It all began, simply enough, with a community service project in high school, helping out and doing whatever needed to be done at a nursing home. Then as now, there was no shortage of chores the young student was called on to undertake. And then, as she recalls today, “little by little” she came to see how much the elderly residents appreciated her care. Little by little, too, she began to realize how important the work was. And thus were the first seeds of a vocation born — a vocation that would flourish, and one day would affect the lives of thousands of others.
That girl of years ago was Joan Raber, the school was Presentation High School in San Francisco, and the residence where she volunteered was St. Anne’s Home, conducted by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Today Joan Raber is Mother Celine de la Visitation, Mother General of the entire Little Sisters community — nearly 3,000 strong, staffing 203 homes in 32 countries around the world. These days, when she speaks of the value of volunteers to the community — and she does that often — the thought that she was once a volunteer herself is rarely far from her mind. If anything, it deepens her appreciation of the important role that volunteers play.
The Little Sisters are quite an organization. They were founded in France in 1839 by St. Jeanne Jugan (canonized by Pope Benedict XVI last year), who took an elderly and destitute woman into her home — toted her up the stairs, the story goes — and took care of her there. That heroic act of volunteerism would be the building block for what became the Little Sisters of the Poor, for that one woman was followed by another, and then several, and soon Jeanne needed more volunteers to help her — and so a community was born.
The mission of the Little Sisters of the Poor is uncomplicated. They take care of the elderly poor, period. They give them a loving home, prepare their meals, care for them if they’re sick, and journey with them when they’re dying. In an age of billion-dollar deals and trillion-dollar budgets, they support themselves the old-fashioned way: by begging. That’s right, begging. They’re serious about it, going from business to business, merchant to merchant with outstretched hands and loving hearts, grateful for gifts large and small — anything that helps the mission go forward.
And always, there are those volunteers. I caught up with Mother Celine when she visited one of the Little Sisters’ homes, St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly in Totowa. “I can’t say there’s nothing to do,” she told me with a smile. “Our needs are more pressing than ever.”
Maryknoll Father James Keller had something in common with Jeanne Jugan; they both understood the value of volunteers. “Alert, bright and generous” was the way Father Keller thought of volunteers, relying on their help when he founded The Christophers in 1945 — making them, in fact, a cornerstone of his movement. Jeanne Jugan thought of them in the same way, and so does Mother Celine today.
“There was a time,” Mother Celine said to me, “when the Little Sisters did everything. There were no employees, no volunteers — we did it all. Now, of course, it’s different. Now we rely on others to help us.” She paused before she added, “And we’re so thankful that they’re there.”
[For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, “Bring out the Best in Others,” write:
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