March 6, 2009

Good Samaritans: Story of a lonely child sparks efforts to help people in need

Teresa Hildebrand, left, talks with Barbara Buti about some of the people who have sought help from the Good Samaritan Program at St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute. The two women are part of the parish’s longstanding commitment to serve the poor and other people in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Teresa Hildebrand, left, talks with Barbara Buti about some of the people who have sought help from the Good Samaritan Program at St. Joseph University Parish in Terre Haute. The two women are part of the parish’s longstanding commitment to serve the poor and other people in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: “Spreading Hope In Neighborhoods Everywhere” (SHINE) is a social ministry renewal that will be launched on Oct. 1, 2009, by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The following is part of a series that highlights how the ministry of charity is taking place in parishes, schools, agencies and other institutions throughout the archdiocese. Catholic Charities is leading the planning. To learn more about SHINE and how you and your parish can become involved, log on to

By John Shaughnessy

TERRE HAUTE—Teresa Hildebrand will soon share the story of the adopted child and how that lonely, little girl still affects her and her work at one of the most remarkable parish outreach programs in the archdiocese.

Yet right now Hildebrand is busy reacting to the steady ringing of the doorbell at the St. Joseph University Parish Center in this western Indiana community.

Every time the doorbell rings on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon at the parish center, it usually signals the arrival of a destitute or struggling person, couple or family who is seeking even the smallest glimmer of hope in an economy and a world that has turned against them.

Notice the disabled couple walking down the hall toward Hildebrand’s office. The husband and wife will soon tell her about their three children as they ask for her help in paying their utility bills.

Look at the battered face of the woman whose jaw has been wired shut—a victim of domestic abuse who seeks Hildebrand’s help to get a room in a women’s shelter.

See the heartbroken young mother who sits in front of Hildebrand, holding her 13-month-old child, who has just been diagnosed as mentally handicapped—the result of unknowingly being exposed to four times the acceptable level of lead poisoning in the run-down rental property where the young woman scraped by to live. The devastated mother hopes Hildebrand can help with a deposit to move to another place.

“That was heartbreaking to me,” Hildebrand would say later after helping the young mother. “It was one of the most touching stories I’ve heard recently.”

She hears a lot of those stories as the director of the parish’s Good Samaritan Program, a program that offers an unusual yet basic approach to helping people in need.

The story of an adopted child

Two collections are always taken at the three weekend Masses at St. Joseph Church. The first is for the parish. The second is for the Good Samaritan Program, a collection that usually totals between $4,500 and $5,000 a month to help people in need pay for utilities, rent and prescriptions.

“We do it because of the need—and the generosity of our parishioners,” says Conventual Franciscan Father Richard Kaley, who has been the parish’s pastor since 2001. “Because of its downtown location, the parish has always attracted the poor. The parishioners have chosen this way to give to the poor.”

And Hildebrand has chosen to lead the Good Samaritan Program ever since Father Kaley asked for help with it eight years ago.

“I’ve always been a volunteer,” says Hildebrand, 62, and the mother of two grown children. “I was a court-appointed special advocate for neglected and abused children before this. That was the best preparation I could have for this. I see people from the same socioeconomic situation. My whole life has prepared me to do this.”

She then tells the story of an adopted child and how that lonely, little girl is always at the heart of her efforts.

“I was born to a single mother in Ireland,” she recalls. “I was adopted and brought over from Ireland when I was 6. I was adopted by a family who lived outside of Chicago. It was hard for me. I have a great understanding of people who are rejected, who are alone, who feel they don’t belong anywhere. That stayed with me until I got married and had my own family.”

Hildebrand pauses before adding, “Because of everything I went through, I made it hard for my mother who adopted me. The funny thing was she was always the person helping others. What I got from her was a sense of kindness.”

She smiles and sighs.

“We are all so much more similar than we’re different. All the stories I hear here are just a variation of a similar theme—not being loved, not being nurtured. I had always felt like an outsider, but I felt blessed when people reached out to me. I’m doing what I’m doing because of the people who were there for me.”

‘I’m doing what I can’

At 81, Glen Ambs came to Hildebrand and the Good Samaritan Program for help when he was struggling with money problems and grieving over the loss of so many of his family members.

“She’s fabulous,” Ambs says. “I came in to get some help and she helped me immediately. I had lost so many of my family and I asked her if a grief class would help. She got me in one the next day. This is a lady who truly has empathy. She gets right to the point with a person and tells them there is hope.”

Hildebrand’s assistant marvels at the time and care she gives to the 20 or more people who come to the office every time it is open.

“She understands people, feels for them and tries her utmost to help them,” Barbara Buti says. “She doesn’t like to say no to anyone.”

Still, Hildebrand insists she is not a pushover.

“Everything is according to the need of the person,” she says. “These people haven’t missed one paycheck. They’ve missed multiple paychecks. And almost everyone I see has some form of bad health. Then a car needs to be fixed, a child gets sick or the water heater stops working.

“But this isn’t one-step, instant gratification here. I want to empower them. I have a formula. They pay a third, they find a third and I help them with a third. I tell them to visit the trustee office for help. I ask them to tap into friends and family for help. I ask questions and I do double-checking, but I don’t have any judgments of them. I don’t care what they’ve done to this point in their life. I see myself as God’s servant. I’m doing what I can.”

The core part of faith

Hildebrand’s work with the poor and needy has taken her to the tough, sometimes seedy places that many people avoid in daily life.

“All the people who are in the alleys picking up cans or riding bicycles because they can’t afford a car, I know them all and love them all,” she says.

Hildebrand’s work with the poor and the needy has also taken her to a place that even she steered away from for long stretches of her life—the importance of faith in her life.

“Catholics of my generation aren’t often so comfortable talking about their faith,” she says. “I remember the first time a woman came in here and asked me to pray over her. I wasn’t comfortable doing that, but I knew I had to do it for her. I asked God to look over her and give her strength. Now when people leave, I say ‘God bless you’ and I tell them they will be in my prayers. I give them hugs, too. They want our hugs.”

She smiles and continues, “A lot of these people have nothing, but they have faith. They look to us to be God’s hands and eyes to them. There’s a spiritual aspect to what we do. It has deepened my faith. I pray with people. I ask, ‘Lord, help me here.’ ”

The help has been needed more and more as the economy has faltered. The funds for the Good Samaritan Program were exhausted in October and November before each of those months ended. In December, about 200 people showed up at the parish center seeking help.

Sometimes people come back to say thanks. One recipient gave Hildebrand a ceramic angel. Another offered a set of framed pictures of butterflies. A huge framed drawing of the Good Samaritan is another gift that has a prominent place in Hildebrand’s office.

“People say that this is so depressing,” Hildebrand says. “That’s not the way I see it. The satisfaction is in the action. You can’t be depressed when you’re helping. You know that old saying, ‘You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.’ It’s a blessing to be part of the solution. It’s a thrill to be doing this.” †

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