By Katrina Genereux/Associate Editor, OND
In high school, Melissa Hund-Cerna participated in a mission trip that involved service at a nursing home. When she returned home, the experience led her to “adopt” a grandmother at an area nursing home. She visited Gladys every week for three years and continued stopping by when she was home from college. When Gladys died, Hund-Cerna was able to attend her funeral and meet some of her family members.
“I was overwhelmed hearing how much of an impact I had on her life, and yet I am the one who still today thinks of her in my day-to-day life and all that I learned from her,” she said.
As Coordinator of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry for grades 6-12 at St. Joseph, Moorhead, she desired the youth she serves to have a similar opportunity. She heard about a program Lori Balstad, Religious Education Coordinator at St. Mary, Fosston, started in the fall of 2017. It provides service to seniors while allowing youth to build relationships with them. Hund-Cerna wanted to start something comparable at St. Joseph with her ninth-grade students this year.
The program involves groups of three to five students, led by an adult chaperone, making monthly visits to a senior parishioner. During the visits, youth are available to do household chores and they spend time visiting. Sometimes the youth bring a craft or treat to share, and sometimes the senior has an activity planned.
For the first meeting, Balstad had groups of her seventh-12th grade students, accompanied by a parent volunteer, rake leaves and do outdoor work so the seniors could meet them and make sure they were comfortable with the situation.
She said some of the groups were late returning to the church because they were visiting.
“That inspired me to point out to the youth – and they caught it right away – this service isn’t really just to do work for people, it’s to visit and give them some company,” Balstad said.
Hund-Cerna was drawn to this aspect of the program.
“Often youth don’t have experience working with older adults and might feel shy or uncomfortable. The same goes with our older adults feeling uncomfortable with our youth, yet they have so much they can give each other and learn from each other,” Hund-Cerna said.
She said forming relationships shifts the students’ attitudes away from just checking off boxes for confirmation preparation and highlights the issue of human dignity.
“I want our seniors to know that in their older age, they still have so much to offer our Church – especially our youth – that they still have dignity and that the Church sees them and cares for them,” Hund-Cerna said.
Evonne Barnum of St. Joseph, Moorhead, has enjoyed becoming friends with the group that visits her.
She taught them how to make tissue paper flowers and shares her love of baking and cooking with them. Barnum either makes treats ahead of time, or with students during their visit and sends them home with the recipe and samples to share with their families.
“One time I got my wedding book out and showed them my wedding pictures, so they could get an idea that I wasn’t always 75 years old,” Barnum said.
Another parishioner of St. Joseph, Harriet Mohrbacher, has enjoyed meeting with young people again and said it has been interesting reentering their world.
“I am the mother of four daughters and when they were little, I was involved in Girl Scouts and met with the girls every week,” she said.
Her visitors have washed windows, switched the time on a hard to reach clock and completed other chores.
Sarah Wilson of St. Joseph is the parent chaperone for the group that visits Mohrbacher. She has enjoyed getting to know Mohrbacher through the program, especially hearing about her family, childhood and Catholic faith.
She said the youth have also grown in their relationship with the seniors.
“The youth, during the first and second session, were a little bit quiet and our seniors were generating more of the conversation,” Wilson said. “It’s almost as if now it has become a partnership and there’s a connection. The third session, the students even each brought some gifts on their own, so it’s just putting in a little more of that time and that caring.”
Clara and Gene Manecke of Fosston have participated in the program both years and think it is marvelous.
“We get to know the kids a little better through this program because otherwise they are just the kids at church,” Clara said. “They probably didn’t know who the senior citizens were either because we didn’t do anything together.”
The Maneckes have both had surgeries during the program, so the extra help was especially appreciated. Their group baked cupcakes and cookies, vacuumed, and put tools away for the winter.
Her favorite part has been getting to know the students and the parent volunteer.
“We are elderly and their parents are probably the age of our children. We knew who the parents were, but we don’t really communicate with them that much, so this gives us an opportunity to communicate with the young people and their parents,” Clara said.
Fellow parishioners of St. Mary, Dorothy and Wayne Paulson said visiting with the students and learning about their lives and plans has been a rewarding experience.
“My husband is confined to a wheel chair, so he doesn’t really have much of a chance to be out with other people,” Dorothy said.
They have enjoyed hearing the student’s life stories.
“Each time they came, it seemed like they were a bit more comfortable,” Paulson said. “When there’s four or five kids, there’s a lot to talk about!”
Wilson has had a similar experience in Moorhead.
“Each time we go back, it’s familiar, there’s a connection and you can see that the youth are eager to meet their senior and to help them or visit with them and I can see them continuing on,” she said. “I think it has sparked an interest and I think it will continue on for some of them.”
Both groups plan to close the year by hosting a meal and fellowship at the parish for program participants.