April 1, 2016

Servants’ heart is hallmark of this year’s Spirit of Service award recipients

By John Shaughnessy

Htoo ThuWhen she arrived in the United States as a refugee, Htoo Thu looked forward to the freedom and opportunity that her new country offered her and her family.

Yet the teenager never anticipated how one chance meeting in her new city of Indianapolis would change her—and lead to her selection as this year’s recipient of the Spirit of Service Youth Award.

Tim Hahn, Domoni Rouse and Phyllis Usher will also receive Spirit of Service Awards from Catholic Charities Indianapolis during its annual dinner event in Indianapolis on April 27.

(Related story: Speedway’s Boles will be featured speaker at Spirit of Service Awards Dinner)

For Htoo, the life-changing meeting occurred shortly after her family moved from Burma to St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, where she started at the parish school as an eighth-grade student.

“We lived in an apartment where a lot of other Burmese refugees lived, and one day this American person, Mike Newton, knocked on our door and I answered,” recalls Htoo, now a senior at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

“That day, he had a trailer full of clothing and furniture and toys. My family received a few things, and a lot of the Burmese refugees came out to see what was going on. I knew some English, so I was the translator. Mister Mike keeps coming once a week, and I come out to translate. He inspires me. He gives so much of his time for us. I said, ‘Can I be like you?’ ”

Consider that question answered positively.

Even as she works two part-time jobs, she has accumulated more than 600 service hours during her four years at Roncalli.

Many of her service hours come from translating for Newton and helping him distribute the items from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She also helps new refugees by offering them support when they visit the doctor or translating for them when they get a driver’s license. And she serves as a translator during parent-teacher conferences at Roncalli and St. Mark.

And she does it all while earning a 4.2 grade-point-average (on a scale of 4.0).

“Her passion for wanting to help others is so powerful,” says Roncalli’s principal Chuck Weisenbach. “She truly has a servant’s heart.”

It’s all a matter of sharing the love, says Htoo, who wants to become a doctor.

“Since I have been on the receiving end of the generosity of other people, I feel great when I help others. I feel like I grow so much from doing it,” she says. “Now when I look at someone, I think about what I can do to help them. I feel God is telling me I should do this. I don’t even think about it anymore. I just go for it.”

Here are the stories of the other recipients of the Spirit of Service Award.

Domoni Rouse

Domoni RouseDomoni Rouse has a special motivation as she works to help people find a way out of poverty in central Indiana.

She knows what it’s like to struggle, and she knows the difference it makes when someone makes the effort to help a person through a difficult time.

“For five years of my life, I didn’t go to church. During those years, I had some difficult times in my personal life,” says Rouse, now a longtime member of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis. “It was my church that made me understand what being a Catholic and a Christian are all about, and what my faith is all about.

“I was a member of the choir, and I often say that being able to sing saved my life when I couldn’t hold my head up. The elders of the church put their arms around me, and showed me the way. It helped turn my life truly toward God. I matured spiritually, and decided charity should be the root foundation of my life.”

Now, she puts her arms around the participants of “Changing Lives Forever,” a St. Vincent de Paul Society program that tries to help people escape the cycle of poverty by pairing them with a mentor who makes the journey with them.

“I love that it opens people’s eyes to the possibilities and gives them hope. It helps them to see they can have a future story. And it helps open the eyes of the facilitators who walk with them. If we aren’t educated about each other, nothing will change. People in this program are living a stressful life in an unstable environment. When you understand that, you want to be able to help.”

Rouse has had that same approach at St. Rita, where she has served as president of the parish council and a religious education teacher. She also serves as a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.

She says she accepts the Spirit of Service Award on behalf of all the other volunteers of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“Vincentians believe that we should show people the face of Christ, and we should see the face of Christ in the people we serve. If you’re doing that, you’re epitomizing what we should do as Catholics, as Christians.

