Karen McDonald's Open Minded Health Ministry
Karen McDonald didn’t expect to be managing a thriving health ministry after she retired. But by being open and resourceful, she found opportunities to help others and inspire ministries in nearby churches.
Today Karen’s ministry, Community Health Services, serves a subsidized apartment complex in Kalamazoo, Mich. for elderly and disabled residents. Karen and her staff of 15 volunteers take blood pressure measurements; conduct education programs, including home safety and an exercise class to improve balance; provide fruit baskets and gardening opportunities; and operate a foot spa.
Karen credits a good relationship with the apartment director, support from Bishop Robert R. Gepert, time spent in prayer and active listening for the ministry’s success.
Finding Ministry Opportunities
Like many nurses, Karen retired with a desire to continue serving. A deacon of the diocese of Western Michigan, Karen pursued parish nurse training and learned about the subsidized complex at a bishop’s retreat. But the health ministry didn’t take shape until Karen spent three months meeting with agencies to investigate community needs. She asked what services were already available and inferred opportunities.
“You may think you know what’s needed, but talking to others opens up a real picture of the community, something to work with, ” said Karen. “I conducted an informal needs assessment and saw an opportunity around access to healthcare.”
The closing of a free health clinic had left a void; many felt its services were still indispensable. As Karen gathered information, she also became familiar with talent in the community. She found causes that people wanted to commit to and asked for help, support, time, volunteers and resources.
In the meantime, she developed a relationship with the apartment director. Wary from negative experiences with previous faith based outreach, the director was unsure about the church connection.
But she warmed to Karen’s cause, especially as residents began to respond positively to the ministry. Community Health Services started out taking blood pressure readings, but in time Karen had a team of volunteers and a popular foot spa effort. The foot spa creates a relaxing atmosphere where residents feel content enough to confide.
“We have conversations we wouldn’t otherwise have had; residents feel comfortable, they tell us their stories and gave us helpful feedback,” said Karen. “Residents see that someone cares when they take steps to improve their health.”
Gathering Resources, a Good Team and Budget
Although the Episcopal diocese allocates a budget to Community Health Services, Karen actively networks for donations and develops creative ideas, like a gardening activity. For example, a conversation with a nursery owner led to donated green beans, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables. Residents choose vegetables they’d like to grow, volunteers help residents plant them in pots and residents care for them on their apartment balconies. When it’s time to harvest, residents contribute meals made from the vegetables they’ve grown; the potlucks have instilled a sense of community and greater interaction among residents.
One of the benefits of conducting a needs assessment is time spent meeting people. In Karen’s case, networking uncovered a pool of people eager to volunteer. “I spend time with volunteers,” said Karen. “I pay attention to their interests and try to match them with a related activity. Right now, I have a team of volunteers who enjoy what they do,” said Karen.
That joyful connection is something that’s clearly had an effect on residents, who now sign their names on contact sheets—a huge gesture of trust. Blood pressure levels, collectively, have stabilized. Karen’s team brings a fruit basket for activities, which is rapidly depleted. The number of volunteers and services is on the rise.
Obstacles and How to Handle Them
Community Health Services is now a health ministry model, and Karen is being encouraged to speak and help local churches ramp up. “This wasn’t planned,” said Karen. “I was just open to possibilities.”
But in the beginning, Karen advises health ministers to be patient. She faced resistance due to church affiliation, being new with an unproven service and lack of volunteers and resources. The timing, for all of the pieces to come together, required prayer, patience and attentiveness to residents’ wants and needs. The timing required faith.
“I got involved in other things while I was waiting, and suddenly everything came together,” said Karen. “It took courage to meet people I didn’t know. I learned to ask for help and be open to opportunities.”
Karen also credits active listening for her forward momentum. “I prayed a lot—especially when the barriers came up,” said Karen. “Was I waiting because I didn’t have clear direction, or because I was afraid? I listened for God’s guidance and made prayer very central each day. I still do.”
Karen McDonald was recently featured in her bishop's blog.
Terra Hoskins contributes to the NEHM and NEAC blog on a freelance basis. As principal of Hoskins Interactive, an inbound marketing consultancy, she helps organizations improve the quality of website traffic needed to expand business. Follow Terra on her blog and on Twitter: @terrahoskins.