in Feed Our Community Day.
Several months ago, Maureen, along with three of her Trinity Volunteers, presented a program about this unique partner volunteering opportunity to BCBS employees. “Our Trinity Volunteers served homemade cookies to potential BCBS program volunteers and told them all about how great the project was last year and now there are a couple dozen planning to participate,” says Maureen. “We are delighted to have their involvement and to strengthen the BCBS ties to TVC which was recently named an official Blue Cross Blue Shield Community Partner!”
Programs like the Trinity Volunteer Corps that focus on inclusion and community building are critical to adults with disabilities who want to be with other people, enjoy all of life, and be of service to others. The goal is to offer Trinity Volunteers meaningful activities at least once a week. Sometimes they can do more than that. “TVC is not a full service, highly funded program. We do what we can with what we have in limited funds and with the help of our wonderful community facilitators,” said Marty Kenahan. “Ignatian Volunteers Maureen Kennedy Barney and Susan McHugh have helped us tremendously this year and we are most grateful.”
Maureen and Susan also expressed gratitude for their service with TVC through the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. As Susan commented, in reflecting on the deeper meaning of her service: “The opportunity to work with Trinity Volunteer Corps has given me a greater appreciation of the value of individual differences. It is another level of diversity and acceptance of others–seeing God in all that we do in our connections with others.”
Shedding Light in the Dark
By Mike Galbreath
Dark. Pitch black. No power. No lights. Basement waters now four inches and rising… Days and days of winter rains and melting snows. Is this why I volunteered? Slipping face-down into the dark, oily water. Nothing to pull me up. Am I gonna drown in this basement pond? Time once again to pray to St. Joseph… Somehow I find a pole to grab and hear J.J. call over to me to hang on. After a few long moments I am finally able to grasp something, rise up and hand J.J. the switches and tools so he can restart the electrical system.
Mission accomplished. Power on. A grateful elderly lady.
For a few moments one day last winter, it seemed like purgatory in Chicago for IVC volunteer Ken Campagna as he assisted H.O.M.E. staff member J.J. Haley. That day, they successfully returned electrical power to a low-income widow’s Chicago home—as they have done for numerous elderly persons over the last four years.
Two full days each week, Ken serves as a repairman’s assistant with H.O.M.E., Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly. The home-repair program, just one of the many programs of H.O.M.E., is a way to help low-income elderly persons remain in their own homes as long as possible by providing basic, necessary home repairs they otherwise could not afford. Most of the assistance Ken and J.J. and the other H.OM.E. repairmen provide includes plumbing repairs as well as needed work in electrical pumps and devices for hot water, air conditioning and heating.
Ken finds his volunteering with H.O.M.E. to be very fulfilling. “It can be a hard job but at the end of each day it is always rewarding. You help older people who are usually living alone acquire needed light and warmth especially with winter approaching. J.J. and I are helping these elderly people meet their basic needs.” In our conversations, Ken also shared a deeper reason for volunteering: showing God’s love to those he serves through H.O.M.E. “People cannot be open to learning about a loving God unless they have a feeling of security. When we arrive at jobs, I have often heard clients wonder aloud about how there can be a good and loving God when they are living alone in a dark, bad-smelling, musty and cold house. ‘If my family is gone and there’s no one to help me, how can there be a God who cares about me…?’ I don’t evangelize with our clients, although sometimes I answer their questions about my role in IVC and religious concerns. People seem to have more faith in God once they have electrical power and renewed light.”
Twenty years ago, the tragic heat disaster of July 1995 killed 750 Chicagoans—mainly elderly persons living alone who had no electrical power and thus no air conditioning or running water. During a 30-hour period, air temperatures averaged 106 degrees with a heat-humidity index mean of 128 degrees. A 1996 City of Chicago formal report on the disaster concluded that the incredibly high numbers of deaths among the elderly were due to a combination of non-working electrical devices and long-neglected home repairs. Further, these elderly men and women had no social or family network to offer assistance or provide well-being visits.
