January 8, 2021

‘I always want people to know they’re not alone’

Even a frightening threat didn’t stop Joan Hess from sharing God’s light in people’s darkness

During the third annual Indiana March for Life on Jan. 22 in Indianapolis, a mass of about 1,100 pro-life advocates march up Meridian Street toward Monument Circle, far outnumbering a small group of protesters on the monument steps. (Criterion file photo by Natalie Hoefer)

The community of Tell City thanked Joan Hess, left, on Dec. 18, 2020, for her 14 years as the director of Catholic Charities Tell City, honoring her with gifts and a drive-by salute. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The threat from the man sitting across from her gripped Joan Hess with fear.

She tried to look calm on the outside, but inside her heart and her mind raced.

Seeing the desperation in the man’s face and hearing his threat, she knew that everything that happened in the next few moments would come to a point of life or death.

She started to talk to him. She tried to tell him that he didn’t want to do this, that they could find a way to work together through this—the man being so distraught about his life that he threatened to kill himself right here, right now, right in front of Hess.

“I was scared: ‘Oh my God, he’s going to kill himself here!’ ” Hess recalls about that moment that took place in her office at Catholic Charities Tell City. “I looked at him and said, ‘No, you’re not going to do that now, and you’re not going to do it later. We’re not going to solve all your problems today, but we’re going to work on them one at a time.’

“By the time he left the office, he was laughing, and we were telling jokes. We solved a couple minor problems, and we had a plan of action for him. He’s doing great to this day.”

Still Hess takes no credit for the man’s turnaround.

“It wasn’t me because I’m no therapist. It was God working through me. I was allowed to be the flesh-and-blood presence that this man could actually see. But it was God.”

Hess served as God’s presence for 14 years as the director of Catholic Charities Tell City before retiring on Dec. 31. She also served as a constant, compassionate voice for people whose lives are challenged by rural poverty in southern Indiana and across the state and the nation.

“Joan was a champion that we do not forget the faces of rural poverty,” says David Bethuram, executive director of Catholic Charities for the archdiocese. “In our leadership meetings, state meetings and even at the national level at the Catholic Charities USA annual gathering, she often reminded her peers of the challenges the poor have in finding resources in our rural communities.

“Her advocacy for the rural poor enlightened her Catholic Charities peers on how important it is to keep striving for ways to enhance our outreach to our rural communities.”

For Hess, all her efforts to help people in need flow from one defining approach: “I always want people to know they’re not alone, that even when they’re getting pushed down, there are people who care. And even when things are not easy, they can get better.”

She then shared three connected stories that offer a glimpse of the difference she made—and the unexpected blessings that God and others provided for her efforts to help people who are vulnerable.

‘I was where I needed to be’

The three stories happened within a two-week period during Hess’ first year of work for Catholic Charities in Tell City in 2006.

“It started when I got a phone call from a lady who had left an abusive situation and found an apartment, but she needed a place where her kids could sleep. She said she needed a sleeper sofa,” Hess recalls. “We don’t have furniture, but I said I would ask around. The next day, I got a phone call from someone saying, ‘I’m getting a new sleeper sofa, and I’d like to donate my old one. Do you have a use for it?’ ”

Two days later, a couple visited her office seeking help with paying their utility bills. In passing, they also mentioned their need for a refrigerator and a washing machine.

“I’m driving down the street later and I get a call from my sister-in-law,” Hess says. “She says someone is moving from town, and they have a washer and a dryer and a refrigerator, and they want to donate it. I pulled over and pointed up to the sky and said, ‘You are so good!’ ”

“The next week, I get a phone call from a man who said he was bringing his wife home from the hospital because she was going to die. He said that he needed a hospital bed for her. A couple hours later, I got a phone call from the guy in charge of the plant facilities at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. He said, ‘Joan, we’re updating our infirmary and I have a couple of hospital beds that are still in good shape and we’re getting rid of them. Would you need them?’ ”

Fourteen years have passed since those three blessings, and Hess is still stunned by them.

“This all happened within a two-week period. There wasn’t a thing I did,” Hess says. “People just called me, and I was the connection. I was where I needed to be.”

She also felt those moments confirmed that she was where God needed her to be—a revelation that she had been waiting for all of her adult life.

Offering light in people’s darkest hours

“I asked God so many times, ‘I don’t know what you have planned for me.’ I think he finally decided to tell me,” says the mother of two grown children about starting as the director of Catholic Charities Tell City at the age of 51. “I think he waited until my children were old enough so I could give 100 percent to this—to work nights and weekends when I needed to and not be away from my kids.”

For her part, she never wasted any time or opportunity to help people during these past 14 years.

“People come to me at some of their darkest hours, and they share things that are hard to share,” she says. “To be put in that place is amazing and humbling. I’ve become a conduit for what they need.”

She’s also been a source of inspiration and ideas for bringing people together to help others. Two of her favorite programs are “Table of Blessings” and “Birthday in a Box.”

“We’ve heard a lot of foster children say they’ve never had a birthday party, and that’s just wrong,” the grandmother of three says. “With Birthday in a Box, we work with the local Department of Child Services, and they tell us how many foster children are having a birthday in the upcoming month. We put together a birthday party for them and give them a Walmart gift card. Every foster child gets a birthday party every year.”

The joy exudes from Hess as she talks about that program. It’s also there when she describes Table of Blessings.

“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” she says. “It’s a once-a-week, hot-meal program that right now we’re doing as a drive-thru because of COVID.

“It involves the entire community. Each week, a new group sponsors the meal and staffs the meal. There are different churches, nursing homes, banks, hospitals and political parties among the groups that take turns. We do it in coordination with the Evangelical United Church of Christ. It’s just been amazing.”

Two lessons to remember

In the days before she retired at 66, Hess shared the bittersweet feelings she had about that decision.

“When I look back, I feel like everything I ever did in my life led me to this job and prepared me to do a good job. I’m apprehensive for me. I’ve worked my whole life, and this place has been like my baby. There wasn’t much when we started, and it’s grown into an integral part of the community. It’s hard, but it’s time to let the baby go. It’s time for a change for me and time for a change for the agency. It needs a new set of eyes to grow.”

The past 14 years have taught Hess numerous lessons, including two main ones: never underestimate the goodness of God and people, and never take anything in life for granted.

That second lesson leads her to want to spend more time with her husband of 45 years, Tom, with her two grown children and her three grandchildren. At the same time, she knows she will miss the family she helped to create through her efforts to help people in times of need.

“I’m going to miss seeing a spark in someone’s eyes when they realize their electricity won’t be shut off. I’m going to miss a little kid’s smile at the Table of Blessings when we give them their favorite dessert. I’m going to miss anytime someone has a need and knowing that need will be fulfilled because this community cares.”

Bethuram says that Hess will be missed—“dearly”—too. Describing her as “an exemplary witness of the faith,” he also cites “her great compassion and her personal interest in every detail of serving others.”

Hess insists her own life is much better because of the people she has helped.

“I think I’m much more accepting of people. Before this, I didn’t have much contact with people who are homeless or facing food insecurity. I think I’ve gained more compassion for all people. And I’ve learned not to judge people, to not judge prematurely.

“It’s important to listen, listen, listen first—to hear their story before making any judgments on what they need as far as help. Everyone has a story.”

Hess’ story has a defining theme: She always cared deeply.

(For more information about Catholic Charities Tell City, visit www.archindy.org/cc/tellcity.)

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