Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, July 19, 1999

Volunteers make friends at St. Mary's Care Center

By Luis Puga

It would be easy to start this story with numerous statistics on how the elderly are increasing in number.

That fact has become obvious. Whether it is legislators discussing who will pay for retirement and health needs, or discussions on how we age as a society, aging is a large part of our health and medical concerns.

Primarily, everyone knows we will age and therefore have concerns about the issue.

With that in mind, it can be said that volunteers, such as those at St. Mary's Care Center in Winsted, provide a special facet of care for the elderly: a human touch.

This is easily observed at St. Mary's. A volunteer can do a wide variety of activities such as planning birthday parties or helping in daily liturgy services. But the constant in all the activities is human contact.

Take, as an example, Janice Konerza. She offers hair care at St. Mary's in the beauty salon on Fridays.

She's not trained as a stylist, but her clients aren't particularly picky. What is important is that she's there.

That's evident in Bertha Hafemann, a resident at St. Mary's, who is the first person Konerza sees when she arrives as well as the last person she sees when she is leaving.

Konerza adds that doing the residents' hair is fun for them. She said, "It's always nice to have your hair done. It always puts a smile on their face."

Joanne Krueger began her volunteering because her mother-in-law was a resident eight years ago. Now she does crafts with the residents on Mondays, and helps with the liturgy services on Fridays.

She said, "People are just so loving and I really enjoy coming back all the time. Some of them are just waiting for a hug."

For Helen Yager, her experience began at Delano's nursing home. After being away and coming back to Winsted, she told her pastor she would like to volunteer. The volunteer coordinator, Michele Muller, called her the same week.

Like Konerza, Yager provides a service she hadn't had any experience in - doing nails.

"I've never done my own nails, let alone somebody else's," she laughed. But again, the contact is the most important.

That contact can lead to wonderful experiences for the volunteers.

At 15, Hannah Behrens is probably one of the younger volunteers at St. Mary's. Behrens comes to play piano or just visit with the volunteers, or float wherever she's needed.

She said that her time spent at the care center is very rewarding and recalls playing piano for a blind woman, Helen, who loved her playing.

"She just sat there and just listened. I was playing old hymns and she knew all of them," Hannah said.

Muller feels that the volunteers bring a special aspect to residents' care.

"They bring an added dimension to the quality of life at St. Mary's. Along the same lines, they bring the community to St. Mary's, as far as what they (the volunteers) are doing outside. That just helps."

This is done in many ways. Behrens has brought her four-year-old sister to St. Mary's before. Konerza answers questions about the news in town or even if there's a new calf at her farm. These elements keep the residents connected.

The biggest service the volunteers provide is company. They recognize that putting a loved one in the care center can be difficult, and, that for some children, visiting a loved one can be very difficult.

Krueger explained an experience in her own life along those lines.

"I had my mother-in-law with us for 38 years, and we finally had to put her into a nursing home. And that was so hard for my husband because he is an only child. It really was hard for him to come here," Krueger said.

As in any medical environment, one must be prepared to see loss, whether it is loss of life or general health deterioration.

Said Yager, "It's hard to see. One person, when I first started here, she could visit and talk about the old times. And to see her like she is now, it's really hard."

Despite these hard realities, the volunteers are unwaveringly happy with their experiences, and encourage others to give as well.

Muller adds that St. Mary's is always in need of help. The volunteers add that everyone has a talent or skill that they can give. Right now, Muller would love to have someone who could bake.

Perhaps one reason why the volunteers are so dedicated is that they are making friends. They know they're not supposed to have favorite residents, but they each know one who has touched them in a special way.

Motivation can also come from the knowledge that this is the right thing to do. Behrens is motivated by a strong sense of giving due to her religious beliefs. She said that the example Jesus set, that of reaching out to the needy, is the one that motivates her.

Whatever the reasons, Muller sees the volunteers as invaluable, giving the human, one-on-one encounters that the care center can't always provide. She adds that the volunteers are often a reason for the residents to look forward to each day.

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