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Church groups step up to help elderly, at-risk neighbors

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Mister Rogers famously told his television neighbors that when he was a boy and would see scary things in the news, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”

Healthy parishioners across the diocese have been stepping up to be those helpers, as cases of the new coronavirus multiply and people are being urged to stay home to prevent COVID-19’s rapid spread. 

The Knights of Columbus Edward Douglass White Council No. 2473 is among groups in the diocese coordinating efforts. The council, one of the largest in the nation, sent out a “Call to Aid” email to gather volunteers to help elderly and at-risk people from an area covered by four parishes in Northern Virginia.

“Some will need groceries, prescriptions or small errands run. Others just need someone to check in with via telephone daily and talk for a few minutes. We are not asking anyone to put themselves at risk; much of the contact can be done via telephone. Groceries, medication, etc., can be left at their front door,” the email read.

Past Grand Knight John White, one of the coordinators of the project, said he quickly got almost 130 responses, mostly from Knights and their families, but also from other community members, including non-Catholics, who wanted to pitch in. “That speaks highly of the work ethic of Northern Virginians and their desire to help each other,” he said. 

White said there had not been too many requests in the first few days; probably because many elderly parishioners already have a support network of family and friends, are still mobile or are in assisted living facilities. “But I strongly expect that as this goes on, family members will fall ill, and we will need to jump in there and be a safety net. And when more volunteers are needed, I have no doubt that if we put out the word, we will easily get them.”

St. Ann Church in Arlington is one of the parishes working with the council to connect those in need with volunteers. The parish posted information on its website titled “How Are You Doing? Assistance During These Uncertain Times.” When a request for help comes to the parish office, a volunteer from the parish will vet the request and relay it to White, who will put it out to his volunteers using the online program Sign Up Genius, where volunteers can respond to requests listed by a number and a geographical location. “The first six requests for help were assigned within three minutes,” White said.  Others participating are St. Agnes, St. Ann and St. Charles Borromeo churches and Missionhurst retreat center in Arlington, and St. James in Falls Church.

In a March 18 letter to parishioners, St. Ann Pastor Father Ramel (“Mel”) O. Portula noted, “We are in uncharted territory, and these days are changing lives for so many of us, especially for those directly affected by the coronavirus.”  

But he added, “There is a lot of goodness during this time of pandemic. This gives us hope. We are asking that we check on each other, especially on the most vulnerable in our communities. Check on the people who live on your street and neighborhoods. If you know of anyone who needs help, the group of volunteers formed by the K of C is ready to help.”

Parishes and individuals outside the Beltway are helping too.

Jo-Ann Duggan, director of outreach at St. John Neumann Church in Reston, said even though the Northern Virginia area is in the very early stages of the pandemic, several families already have contacted the parish, and volunteers have stepped up to help. 

The parish already does a lot of emergency assistance and expects to do more as families struggling to make ends meet face layoffs and can’t pay their bills. “I expect this is going to get worse, and we will get more calls as people are in their homes longer,” Duggan said. She works with other Catholic churches in the area, including St. Thomas à Becket in Reston and Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Mark in Vienna. 

The parish does what it can to help local nonprofits as well. For example, children at the First Eucharist retreat had planned to pack food boxes for Helping Hungry Kids, a Reston group that provides meals for students to take home in their backpacks over the weekend, when they don’t get school lunches. When the retreat was canceled along with other parish activities to prevent spread of the coronavirus, volunteer Pat Rau packed about 125 meals. 

Duggan said the parish is also finding new ways to reach out to the elderly and homebound now that Eucharistic ministers have had to stop bringing the Eucharist to about 35 homebound parishioners, some of whom live in assisted living facilities that have stopped allowing visitors.  

Instead of in-person visits, the ministers now call homebound parishioners to check in, see if they need anything “and pray over the phone on Fridays when they would normally visit, to let them know they are not forgotten, and bring them some comfort,” Duggan said. 

At Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church in Madison, Father James Bruse, pastor, said his 172 parish families seem “sort of stressed and confused” about the coronavirus and recent health restrictions, and wonder “how long this is going to last.” 

But Father Bruse, who has served the parish for eight years and knows all the families, said he has not been contacted about urgent practical needs so far. “We do take care of the poor and pray for them, but so far they seem OK,” he said.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020