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Pandemic leads volunteers to do missionary work right here at home

This article originally appeared in the Jefferson City News Tribune. READ THE FULL ARTICLE ONLINE: News Tribune Website.

What separated the volunteers preparing to offer St. Martins community members food through the Cole County Mobile Food Pantry early Wednesday afternoon was space.

The pantry is usually manned by volunteers from businesses and churches, but because many of the normal volunteers are older and vulnerable to the coronavirus, they weren’t available, said Jami Wade, regional coordinator of the Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the nation, older Americans are staying home to avoid being infected.

“They’re a little bit more vulnerable right now. So we’re getting young people to help,” Wade said.

Wade was among the volunteers standing in the parking lot outside St. Martins Catholic School on Wednesday.

With her — standing about 10 feet apart in a rough semi-circle and discussing procedures they would use to safely distribute food pantry items later that afternoon — were Travis Hoskins, the school’s maintenance man, Dan Lester, Ann Bax and 14-year-old Bijou Carrel.

To help prevent spread of COVID-19, each maintained a reasonable distance from their neighbor. As they spoke, they settled on plans to help pass the food to folks who participated in the ad-hoc drive-thru food pantry.

A challenge is that so many of the people who volunteer for activities like the Mobile Food Pantry are older and retired and most at risk of having severe complications because of COVID-19, said Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri.

So the United Way is trying to be a leader in mobilizing volunteers who can safely serve the community, she said. To volunteer through the United Way, go to unitedwaycemo.org and click on “Volunteer.”

The volunteer portal is a go-to for opportunities in the community, according to the website. Its streamlined process allows any approved organization — not only the local 28 United Way partners — to upload potential volunteer projects. It also allows volunteers to select projects they may be right for.

With the great need for volunteers in the area, Bax and Lester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, are cooperating to find volunteers to complete important work.

“Catholic Charities has been a godsend to us,” Wade said. “(Lester) has been helping get volunteers for us.”

The nonprofit will also provide volunteers for the Mobile Food Pantry stop April 14 in Russellville, she added.

“I think Dan has secured some volunteers from Helias (Catholic High School) for today. So it’s that age group, and it also helps get them out of the house,” Wade said.

A lot of traditional social service opportunities for volunteers are extremely limited, Lester said last week. So Catholic Charities and its partners are trying to be creative in finding volunteers and opportunities for them to serve.

“What makes it challenging, too, is — just like any natural disaster — in many ways, our response looks like a tornado or flood,” Lester said. “You get this outpouring of support. People say, ‘I want to help. I want to help. I want to help.’ But you can’t give them a hard hat and gloves and send them out.”

With the pandemic, it’s just too dangerous, he said.

The organization is looking for ways people can volunteer from home, whether simply calling people to let them know utilities have suspended disconnects or providing other information that is changing constantly during the pandemic.

Catholic Charities also has an online portal where people may volunteer to help others. People and organizations need not be Catholic to sign up. To do so, go to diojeffcity.org, click on “COVID-19,” then on “Volunteer to help.”

Individuals can also request assistance on the website or by calling 573-635-7719.

Catholic Charities continues to establish volunteer opportunities and coordinate with its partners, like the Food Bank or Aging Best (formerly known as the Area Agency on Aging, which operates Central Missouri senior centers) to get volunteers to where they are most needed, Lester said.

“Like everything else these days, it’s a really fluid situation,” he said. “We are making sure all volunteer opportunities are following all recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Department of Health and Senior Services guidelines for safe social distancing, limiting group size and making sure that the service being provided is essential and could not be accomplished in a different format (like over the phone).”

The organization also continues to find volunteer opportunities that are appropriate for people’s abilities, while ensuring high-risk volunteers (for COVID-19), who may be immuno-compromised or older than 60, are not asked to serve in any way that may be harmful.

“If our partners — like the Food Bank — do reach out and say, ‘We need folks, and we will be following guidelines,’ we ask who’s going to be good fit for this opportunity,” Lester said.

LeAnne Korsmeyer, the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City’s director of parish and charitable services, said her organization is trying to create safe ways for people to feel productive and needed. More than 350 people from the diocese, which contains 95 parishes, have signed up to help wherever they are needed, she said.

“We’re creating core teams to look at what we can do and who we can send out to serve,” Korsmeyer said. “(The parish in) Osage Bend got together and decided that every home will be touched by a phone call. There are a lot of elderly people in the area who may live alone.”

Jefferson City Bishop W. Shawn McKnight has challenged young people to step up, Lester said.

The diocese has a large volume of young people who can get out and possibly do grocery pick-ups for people, leaving the products on their porches, Korsmeyer said.

“We are here to do whatever that need is,” Korsmeyer said. “Medicines — we’re trying to see what is allowable for pick-up.”

If people need basic food, supplies and medicine, the diocese can do that, Korsmeyer said.

“We’re taking our ministry and going out in mission right here at home,” she said. “And it’s throughout the diocese.”

The Rev. Josh Duncan, an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Jefferson City, led a group of young men to the Mobile Food Pantry site Wednesday. The volunteers are members of the Frassati Fraternity, a sort of youth group named for Pier Giorgio Frassati, a youth saint of the church who loved and served the poor, Duncan said.

“We want to show that we as youth, if we’re able to help, we want to help in any capacity that we can,” Duncan said.

The fraternity helps the young men grow together, 20-year-old Chad Volmert said.

If not for the pandemic, Volmert said, he’d be playing baseball for a Hannibal college. He said having friends and family healthy is a blessing.

Members of the fraternity are within an age group that has not been as severely affected by COVID-19 as others, Wade said.

Still, some members of the age group are correct to have concerns about the virus, Volmert said. Members of the Frassati Fraternity were taking every precaution they could to avoid it Wednesday, he added.

The work was not unlike some 18-year-old Jonathan Dolan did on a mission trip early this year, he said, where he and others enjoyed themselves while helping other people.

“When they volunteer, (youth) develop a sense of service,” Wade said. “I think it’s really important early on for kids to have an awareness of service and get involved. And this probably means a little more to them now because they’re restricted at home. They see it. It’s more tangible to them.”