H.O.M.E. and community-based programs like Little Brothers of the Elderly and Caring Connections for Seniors (also IVC service partners) today provide much-needed assistance to hundreds of low-income and isolated elderly Chicagoans. Last year, H.O.M.E. completed 773 repairs in 256 Chicago housing units. The total repair cost is only a $25 service fee and materials costs, and all labor is at no cost. The H.O.M.E. program also provides trust-worthy, helpful services in the areas of window winterization, shopping buses for seniors with limited mobility to access groceries, pharmacies and medical services, senior H.O.M.E. residences, and much more.
The Ignatian Volunteer Corps has partnered with the H.O.M.E. home-repair program for the past 8 years, providing an extra set of hands to repairmen, mostly on Chicago’s south side. Previous IVC volunteers include Dave Kelly, Tony Mahowald and Chuck Malatesta. The partnership has been a unique and mutually rewarding one for both organizations, providing needed hands-on assistance, as well as the opportunity for IVC volunteers to find God’s spirit in their service experiences.
“In this work, you often have pleasant surprises,” Ken recalled. “One lady who needed home electrical repairs had just written a book on spirituality. Her main message—while living in poverty her whole life—was when you are given lemons you make lemonade. She gave me an autographed copy of her hardback book. I continue to learn to re-read parts of the book and her wisdom from it. The gratitude from people is humbling. We have many clients who’ve had their utilities turned off because of lack of utility bill payments. You cannot believe how appreciative most people are when we return their homes to livable temperatures and running water. One woman for whom we recently provided repairs had her utilities shut down for four years. How she survived in that closed-up home is amazing.”
Ken’s and his wife Norma (also an IVC member currently on hiatus) have one adult daughter. When their daughter was born, Ken began praying to St. Joseph as the patron saint of fathers. Today, many years later, Ken continues to pray to St. Joseph who is also the patron saint of workers. Following the example of St. Joseph, it is clear that Ken and J.J.’s work is not just a service to others, but a ministry. One can visualize 2,000 years ago a poor, elderly widow coming to St. Joseph and his apprentice Jesus and requesting repairs of a water-damaged doorway, an unstable table or broken chair. Ken and J.J. are the contemporary disciples of that Biblical team offering no cost, friendly assistance to help meet the basic life needs of neighbors who have no money and few options.
“A person’s home is a sacred place,” said Ken.” If a person’s sacred place fills the person with depression, it makes it very difficult for that person to accept a living and loving God. Hopefully with my efforts in IVC and with H.O.M.E., I can continue to see how God works through us and help others to find Him.” Ken is grateful to IVC and H.O.M.E. for the opportunity to serve. “Bringing light and warmth to so many elderly two days a week creates a very worthwhile IVC mission for me and for the many professionals who work in the H.O.M.E. community.”
Are You My Guardian Angel?
IVC member Mike Galbreath volunteers at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, an organization that seeks to create community and relieve loneliness and isolation among elders.
Are you my guardian angel?
No, it’s Mike. I visit you every Monday morning.
Moments earlier, thinking Bethel was asleep, I quietly placed a note at her bedside table. I did not wish to awaken her as she had not been well my last few visits. Bethel surprisingly opened her bright hazel eyes (striking in contrast to her dark brown skin) and whispered her guardian angel question.
“I was visiting my grandmother. I was dancing with my husband, talked to my twin sister” whispered the 96 year-old increasingly frail, child-sized person. (Her twin sister Ethel had died at age 12). “My children were all there with my other brothers and sisters…My grandmother had just told me that I couldn’t stay with them today…. that a guardian angel would soon meet me and he would bring me to them to heaven forever…So, are you my guardian angel?….Yes, you must be my guardian angel.”
