August 13, 2010

Giving hope and houses: Classmates see Hearts and Hands ministry as another way to live out their faith

Jim Simmons, left, and Tom Egold are members of a group of former Catholic high school classmates who have formed Hearts and Hands of Indiana, a grassroots organization that offers hope and the opportunity for a new home to low-income families in Holy Trinity and St. Anthony parishes in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Jim Simmons, left, and Tom Egold are members of a group of former Catholic high school classmates who have formed Hearts and Hands of Indiana, a grassroots organization that offers hope and the opportunity for a new home to low-income families in Holy Trinity and St. Anthony parishes in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Every month, Jim Simmons gets to savor the smiles and the laughs of his former high school classmates.

Like most friendships that formed in high school, these guys have their stories to tell, stories of moments that still bind them together.

In the case of this group from the 1961 graduating class of the former Sacred Heart High School in Indianapolis, some of the smiles come from remembering the magical, undefeated football season during their senior year.

As for some of the laughs, they come from a few of the memories that, well, let’s just say they won’t be sharing the details of those times with their grandchildren any time soon.

“We had an incorrigible high school class” is all that Simmons will say, flashing a look that is part mischief and part regret.

Still, the beauty of a life story is that new chapters can be added and new endings can be written. And right now Simmons, Tom Egold, Paul Corsaro, Mike Carson, Steve Rasmussen, Lanny Rossman, Andy Shaver and other members of their group continue to author an inspiring grassroots tale of giving hope and houses to low-income families in a struggling area of Indianapolis.

Another unforgettable victory

That story began in January of 2009, two months after Simmons organized the first of the monthly get-togethers with his classmates. After hearing about the successes that many of his friends had made of their lives, Simmons offered this telling assessment of how far his classmates had come:

“As I hear our stories, that’s quite a bit of achievement and accomplishment in our lives. The nuns [from those Sacred Heart days] are up in heaven saying, ‘Can you believe what these clowns have done with their lives?’ ”

Then Simmons offered a challenge to his friends: “You know, fellas, the Lord’s been good to us. We need to think about giving back.”

Enough people agreed, but the question still remained, “What’s the best way to do that?”

The answer came a few days later when Egold went to a funeral and saw Father John McCaslin, the pastor of Holy Trinity and St. Anthony parishes in Indianapolis.

The two men had known each other at St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis when Father McCaslin was an associate pastor there and Egold was president of the parish council. As they talked after the funeral, Father McCaslin told Egold about his vision to revive the struggling areas of his parishes by forming an organization that would buy and rebuild homes for low-income families—an approach that he viewed as a form of evangelization. He asked Egold if he could help.

The former Sacred Heart teammates had their new challenge. Within months, they formed Hearts and Hands of Indiana, an organization that has taken root in the neighborhood around Holy Trinity and St. Anthony churches. It led to another unforgettable victory.

On a day in late May of 2010, a single mother named Catrina Rush and her two sons moved into a home that had been purchased, gutted and rebuilt by the former classmates and teammates.

It was an emotional day for Rush, who recalled the phone call which let her know that she and her sons were chosen for the organization’s first home.

“I was driving on my way to work,” she said. “I pulled over so I would not crash into someone. I was very happy. I started crying. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”

She pays a monthly mortgage payment that is significantly less than the amount she previously paid in rent.

“This experience is unbelievable for me,” she said.

That feeling is shared by the members of Hearts and Hands.

“When Catrina moved into the house, it was very emotional, the fulfillment of a dream,” recalled Egold, the group’s president. “There were people who told us it couldn’t be done, that we were crazy. Well, that may be true. But we did it. And we’re going to keep trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”

‘All we have is a gift from God’

As the members of Hearts and Hands continue to buy and renovate homes—and search for the right kind of families to live in them—Father McCaslin smiles at how the effort has brought together people from different walks of life.

“We’re just trying to build up the community of St. Anthony and Holy Trinity,” he said. “Much of this is about connecting people from different parts of the city. Many of them are from the Class of ’61. Their passion has been incredible.”

He also sees their work as a model that could be of great help to the Church, especially during difficult economic times.

“We’re entering into a very creative and very fruitful time in the Church,” Father McCaslin said. “We have a lot of gifted and talented people who are retiring. If we can tap into their experience, it could be a special time for the Church.”

It’s already another special time in life for the members of Hearts and Hands, many of whom will mark the 50th anniversary of their high school graduation in 2011. Their short-term goal is to make four houses a year available to low-income families. Their long-range plan is to create a business model of their organization that can be used by other groups across the country.

“We’ve been given another chance to live out our faith,” Egold said. “There’s the old saying that the more you give, the more you receive. It’s happened through Hearts and Hands. We’ve learned a better understanding of the spirituality of stewardship. All we are and all we have is a gift from God, and we have to give back.”

It’s the kind of statement that would have made the religious sisters at Sacred Heart High School smile.

Simmons was partly thinking of those sisters when he noted with a touch of humor: “We’re trying to even up the ledger for when we meet up with St. Peter.”

He turned serious when he added, “We all believe so strongly in our faith. We love what we’re doing.”

(For more information about Hearts and Hands of Indiana, visit the Web site or call Tom Egold at 317-535-1535 or Jim Simmons at 317-784-9443.)

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