May 8, 2015

Spirit of Service honorees help ‘transform the world’

By John Shaughnessy

Reflecting on a year when 62,000 people were helped by the staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, David Bethuram said the agency couldn’t begin to make a difference without two major realities.

Having the trust of the people they serve.

And having the generosity of the people who support their efforts to help others.

“We are in the position where we hear the stories of people who are suffering, in need, vulnerable or at-risk,” Bethuram told an audience of about 600 people at the annual Spirit of Service Awards Dinner on April 30 at the Indiana Roof Ballroom in Indianapolis.

“Working with many of you as our community partners, we at Catholic Charities have been able to design programs and services that develop the full potential of individuals and families through education, socialization, and personal and physical development.”

The director of Catholic Charities Indianapolis, Bethuram noted that the agency’s staff members and volunteers work to transform the lives of people who have been affected by poverty, job loss, domestic violence, mental illness and homelessness. The 62,000 people that were helped in the past year represented an increase of 14,000 people who were assisted from the previous year.

“I appreciate your willingness to take this journey with us,” Bethuram said, “to build a stronger community by helping us help more families and children, and by creating promising futures for them and for the city of Indianapolis.” (Related story: Entertaining exchange between Colts leads to tales of football, faith and fun at Spirit of Service event)

That focus on making a difference is evident in the four individuals who received this year’s Spirit of Service Awards during the dinner.

Consider the young life of Zach Smith, who was honored with the archdiocese’s Youth Spirit of Service Award.

‘A sense of peace and fulfillment’

Since he was born, 18-year-old Zach Smith has been challenged by a physical condition that has made him rely on crutches and a wheelchair to get around.

During his childhood, he also struggled with questions about his abilities and his place in the world: “Can I do this? Am I physically capable of being impactful?”

At 13, his life changed when his orthopedic doctor recommended that he take part in a program that takes youths with disabilities for a scuba-diving-certification trip to the Cayman Islands.

“That trip drove me to expect more of myself and do more in my community,” Zach says.

He has served on the inclusiveness committee and taught in the vacation Bible school at his parish, St. Mark the Evangelist in Indianapolis. He’s given talks at schools and churches about his life and his relationship with God.

During his years at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, the senior has mentored other students with disabilities, helped at the school’s day care center, and participated in a club that helps at an animal shelter.

He plays violin during the school’s Masses and theater productions. He’s also a member of the youth board for Anna’s Celebration of Life Foundation, a group that focuses on children with special needs. And he’s part of the planning team for the Midnight Mile, a run that raises money for children with disabilities.

“That’s huge to me—to be helping kids similar to what I’ve been through,” says Zach, the son of Jeffrey and Rebecca Smith. “Doing things for others has brought me a sense of peace and fulfillment.”

Those qualities also mark the life of Franciscan Sister Norma Rocklage, who received the Community Service Award.

‘We can help transform the world’

“Our whole community’s mission is to reach out where there’s a need,” says Sister Norma, who entered the Oldenburg Franciscans in 1951. “Our foundress, Mother Theresa Hackelmeier, exemplified ‘the courage to venture.’ That’s the spirit that guides us.”

It’s a spirit that continues to overflow from Sister Norma at 81. Striving for peace and justice as a member of Pax Christi of Indianapolis, she fasted for 72.5 hours in March in the hope of convincing the Indiana legislature to increase the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

That effort in solidarity with the poor reflects the approach she takes as the executive director of education formation outreach for Marian University in Indianapolis. Sister Norma strives to connect Marian’s students, faculty and staff in interfaith efforts to improve the lives of the vulnerable.

She’s followed that path in her own life. Starting in 1953, she taught for three years at St. Mary School in North Vernon. From 1965 until 1974, she served at Marian as an assistant professor of classical language, dean of academic affairs and director of scholastics.

From 1974 to 1982, Sister Norma was a member of the general council for the Oldenburg Franciscan community. She was also the community’s novice director for two years. In 1989, she returned to Marian as acting president for six months and then served as vice president for mission effectiveness until 2001.

“It’s the idea of really living out the call of God to help others,” she says. “The service we do helps us to come close to God and experience God. We can help transform the world.”

‘That’s what we were raised to do’

Gene Hawkins has tried to transform the world by mentoring youths through the Big Brothers program and the National Society of Black Engineers.

He has been changing the lives of young people since he graduated in 1992 from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. It’s his way of giving back.

“I remember the older guys in the neighborhood looking out for me,” recalls Hawkins, who grew up in Queens, N.Y. “They spent time with me, let me be the sixth man on the basketball team, and told me about the guys to stay away from. And I saw they went to church.”

Hawkins also credits his parents for his selection as a Spirit of Service Award recipient.

“My mom is deceased now, but she was like the neighborhood mayor. My dad is 82, and he still volunteers. That’s what we were raised to do.”

Hawkins has followed that example with amazing dedication, especially since he became a member of Holy Angels Parish in Indianapolis in 1995. He’s served as an usher, a lector, a confirmation catechist, a member of the parish council, and the executive director of the parish’s capital campaign.

“I chose my home up the block from Holy Angels,” says Hawkins, a father of two who has been married to his wife Michelle for 15 years. “I’ve been in everything I can think of at Holy Angels. It’s good for me, my family and my kids.”

Hawkins also helps with voter registration and voter education programs through the NAACP. He calls his Catholic faith the driving force in his efforts.

“I’ve always equated my faith to being one of service to others.”

‘I just like helping people’

Steve Rasmussen also knows what it means to give his heart to helping others.

For 37 years, he dedicated his life to serving others as an Indianapolis firefighter. The Spirit of Service Award recipient now tries to give a new life to families who never would have had a chance to own a home.

His volunteer efforts began by doing projects for people in need. Already handy with tools from his second job as a landlord of rental houses, he put in railings and wheelchair ramps for shut-in members of his parish, St. Monica in Indianapolis.

Those volunteer projects reached a whole new level for Rasmussen when he and his wife Nancy occasionally went to Mass at Holy Trinity Church in Indianapolis, the parish where she attended school as a child. That’s where Rasmussen met Father John McCaslin, the now closed parish’s pastor, who had an idea of trying to transform the struggling neighborhood by buying run-down homes, rehabilitating them, and then helping poor families buy them.

That idea became a non-profit organization called Hearts & Hands of Indiana. Rasmussen has been involved from its start, even loaning the money to purchase the first home. Since then, five families have moved into these houses. Another four houses are being rehabbed.

Members of Hearts & Hands praise him for his “passion” and “his tireless work.” Rasmussen deflects the praise.

“I’ve been blessed,” says the father of eight and grandfather of 22. “I just like helping people. That’s been my life for the past 30 years, and I thank Nancy for that. God’s given me the ability to do things, people call, and Nancy volunteers me for everything. This whole thing has been a partnership.” †

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