“As my mom says, it’s all about love. The love of Christ is supposed to be spread from one person to another. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Phyllis Land Usher

Phyllis Land UsherWhen Phyllis Land Usher married her husband Bill, she joined a Catholic family that was dedicated to approaching everyone they met with dignity and the love of Christ—which included taking care of the funeral arrangements of nearly every Little Sister of the Poor in Indianapolis since the 1930s.

Their marriage also introduced the Mississippi native to a world she hadn’t known previously—the west side Indianapolis neighborhood surrounding St. Anthony Parish that Bill and then-pastor Msgr. John Ryan embraced.

“I fell in love with my husband, and I fell in love with the neighborhood. Msgr. Ryan would call Bill to have him help people. My husband grew up in the parish, and knew all the people. He had friends from the statehouse to the gutter, and he treated them all the same—with respect. I saw helping people from a different light because I had not lived in a struggling neighborhood before. I saw how it opened your heart to wanting to help people.”

The couple had been married 10 years when Bill died in 1993—a time when she could have left the neighborhood. Instead, the longtime educator stayed. She has continued in her husband’s path, including serving as the president of the Usher Funeral Home. She has also set a new course of service of her own.

Known as “the fairy godmother of the west side,” she has served as the president of the board of the Hawthorne Community Center, leading a successful $3.5 million capital campaign.

She is also involved with Hearts and Hands of Indiana, an organization that helps low-income families and individuals become homeowners in the St. Anthony area.

She’s had a longtime commitment to the Kiwanis Foundation of Indianapolis and Hope Academy, a public charter school for students in recovery from addictions.

And while her funeral home continues the family tradition of providing burials for the Little Sisters of the Poor, she’s also the caregiver for a 90-year-old resident of the sisters’ St. Augustine Home for the Aged.

“They are wonderful people,” she says about the sisters. “It’s wonderful to see how they tend to the people with such love and competence.”

She has the same approach in her service to others.

“Bill encouraged me to never be on the sidelines. He thought I could do anything. That’s how I found myself in this position.”

Tim Hahn

Tim HahnIn nearly 20 years of helping people in need, Tim Hahn has been guided by this belief: “Whenever you take a little leap of faith, God won’t be outdone in his generosity.”

That belief took hold during the dozen years that Hahn worked with his mentor, the late Lucious Newsom, a retired-Baptist-minister-turned-Catholic who helped the poor with a dignity-first, hands-on, caring approach.

And Hahn has continued to follow that belief in the past eight years as the founder of “Helping Hand,” the grass-roots, non-profit organization that strives to make a difference, especially with members of the Hispanic community.

When Hahn once paid a $98 gas bill for a struggling family, he went home and found a $100 check in his mailbox from a friend he hadn’t seen in two years.

On the day he bought a new mattress for a teenager who never had one, Hahn received a phone call from a store owner, saying she wanted to make a donation to Helping Hand, a donation that ended up being a few thousand dollars.

That combination of people’s generosity and God’s generosity fuels Hahn as he taps into donations from restaurants and supermarkets to provide food for about 200 people each week.

At the beginning of the school year, his group of about 35 volunteers give backpacks filled with school supplies to students. At Thanksgiving, they provide families with everything they need for a feast. In December, they distribute coats and shoes for the winter.

Most importantly, his goal is to get to know the people he serves, to listen to their hopes, their needs, their stories.

“You start to learn their names and the problems they have,” says Hahn, who gives cakes to the people he helps for their birthdays. “You start by handing out bread, but if you think it ends there, you’re wrong. It just starts there. You have to show people you care first.”

The leaps of faith he makes have led him even closer to people and to God.

“When you do this, you see Jesus in these people,” says Hahn, who attends Mass at Holy Cross Church in Indianapolis. “And look at all the time he spent with the poor, talking with them, laughing with them, helping them. So why wouldn’t I want to do that?

“I think feeding the poor is the key to the kingdom. Jesus did it. That’s what we’re here for, too.” †

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