Employees connect to Ascension Health's mission by volunteering

November 1, 2013

Employees at Ascension Health's national administrative center in Indianapolis tutor homeless students, cheer teenage boxers and paint classrooms, all on company time. They draw regular pay for their good deeds.

Participants say the community engagement makes them more productive employees on the job.

"It brings us closer together and closer to the community," said Pamela Beeler, a buyer at Ascension Health's Ministry Service Center. "We have six floors of people at the office, and there are many people I would never meet. This is a way to connect. We build friendships and a sense of teamwork. I think we work better and harder together because of it, and the service is an uplifting experience."

Ascension Health developed and opened the Ministry Service Center in Indianapolis in 2011. Its 400 employees perform a host of administrative services for the health system's many hospitals and other facilities, from payroll to purchasing.

The winning model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway built by one of the teams in a canned-food drive competition at Ascenion Health's Ministry Service Center in Indianapolis from cans they collected. Team members took part through the company's Mission in Action program, which allows them to perform three hours of charity work each month on company time.

Living mission
Since its beginning, the center has given employees the option of volunteering at one or more of a list of 12 local charities for three hours each month and keeps them on the payroll while they do it. Rev. Glenn McDonald, the service center's director of mission integration, manages the Mission in Action program. Beeler and other team leaders coordinate the volunteers, who get clearance from their supervisors to be away from the job.

Lee Coulter, senior vice president and chief executive of the Ministry Service Center, said the charity program supports Ascension Health's Catholic mission of caring for all people, with special attention to the poor and vulnerable. "We are not a clinical-care setting," Coulter said of the service center, "our Mission in Action program is vital in bringing the mission alive for our people and the community."

The program is similar to one offered at Ascension Health's corporate headquarters in St. Louis. While the health system does not track the community volunteerism opportunities offered by its far-flung hospital network, "we encourage this type of outreach to serve individuals who are poor and vulnerable," said Sr. Maureen McGuire, DC, executive vice president of mission integration for Ascension, the parent organization of Ascension Health.

Employee choice
As director of mission integration at the Indianapolis service center, Rev. McDonald holds prayer services and counsels employees who need a trusting ear. A Presbyterian minister, Rev. McDonald was a pastor to a nearby congregation for 28 years before taking his current job. "Our task is to create a structure and encourage an atmosphere to make sure our mission isn't just something in a frame hanging in an elevator, but a living statement," Rev. McDonald said.

He said about two-thirds of the employees take part in the Mission in Action program; participation is entirely voluntary. Company policy does not allow managers to consider any volunteer work in job evaluations. That means employees don't feel under any obligation to participate and participants are motivated and enthusiastic, Rev. McDonald said.

Out and about
Some volunteers work with Team Achieve, an athletic, tutoring and life-skills program for low-income male youths that meets in a boxing gym near downtown Indianapolis. Volunteers buy and deliver snacks and drinks for the youths, visit with them at the gym, help with spring cleaning at the gym and bring the young men to the Ministry Service Center for tours, where they see their new friends on the job.

"We go to the gym and just cheer them on, talk with them, be friends," said Beeler, 43. "They like it that people simply are taking an interest in them. And you should see their faces when they come to our building and show off their medals."

James Curles, director of Team Achieve, called the volunteers' interest "mind-boggling and humbling. It's wonderful that people outside of our community are willing to donate their time and energy to these young people. We are a successful ministry because of folks like these from Ascension.

"When people mainly from the suburbs come down to the gym and show interest, the boys see that there are alternatives in life," Curles said.

Here are some of the other volunteer opportunities:

  • School on Wheels provides tutors for children living in homeless shelters. About 3,500 students in Indianapolis public schools qualify for the program.
  • Fuller Center for Housing is a faith-based home-building program similar to Habitat for Humanity. Volunteers recently helped build a two-story home for a family of 10 people southeast of downtown. More than 20 volunteers took part in one day of work.
  • St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, a school that is within walking distance of the Ministry Service Center, uses Mission in Action volunteers to assist teachers and students, and volunteers have repainted some of the classrooms.
  • Zionsville Food Pantry assists needy families in the area just north of the Ministry Service Center. Service center employees form teams and compete to bring in the most canned food, and finish the drive with a flourish by building sculptures with the cans in the office lobby. One team used cans to build a race car-sized model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The most recent drive collected 14,000 items, a three-month supply for the pantry.

Team glue
Rev. McDonald said employees can get approval to participate in charities other than the 12, but the company prefers that they work with the endorsed programs. Although the program allows three hours per month of "paid volunteering" during work hours, participants can accumulate time and work in longer blocks; for example, an employee may work a nine-hour day on a Saturday helping to build a house and be paid for it. Staff also can get three paid hours for after-hours work done with their supervisors' approval. Earned mission hours cannot be carried over into another calendar year.

Volunteers are encouraged to donate more hours to their chosen charities, on their own time.

Rev. McDonald said the program has enough participation and flexibility that managers have been able to balance work flow with approved charity time. He said they also appreciate the camaraderie among coworkers that the program inspires.

Charlie Bell, a client relationship manager at the Ministry Service Center, said the volunteer program was one of the things that attracted him to the job. He said he got involved in charity work by joining Alpha Phi Omega, a college service organization, while attending the University of Illinois, and wanted to continue when he joined the working world. "It's important. I want to be a role model for our kids," said Bell, 37, a married father of three. "In health care, we have a lot of smart people with so much expertise that is useful out there to groups that need the help. Volunteering can be much more than pounding nails."

Bell said volunteers are able to serve their charities without diminishing productivity in the office. Bell said the main reason that works is the unleashed drive of the participants.

"If you impose upon people, they push back," said Bell. "But when we let people figure it out as a team, it's amazing how that will reach to a higher level of motivation. And that builds a wonderful, cooperative environment in the workplace."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.