It occurred to me that I was wearing a light blue and white hat and jacket and with my white hair possibly I looked something like a celestial blue, light-haired, storybook aging angel to a 96 year-old lady. Bethel grew up in a family of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta before they moved to Chicago during the Southern exodus north to cities like Chicago after World War I. Maybe because of our white-only media messages and Southern country church cultures, angels are thought to be Caucasian personages with white robes and wings enhanced by blue skies.
I first met Bethel last December. When introduced by the Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, Bethel glared up and me and clearly pronounced to the whole cafeteria at Applewood Nursing Home, “So what is this white guy gonna do for me?” I laughed (joining the cafeteria’s audience) and said I would be visiting her Mondays and help her if she needed anything, or just talk.
“Yeah, we’ll see” was her only response.
Not a good start. But after learning she liked easy language puzzles, I brought her a Dollar Store Bible word search book (with every page another chapter of the Old and New Testament). She also liked my weekly 69-cent Hershey bars, which she never forgot to tell me was the treat of the week. Our ritual was to talk in the cafeteria for thirty minutes and then I’d wheel her to visit the glass-encased ten pairs of birds whom she loved to startle as they flew in circles when she tapped the glass. These colorful, flying, chirping birds were by far the brightest, most free and uplifting activity and metaphor for life that a wheelchair or bed-bound elder could enjoy in the mainly gray, thick-vapor-detergent-smelling 100-bed facility.
In January, Bethel asked me why did God want to keep her alive with nearly all her loved ones dead? Not to mention the disgusting, foul food and twenty pills forced daily on her, with deaf roommates who kept televisions blaring 24/7?
Why, Mike, am I still here?
The only answer I had was, Bethel, you know how you always say it’s sad almost no one visits you and no one visits nearly all the elders here? Maybe your role in life now is to be the one person who visits and talks to all the other seniors here. That just might be a good job for you.
Bethel, hazel eyes catching mine for a few seconds, licked her lips and said, “you know what I think…..I think you’re right.”
I never knew if Bethel talked more to other elders after that. But she momentarily presented a sense of conviction that she would do it.
The last three visits (all in one week) she did not speak nor was she awake much. At our last visit, I spoke to Bethel and she just stared out—not focusing. I tried to make eye contact with her by moving my head up, down and sideways but she did not blink for the full 20 minutes I talked to her. I repeated her favorite stories like Bethel on that safari-church pilgrimage to Africa you were the most beautiful woman there and all the native men wanted to marry you. The native women were jealous and wanted you to leave the party but you stayed and danced with all the men. You could have married any one of those men including the chief. You really loved those birds and always wanted to see them fly throughout the facility freed from their glass cage. Good thing they never gave you the birdcage key you kept asking to look at for just a few minutes. You just wanted those birds to be free for once.
Finally, I touched Bethel’s childlike forearm and said that it is okay if you want to visit your grandmother. I’ll come back Wednesday but if you’ve already left that is okay. (I wasn’t sure Bethel heard me although the nurse thought Bethel could.) Bethel, it is okay if you close your eyes and go to sleep. Her eyes closed. It was the last time I saw those bright hazel eyes.
Later that week, I was wondering how Bethel was doing as I parked my car in Hyde Park on the way to Fr. Jim Vorwoldt’s residence for our monthly reflection meeting. As I walked on the half-shoveled, icy sidewalk I was looking down for slippery spots when I saw and picked-up a small silver locket and chain. It was half-heart shaped, one-inch tall with “Friends” printed across the heart.
After the reflection meeting, I stopped in at Applewood to visit Bethel. I asked the nurse, Kara, how Bethel was doing. She responded that Bethel had passed on March 2 in the early afternoon. I had left Bethel about 11 a.m. that day so I felt fortunate to have talked with her in her last hours.
That night I told my wife, Janice, about Bethel’s death and the coincidence of finding the half-heart “Friends” locket earlier that day. Jan said the other half of the locket must belong to someone else, who is a friend. Jan, in her wisdom, could not have said anything more meaningful for me on behalf of my new friend, Bethel.