Volunteers from St. Patrick, Hudson, pitch in at the local food pantry as part of the parish’s I GOT TIME volunteer program. Each month, parishioners donate time and talent to help their community. (Catholic Herald photo by Joe Winter)

Joe Winter
Special to the Catholic Herald

A large-scale, year-long push to get local parishioners into the habit of volunteering has picked up steam at St. Patrick’s Church, Hudson.

Kids get to help peers they don’t know, adults work hand-in-hand with others in the church they’ve never met, and families can spend time together. These are only some of the benefits of monthly events hosted though the I GOT TIME program, which began in December.

In the first five months, 203 individuals took part, and some returned for second and third projects. Volunteers have worked more than 700 hours. The most popular event was the kickoff in December, making crafts and caroling at a local nursing home.

“I think December is a great month to get people in the habit of thinking about giving back, and the response to our invitation was very positive,” organizer Claire Zajac said. “We had 60 volunteers from all ages and backgrounds, and the nursing home residents really appreciated our presence.”

The first five events were filled to capacity.

“I think the most surprising thing has been the response from families who have found this to be a great opportunity for together time. We’ve already run out of kid T-shirts, because we didn’t expect so many young children to participate,” Zajac said, adding that the program has fueled a desire among all ages to get involved in more ministries.

All agree the impetus for the program was the parish’s pastor, Fr. John Gerritts.

“He was looking for a way to get all different kinds of parishioners involved in some kind of volunteer program that fits the needs of busy people who perhaps have not been previously involved in a service project in the parish,” Zajac said. “We came up with the idea of a different project every month that we could reliably lead, so that it was turn-key from the point of view of the volunteer.”

All organizing and logistics are arranged in advance. The key elements of the structure are simplicity, variety and a fun, family-friendly vibe, and the organizers say they put together the calendar by contacting local hosts who needed volunteers, then setting up a website interface for easy sign-ups.

“A final step was marketing the program as part of the overall stewardship culture, in fact being a cornerstone,” Zajac said. “We created a logo and look-and-feel to generate confidence that this program is easy, fun, worthwhile, and a great way to be a part of the parish community.”

The project leaders put the structure in place, a final step in getting it started as one-of-a-kind. They are not aware of any other parish doing this kind of program, as is basically homegrown. The organizers said they would be happy to share their knowledge and experience with any other area parishes looking to fulfill this kind of need.

The May event was to assist the local post office with their annual canned goods food drive. Parish workers unloaded trucks at St. Patrick and restocked the community food pantry, and the activity was filled to its capacity for volunteers weeks ahead of time. In June, volunteers were off to an outdoor construction project at YMCA Camp St. Croix. The rest of the calendar for the year is still under development, but the next six events will be announced soon.

“We select the receiving charities by looking at our natural connections to people in the parish, in Hudson, and the metro area,” Zajac said. For example, the pro-life clinic in St. Paul was selected because parishioner Dr. Greg Young is the medical director there. Then picked was Blankets for a Brighter Day, which provides fleece blankets to children in area hospitals, because it is operated by a parish family, the Baiers. Planners selected the food shelf because it is a community project operated out of the lower level of the church.

Zajac’s partner in the initial project push is parishioner Heidi Young.

“Our program is really about community building,” Young said. “We want to make it fun to participate and get people excited about volunteering. We have found that many people are willing to help, we just need to make it easy to schedule and show up. This is a great way to meet other parishioners.”

“The people who visited the pro-life center had a great experience,” Fr. Gerritts said, especially the making of birthday cards for mother and child, even though it wasn’t the largest project group and a tally of participants was not kept. That would come later, even though Mother Nature had different ideas.

“A lot of people signed up for the Feed My Starving Children (volunteer activity), but … the flu caused several to have to cancel.”

Young and Zajac did all the prep work and organization to get the project going and are instrumental in picking activities, Gerritts said. “They were looking for something that would help make a difference after working hard on the Syrian Refugee project. Yes, it took a lot of prep.”

The event for Toni Chambers was joining parishioners at the women’s pro-life clinic in St. Paul, while her husband and sons opted for packing and arranging goods for the Feed My Starving Children center in the metro.

“I don’t know that there was one activity I enjoyed most – it was knowing that we were doing something that was making a difference for someone, getting to know others from the parish that I may not have met otherwise, and knowing that it was our shared Catholic faith that was bringing us together,” Chambers said.

She added that her boys “liked helping kids we don’t even know.”

“The activities have been opportunities we may not have had if it were not for I GOT TIME,” she added. “It was an opportunity to ‘live the faith,’ giving of myself but also learning and challenging myself. Activities provided a lot of conversation for our family, and (were) a valuable way to illustrate what our faith means to us.”

All the conversations have been positive, she said. “Not only have the activities been fun, the fact that they can be attended as families if desired (which) is a true gift to families, parents working alongside their children.” The fact that most activities are on weekends also makes things smooth.

“I am hopeful that it will become a ‘way of parish life’ for us at St. Patrick Parish,” Chambers said, although she is quite busy even without this latest task. She is parent of four sons and works part-time as a parent peer specialist for Wisconsin Family Ties, a nonprofit promoting children’s mental health and supporting families with children who have mental health challenges.

Barbara Kaiser, 69, a retired bookkeeper, is coming from a somewhat different place.

“The camaraderie with fellow parishioners, was with some I met for the first time. We all had a common goal.

“I was at a standstill in my faith journey and this activity was definitely the boost I needed. It was that little spark, leap of faith knowing I was doing something rewarding not only for me but most importantly for the residents,” she said. “To see the smiles on everyone’s faces and to witness the toe tapping, finger tapping as we all sang carols together was enough to make your heart melt with joy.”

Henry Burns participated through his faith formation group, singing Christmas songs to the dementia unit at a care center.

“The smiles on the residents’ faces and how many of them remembered the words to the songs, and sang along, was great,” he said.

“It reminded me how we must take care of others, especially those who need help. We must be shepherds of Christ, and Christmas is the perfect time for bringing that joy to others.”

We are all called to serve, he said, and must look around with open eyes to see how we can help.

“It has been good for people who can’t think of things to do, or need direction, but anyone can help with stewardship without having the event organized for you. We are all called to serve, and part of that is being aware of others in our community,” said Burns, a junior at Hudson High School and a swim instructor for the American Red Cross.

Volunteer Carol Skinner said doing something nice for others is what it’s all about; taking time to bring a small measure of joy to others in the community brings joy to the volunteer.

“I’m grateful that I must be back on someone’s list,” she added with a chuckle.