Archdiocese Local Ministries Parishes

Parish phone trees offer support to parishioners in need

Allison Jaksa, a St. Joseph, Shawnee, parish volunteer, reaches out to parishioners in need via the phone for a more personal touch.

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

Modern technology has become a lifeline for millions of people across the globe sheltered at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can work from home, bank from our phones and order groceries within minutes.

Still, despite those conveniences, never underestimate the power of a simple phone call to those in need, especially for those who may lack the resources and experience to harness newer technology. 

In recent weeks, several parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas have done just that, reaching out to older parishioners in particular. Using what some might call a “phone tree,” volunteers from many parishes are calling parishioners ages 70 and older to check in and offer assistance, spiritual support and fellowship.

“Three weeks ago, we had no idea what it was going to look like now,” said Jared Rottinghaus, the youth minister at St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee. “We were just thinking there were going to be some type of regulations coming that were going to decrease the church’s ability to practice publicly and decrease people’s ability to get out.

“Rather than sending an impersonal email or using Flocknote, especially for that older group who don’t have access to that stuff very well anyway, we thought of having somebody call and check in and say the parish cares and God still cares and is interested in your struggle, in your loneliness, the anxiety you’re feeling.

“It’s really just parishioners contacting parishioners and expressing the church’s care for them.”

By the numbers

Aided by its Christian formation office, parish staff and Father Scott Wallisch, St. Joseph attempted to prepare for what was to come. Volunteers focused on people they believed were more vulnerable to social distancing. Approximately 100 volunteers from various parish ministries began calling older parishioners.

They have now expanded the call list to people under the age of 70 who might be at risk for social isolation, such as those who have lost a spouse, those living alone and those who may have non-COVID-19 illnesses, Rottinghaus said.

At Divine Mercy Parish in Gardner, volunteers are reaching out to the same population and working to extend the effort to all parishioners, according to Shirley Spiller, who co-chairs its Helping Hands ministry with Cathy Johnson. Spiller said they are brainstorming ways to connect with the rest of its church family in prayer, love and help where available. Divine Mercy has nearly 1,000 registered families.

Shirley Spiller, who with Cathy Johnson co-chairs the Helping Hands ministry at Divine Mercy Parish in Gardner, helps connect more than 300 parishioners who may need assistance during the pandemic with volunteers who can help them.

“Some parishioners were homebound prior to this pandemic and were already assisted by our Helping Hands group (household help, errands, taking them to doctor visits and just visiting with them),” Spiller said.

“Our Legion of Mary visits and delivers the holy Eucharist to them weekly. They will not have that weekly visit until this pandemic is over. One of our oldest parishioners (age 101) is cared for by another Divine Mercy parishioner. The highlight of her week is to go grocery shopping and the visit.

“I suspect many of the folks on our contact list that we are trying to reach feel the same way.”

Beyond the basics

Divine Mercy started with a list of 300-plus parishioners and divided the calls among five volunteers. The list of volunteers has grown to 25. Today, each volunteer has been matched with six or seven “adopted” parishioners, Spiller said.

“We have delivered the Magnificat (daily prayer resource) and advised many parishioners of the amended sacrament times and how they can receive them,” she continued. “We are also offering to pray with them and asking them to pray for the rest of our parish by saying a Memorare.

“(Pastor) Father Adam Wilczak has challenged our parishioners to pray 25,000 Memorares by Divine Mercy Sunday. With all of our adoptees helping, we’ll make our goal!”

What started out as an outreach to older individuals is now a parish-wide initiative during the pandemic at Church of the Nativity in Leawood. With 2,000 families and 6,300 individuals, Nativity’s youth director Liz Hagen said volunteers are doing much the same as the other parishes.

That includes teaching parishioners how to navigate the Nativity website, participate in online Stations of the Cross and access many other available Catholic resources. To date, 55 volunteers have reached more than 1,000 parishioners.

Friends for life

“We have received many grateful responses for the outreach,” Hagen said. “One of our callers was able to help pick up a prescription for someone and satisfy their craving for fried chicken and mac and cheese!

“We are reaching the rest of the parish during the crisis by establishing neighborhood groups led by volunteers called ‘Lamplighters,’ inspired by Mt 5:14-16,” she continued. “Lamplighters are each assigned 10 to 15 households within their neighborhood.  This will ensure everyone is in close communication with their neighborhood parishioners throughout the current crisis and will serve our community in multiple ways when the crisis is over as well.”

Throughout their efforts, volunteers at all the parishes are taking precautions to keep themselves and others safe from infection, including dropping groceries off on the porch and staying the recommended six feet apart when talking with parishioners. 

The outreach was born of the need to meet today’s isolation challenges. But it may also spark new, enriched relationships for the future when the “stay at home” orders have been lifted, Rottinghaus said.

“I’ve had some of the callers say, ‘I didn’t know this person, but I think I made a friend,’” he said. “Toward the end of all this, I’m going to encourage the callers to meet their folks that they’ve been talking to in person, bring lunch over to them or take them to church when the time comes that they’re able to do that again.”

About the author

Susan Fotovich McCabe

Susan Fotovich McCabe is a writer, editor and Kansas City native. As a writer, Susan has covered a wide array of topics, from health care to aviation and everything in between. Susan built a long freelance practice, where she contributed to local publications, such as The Kansas City Star, Kansas City Business, Lifestyle Magazine and Parenting Children with Special Needs. She worked for two Kansas City public relations agencies and a media publishing company. Susan and her husband, Bill, support all things Jayhawk and love spending time with their three children, son-in-law and granddaughter.

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