Response: May 2014 Issue

“Of No Less Worth”

“Of No Less Worth”
Janice and Harold Dilly volunteer in InterServ's mobile meals program.

InterServ's help and service opportunities for people living with disabilities

Ever since getting hit by a car, David Rockett doesn't leave home much. The accident left his legs mangled, and although he can move around with a cane, he doesn't move very fast. At 64 and also wrestling with a blood disorder, he's on constant medication for pain. Yet he's not complaining, in part because home caregivers from InterServ Community Services, a St. Joseph, Mo., United Methodist Women-related national mission institution, visit him twice a week to clean house, shop for groceries, cook food, and, most importantly for Mr. Rockett, listen to him with compassion.

"Before InterServ started working with me, I was a forgotten guy," he said. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to get anywhere or keep my house in order. The older you get, the more people forget about you. It's not that you've outlived your usefulness, it's just nature's way of letting you go. But these people aren't ready to let go of me yet."

Susan Spencer is one of two caregivers from InterServ who visit Mr. Rockett every week.

"Our presence in people's lives often allows them to stay in their own homes much longer, rather than going to a nursing home or care facility," Ms. Spencer said. "We do a lot for them, but a majority are lonely and just need someone to talk to, someone to encourage them. As a society we're way too busy and don't take the time to talk with people the way we should."

Ms. Spencer has been working as a home caregiver for InterServ for 20 years. The profession is one of the most underpaid jobs around, and she says she's often thought of going back to school to study nursing or some other career that would allow her to continue to work with people in their home yet earn more money at the same time. "But I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to spend the quality time with them that I currently do," she said.

Disabilities don't stop them

Ms. Spencer's work is but one example of a wide variety of services provided by InterServ, whose roots in St. Joseph go back more than 100 years (see page 20).

While many of the programs respond to the needs of people who, like Mr. Rockett, are living with disabilities, InterServ's ministries also provide opportunities for those living with disabilities to engage the community around them, people like Janice Dilley. The 70-year-old woman suffered severe back trauma when she fell 16 years ago and now gets around in a wheelchair. Yet every weekday morning she and her husband Harold, who drives their specially equipped van, can be found packing Meals on Wheels lunches at an InterServ kitchen.

"We're old, and we live in a senior apartment complex where there's not much to do. I'm not going to just sit at home. We like coming here and being helpful," said Ms. Dilley. "Being in the chair all the time might bother some people, but when I think about it, I just think about a lot of people who are worse off than I am."

When the Dilleys are done packaging the meals, they're distributed to homes by a network of volunteers, which also includes people with disabilities. Jeffery Yokley is one of them. The 19-year-old has cerebral palsy, but that doesn't stop him.

"I like to help people with disabilities, people who are having a hard time. I like helping hungry people to have food. I like to talk to people, and they like talking with me," he said.

Anna Hurt, a 21-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, also delivers Meals on Wheels, and her motivation is both simple and a telling remark about how people with disabilities are often treated.

"I like doing this because people are nice to us," she said.

At times the lines blur between InterServ's "clients" and "volunteers."

James Heater lives at Juda House, a permanent residence for chronically homeless men with disabilities that is sponsored by Community Missions, an offshoot of InterServ. After years of living on the streets and along the banks of the Missouri River, Mr. Heater moved into Juda House three years ago. His disabilities may leave him unemployable, but they don't stop him from volunteering at InterServ's Food pantry, which provides boxes of healthy food for the city's poor.

"During most of the time I was homeless, my life focused just on me, on how I was going to survive. But having a permanent and safe place to live has helped me focus outside myself, and the food pantry gives me an opportunity to help others. At the end of the day I can say I've done something good. That's a gift to me from InterServ," he said.

Volunteer help

Among those who have made possible the permanent housing where Mr. Heater lives is Thelma Wyrick, a retired mental health nurse and president of United Methodist Women at Wesley United Methodist Church in St. Joseph.

Ms. Wyrick sits on the board of InterServ and is president of the board of Community Missions. And she volunteers many of her afternoons at Juda House and St. Joseph's Haven, another Community Missions permanent housing facility for chronically homeless men with disabilities. She helps them manage their medications but also just spends time listening as the men talk.

United Methodist Women in the area support InterServ's ministries in a variety of ways, including donating food, helping with mailings and providing special programs at Christmas. Ms. Wyrick says some of her friends don't understand her commitment and are afraid to get involved. They might be willing to cook food to bring to the residence, but many don't want to stay to talk to the men, many of whom wrestle with alcoholism. "While I don't drink, I never know when I might end up homeless, and I hope that someone would care about me in that situation," Ms. Wyrick tells them. "I don't make judgments. I'm just here to help."

Ms. Wyrick says it's important to understand that addiction is a disability. "It affects their ability to earn an income and to have a family that remains together. Many become addicted to alcohol because of post-traumatic stress disorder, whether from their experience in the military or living on the streets. They can't function the same as before. And I can't stop them from drinking. But at least when they're here in the winter I know they're not going to freeze to death outside," she said.

Ms. Wyrick's volunteer work has also taken her to the state legislature to advocate on behalf of the vulnerable. During the last session, for example, she pushed to stop a move to require drug testing for food stamp recipients.

"I'm worried about the effect that could have on children," she said. "Kids can't work to buy food, and they're not responsible for someone else's addictions. They often depend just on their mother, but why should they suffer if she makes bad choices?"

According to David Howery, executive director of InterServ and a veteran of such legislative advocacy work, it has become fashionable in the United States to paint the poor as unworthy. "Yet the social teachings of the church tell us over and over that everyone has worth. That includes people addicted to alcohol or drugs and people with mental illness. The Gospel calls on us to craft a compassionate response to all of them," he said.

Mr. Howery said one strength of InterServ is that it works with so many sectors of the population.

"We work with everyone from infants to the elderly, with immigrants and youth and families, with people who are vulnerable or poor," he said. "You can't be a servant to them for long before you realize there are inequities and injustice that need to be addressed."

Mr. Howery says it's important to understand that soldiers are not the only ones suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We've developed a general acceptance in our society that veterans who've suffered PTSD need special help with retraining, with health care and education. They are generally seen as worthy. But what about people who've been traumatized by economic hard times, such as workers who've been displaced by factory closings?" Mr. Howery said. "They are of no less worth, and their well-being is no less important to the community. We value our community not by its stock market value, but by how well people are doing, especially the most vulnerable among us."

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response magazine. His award-winning blog is online at

Posted or updated: 5/1/2014 11:00:00 PM