by Jill Ragar Esfeld
SHAWNEE — Good Shepherd parishioner Penny Volmer was surprised when she heard her parish ministry was named Life Care Centers of America’s Volunteer Group of the Year.
After all, it’s a national award presented to one group out of thousands at more than 200 care facilities nationwide
“So many volunteers do so much to help,” she said. “Why would our group be singled out?”
But then she thought about the Butterflies-Are-Free Program.
And she understood.
Butterflies-are-Free is an offshoot of a ministry started by Good Shepherd parishioners many years ago at Garden Terrace Alzheimer’s Center in Overland Park.
Every Friday, volunteers with the Good Shepherd Caring Ministry lead residents in a rosary prayer service and distribute the Eucharist.
Once a month, they assist at Mass.
“A handful of parishioners provide music and singing,” said Volmer, who has headed the ministry for the last two years.
More than 40 residents attend the Mass on a regular basis.
Megan Foland, recreation director at Garden Terrace, said the group does much more than pray with the residents. They also bring homemade treats and distribute handmade prayer shawls.
“This group is the most considerate and loving group of people I have ever encountered,” she said.
The motivation for the ministry is “love of God and love of neighbor,” according to Dawn Malis who assists Volmer and traveled to Cleveland with her to accept the award.
“There is a special connection between the residents, staff and volunteers,” she said. “All work together for the good of the residents.”
Bernadine Asher, who’s been with the ministry for 20 years, recalled one of her first experiences at Garden Terrace, when resident Howard Singler asked if he could become Catholic.
“I was given the commission to instruct Howard,” she said. “And in the months that followed, in his lucid moments, he would tell me of his life.
“I talked to Howard about Jesus’ love for him and slowly went through the Apostles’ Creed, line by line.”
Howard was baptized in his wheelchair at a Mass at Garden Terrace with all the residents as witnesses.
“He was smiling all the time,” said Asher. “He died shortly afterward.”
Joy and prayer
Good Shepherd pastor Father Jim Ludwikoski sees the ministry as accenting the joy of elderly.
“We have the honor of serving them,” he said. “We learn about their wonderful lives, their lives of service and their lives of involvement in the church.
“And we celebrate that on a monthly basis at this Mass.”
Malis has experienced that joy and considers it a privilege to witness the residents’ devotion.
“Often a family member is with their loved one at our weekly prayer service,” she said. “Day after day, week after week, they sit together.
“What a beautiful testament to love and devotion. It inspires me to be grateful for my family and to value my time with them.”
Shortly after Volmer began heading the ministry, she noticed there were times when people were sick and couldn’t come to the Mass.
“We got to know the residents and recognized when they were missing,” she said. “We would stop by and visit and pray with them.”
Gradually, through that process of praying with people when they were sick, the group decided to start an end-of-life care program.
“The facility was in the process of creating an end-of-life care ministry of its own,” said Volmer. “Working together with the staff, we were able to join in from the prayer side of it.”
Now, when a resident is in the final stages of life, Garden Terrace calls Volmer, who reacts as she would if a close family member needed her.
“I usually try to drop everything and go,” she said. “Or I call a handful of volunteers that do the same — we go to them, we pray with them.”
Butterflies are free
When that time comes, a large butterfly is placed outside the resident’s door indicating this person is in the final stages of life.
“The staff knows when that butterfly goes up, this is a room where they should be respectful, walk quietly,” said Volmer.
“In the Butterfly Program,” said Malis, “We help prepare and comfort the members of Christ’s mystical body who are headed homeward.
“The chaplet of Divine Mercy is prayed for the dying to prepare the soul to meet Jesus.”
Often, the volunteer prays with the resident while family is traveling to get to the bedside.
But that’s not always the case.
“Often, there’s the situation where no one is coming,” said Volmer. “We stay with that person, pray with them. And even in the different phases of consciousness, we believe that they know someone is with them.”
Volunteers bring a Bible, prayer cards and soothing music. They make sure the resident never feels alone.
“Sometimes they’ll wrap their fingers around my hand and give me a little squeeze,” said Volmer. “And in that moment, you know they know you’re there.”
Volunteers are called for the Butterflies Program several times a month.
“Some months we might get three or four calls,” said Volmer. “Some months we might get a couple.
“And then we go every day until that person passes away.”
The gratitude is mine
Sometimes those who are dying, through the years of shared prayer services and Masses, are close to the hearts of volunteers.
Malis recalled recently praying for such a person.
“It was my privilege to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet for Toni today in the presence of her family,” she said. “Dear Toni passed around 12 a.m.; God called her home and I am sure she rests next to his sacred heart.
“She taught me many life lessons over the years and how to die peacefully, while trusting in the Lord.”
The Butterflies-Are-Free Program set Good Shepherd apart from other care ministries to earn them this national award.
Volmer said she and Malis were humbled to receive the volunteer award on behalf of Good Shepherd’s Caring Ministry.
“The group award is a wonderful acknowledgment of the many people who have devoted years to this ministry,” she said. “The volunteers who quietly love, care for and minister to the often-forgotten.
“As Christ’s disciples, they are his hands and feet here on earth.”
Father Ludwikoski is proud of his parishioners and grateful that they are able to celebrate life at every stage.
“Life is special at all ages,” he said. “So it is wonderful that we can accent both sides and everywhere in between.”
Volunteer Ellen McAndrews remembered when she was first training for the Garden Terrace ministry, and someone cautioned her that she may not receive a lot of gratitude from the patients.
“She may have meant we would not receive the traditional thank you,” she said. “But I see gratitude in each resident’s eyes when I place the host on his or her tongue, or smile when I reach out and hold a hand.
“The real gratitude is mine.”