St. Michael's is 'here': COVID-19 couldn't stop local volunteers from spreading joy and love

Every Wednesday and Sunday, volunteers from a St. Michael Parish ministry visited residents of Cary Health and Rehabilitation Center. The volunteers spent hours with residents who wanted visitors. They sat together, held hands, said prayers and talked about family.

It was a tradition that brought universal joy to the residents and volunteers. The facility’s staff members – who could see how much the visits benefited their patients – were pleased, too.

Brittany Anderson, director of therapeutic and recreational services for the center, says that visits are a vital part of a patient’s well-being.

“[Visits] improve their overall quality of life because they get that socialization and stimulation,” she says. “It’s really important; it makes that person feel special and loved.”

But everything changed in the spring of 2020.

With the danger that COVID-19 brought to those living within, as was true with many nursing homes and assisted living facilities, all visits had to stop. This included visits from volunteers, like those from St. Michael’s. It also meant an end to visits from family and friends.

In an effort to stop the spread, many residents stayed in their rooms. They took their phone calls, celebrated their birthdays and ate their meals all within the same four walls.

From the start of the new regulations, Anderson’s concern was for her patients. She wanted them to be as safe as possible, but she could also see how much the residents were missing their friends and prayer partners.

She decided to take action.

Working with Johanne Laboy, a long-time volunteer from St. Michael, Anderson began facilitating a weekly Zoom video call on her iPad. Every Wednesday, Anderson opens the Zoom call, greets the volunteers and will take the iPad into a room, announcing, “St. Michael’s is here for a visit!”

After setting the iPad on a tray, Anderson leaves the room for about five minutes before she comes back and delivers the iPad to the next resident.

Laboy, who was used to longer, personal visits, wasn’t sure how well it would work.

“I thought, are we going to have enough time? But it’s the perfect time. It’s the perfect time for a Zoom call,” she says.

During the call, volunteers ask what’s new in the resident’s life, and if there isn’t much for the resident to share, the volunteers will take the lead. Laboy says that she will sometimes cover what the priest said about the Gospel the previous week or talk about what it’s like to go shopping or how the weather feels outside.

“We are their windows,” she says.  

Pam Burns, a parishioner at Mother Teresa, has been volunteering with the ministry since she moved to the area from upstate New York. A Eucharistic Minister in the Diocese of Syracuse, Burns often visited hospitals and took the Blessed Sacrament to patients. When she moved to North Carolina, a friend at St. Michael Parish invited her to visit nursing homes and she instantly signed on.

Though the visits are not quite the same over the screen, Burns says that they are every bit as important. “They just love to have someone visit with them and care about them,” Burns says.

Most of all, she adds, “They love to pray.”

“I don’t do any elaborate prayers, usually just some prayers from the heart. Then, we always do the Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be and ask if there’s any special thing they want us to pray for … They seldom ask for prayers for themselves, it’s almost always for family or their roommate or some of the people who work there,” Burns says.

Over time, each volunteer tends to get close with some residents in particular. Laboy smiles brightly as she describes one woman as very special, religious, sweet, positive and a joy to visit. She says the woman is “gifted in prayer,” so much so that Laboy never misses a chance to ask for her prayers.

Burns laughs as she talks about another resident, a spitfire of a woman who waved her down in the hallway. This resident has children out of state and doesn’t get a lot of visitors, so even though she isn’t Catholic, she has become a regular for St. Michael’s ministry group.

“She’ll put on a special hat and say, ‘I’m ready for my visit!’” Burns laughs, adding that despite the different religions, they often pray together. “She’s not Catholic, but prayer is universal,” Burns says.

There’s no question that COVID-19 has deeply affected many. But the volunteers of this ministry, paired with the staff at Cary Health and Rehabilitation Center, refused to let it get in the way of fostering connections of love, joy and prayer.

If you want to be a part of creating and fostering joy, Laboy says there is always room for more volunteers.

“Adopt a grandparent! Come on over, visit somebody. They would really appreciate it, and it is a win-win situation. You learn from them, and they help you pray for others. Everybody stands to gain something from this experience,” Laboy says.