This week is National Volunteers Week, and it’s an apt time to focus on a group of parishioners from St. Cornelius Parish in Chadds Ford, Chester County, who regularly volunteer their time to serve veterans who are either homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness.
Over the last few months a dozen men and women have responded to the call to lend a helping hand at “Operating Base Cecilia,” which is located in the former St. Cecilia School in Coatesville. The program is a joint effort of Catholic Social Services (CSS) and another non-profit, the Veterans Multi-Service Center.
Program director Maura “Mo” Gillen is herself a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr.
St. Cornelius parishioner Tim O’Malley coordinates the parish volunteer effort as a representative of the parish Social Outreach Team, which is one of five subcommittees of the Stewardship and Development Committee established by St. Cornelius’ pastor, Msgr. Gregory Parlante.
A strong supporter of the Catholic Charities Appeal, Msgr. Parlante suggested that Tim and fellow team members Tom Sholes (a CSS board member) and Pat Ripsom explore parish volunteer service opportunities with Catholic Social Services.
After his recent retirement O’Malley was looking for a way to give back. After praying about it, “I realized that true needs are present right here in my own backyard,” he said. “I don’t have to travel to foreign lands to find people in crisis.
“So a few months back, I drove up to Coatesville and spent time with Mo getting to understand the program. Needless to say, I was excited and thought the idea of serving needy veterans would strike a chord with our parishioners. We live in a time when patriotism is very strong and Lent was a great time to initiate this.”
Gillen then visited St. Cornelius to describe her program’s work with struggling veterans and their families. She invited the parishioners’ support in three areas: in-kind donations of furniture, home goods and clothing; being a welcoming presence during “open screening days” when lots of veterans show up to benefit from the full range of supportive services offered; and special projects such as painting and community gardening efforts.
After their first service visit in March, the volunteers’ positive feedback led to a decision to continue the visits on a monthly basis and to get involved in special projects as needed.
“I believe the work at Operating Base Cecilia is real. There is an attainable goal and I can see how my time and treasure works to help these vets who have given valuable time in their lives to help secure the freedom that I cherish,” O’Malley said. “This is the least I can do to say thank you.”
He found the veterans he met very willing to chat, and they all had a story to share: “Some showed pictures of their time in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those I met were not there for a handout; they were looking for help and the programs offered by this center were clearly filling that need.”
Fellow parishioner Patricia McDermott noted how the men and women veterans had served the United States in the armed forces.
“Now it’s our turn to give back to them,” she said. “I felt we were a help both to the staff and to the vets, whose warmth and gratitude were evident and humbling.”
“The volunteer service we will do at Operating Base Cecilia, as gratifying as I know it will be, will also have a transformative element for us volunteers,” said another parishioner, Fred Corneau. “It seems to be the way God works. We can help these vets in so many ways through our Christian commitment to love and serve our sisters and brothers who have fallen on hard times.
“But we can also pause to reflect on how and what we buy and consume for our own satisfaction, and how we often we do not pray in simple gratitude for a decent roof over our heads or the food that sustains us without worry. It is a chance to follow the path of service that Pope Francis is clearly exhorting for us: to serve and show mercy to the poorest among us, knowing that it is always a two-way street of transformation.”
In its first year of operation, Operating Base Cecilia served 350 individuals from 237 households headed up by a veteran. They were all in crisis but were able to get back on track thanks to the program of the Veterans Multi-Service Center and Catholic Social Services.
Veterans who are struggling and need help, or volunteers who want to get involved as a donor or volunteer of the program, can call 610-384-VETS (8387) for more information.
Ed Lis is director of Catholic mission effectiveness for Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.