Knights squire vets to church
Mike Ryan will never get used to walking through Southdale and suddenly being stopped by someone who gives him a big hug. "It blows me away," he said.
It's not that the encounters take him by surprise. It's the emotions behind the hugs that cause a catch in his throat. Ryan is part of a team of volunteers from the Knights of Columbus who go to the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis every Saturday to help disabled vets get to and from the chapel for the weekly Roman Catholic mass. The huggers are some of the people he has met doing that.
"They're the families of the residents," he said. "We become very close to them. Even a couple of years after a resident has died, we'll still exchange hugs when we bump into each other."
In Ryan's case, being remembered by the families carries extra poignancy because he helps residents with Alzheimer's, none of whom recall his name from one weekend to the next.
"But I know all of them by name," he said. "Most of them can't respond. And the ones who can tell me the same stories every week, but that's OK because they're good stories."
The volunteers come from the Monsignor Meagher Assembly and Marian Council 3827, which draws members from Richfield, Bloomington and Burnsville. The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal service organization.
The weekly group of volunteers is organized by Joe Novak, who tried to shrug off accolades about doing good deeds.
"Instead of staying home and doing nothing, I figured it was more interesting to go to the Veterans Home," he said.
"You get a very good feeling after doing this. Some of them might not be able to speak very much, but the staff tells us that they pick up a lot of things that we're not aware of. If we make them feel good for a day, that makes us feel good."
The group has been volunteering at the home for 10 years. There are about 20 names on Novak's roster, a dozen of whom are on duty on any given Saturday. On average, 60 residents in wheelchairs need their help getting to mass; there's also a handful of ambulatory Alzheimer's patients who are accompanied one-on-one by a volunteer at all times. After the service, in which some of the volunteers also serve as lectors and eucharistic ministers, the residents are served a snack and then escorted back to their rooms.
According to Novak's figures, the volunteers put in a cumulative 1,328 hours a year, which if the service were provided by paid attendants would cost $24,927. But he can't put a price on what it means to the residents.
"When you see the smiles on those men's faces, you know they appreciate you," said Morrie Devitt, one of the original volunteers who started helping out a decade ago.
"It's an opportunity to help the veterans who have given so much to us," added Jay Taylor, the post's grand knight. "We're just giving back a little of what they deserve."
Not all the volunteers are members of the Knights of Columbus. The group of regulars includes Lilo Schmitz, whose husband died two years ago. He spent the last couple of years of his life at the Veterans Home, during which she saw how much he appreciated the help the volunteers offered. So now she is repaying the favor to other residents.
"I come just about every Saturday," she said.
Because the Veterans Home is one of the few serving the entire Upper Midwest, many of the residents don't have family in the immediate area. "So we become their families," Novak said.
He likes to assign volunteers to the same residents so they can build a relationship. But there's a danger in that, because of what he calls the "high turnover rate" at the home.
"This is their last home," he said. "You have to make sure that you don't get too sympathetic, because you're going to lose some."
Ryan said the pain of loss is offset by what he sees from the people he helps. "I see the love and affection among the families and the staff for these residents," he said. "And I see the face of Christ every day in their faces."