By KATHLEEN NELSON
Like nearly every member of the ministry, St. Mary's Health in Evansville, Ind., faces the challenge of keeping alive the spirit of its founders.
Its novel solution: Recruit some ambassadors.
Through its Mission Representative Program, at least one employee in every facility or department receives ongoing training in the mission, vision and values of the founding Daughters of Charity. The mission reps then spread the ideals through their daily tasks and by organizing special celebrations and projects throughout the year.
"I enjoy seeing how they embrace and take our mission and ministry to heart," said Sr. Jane McConnell, OSF, mission integration director of St. Mary's Health, which is part of St. Vincent Health in Indiana and a member of Ascension. "They own it. It's a part of them. It's rewarding to know that it's alive and well."
A group from the Feed and Clothe the Hungry food pantry in Boonville, Ind., load their van with items donated by St. Mary's Warrick Hospital associates. Mission representatives organize the hospital's twice yearly food drives.
The program began in 1996 with about a dozen employees at St. Mary's Medical Center, a 500-bed hospital that is part of St. Mary's Health.
Because of their declining numbers, "the Daughters of Charity could see that they weren't going to be as present in the ministry but wanted to see that the mission and values and history would remain foundational," said Sr. McConnell.
Candidates for the program must be recommended by their supervisors, and, after an interview with Sr. McConnell, they receive a day of training. Each mission representative then attends meetings every other month, a retreat each spring and commits to three years of service, although some stay involved much longer.
"It takes a while to understand the role and the ministry, and to build relationships with co-workers," Sr. McConnell said. "A lot of them enjoy it so much that they go beyond and continue."
The program has expanded into all 40 of St. Mary's Health locations — ambulatory care facilities, urgent care centers and physician offices — and includes 140 mission reps, one in each department or location. Each mission rep devotes between 50 and 80 hours of service a year, according to Doris Schultheis, solutions development senior analyst with Ascension Information Services at St. Mary's Health.
"So it's not an extreme amount of time or a burden on my workload," said Schultheis, who joined the program in 1998. "Sometimes it's just a matter of five minutes to do something nice for somebody."
Sr. McConnell said mission reps need to be aware when colleagues are struggling or experiencing a loss, "or when they have reason to celebrate: birthdays or achievements or recertification. The mission reps work with their directors to make sure the support and recognition is there."
Schultheis said she frequently receives an email from a co-worker, asking for a prayer for an ailing family member. "Of course I can do that," she said. "But I will also get up and talk to that person and give them a hug, especially if I sense they want to have more than a conversation. Sometimes, they don't, but it's a matter of getting to know the people you serve."
Days of celebration
Mission reps also are responsible for helping to coordinate department celebrations on ministry holidays, such as founder's day, St. Vincent DePaul Day or St. Louise de Marillac Day. St. Vincent and St. Louise founded the Daughters of Charity in 1600s France. Members of the congregation helped found St. Mary's in the late 1800s.
Other celebrations are specific to locations. St. Mary's Warrick Hospital, for example, holds a party in July with ice cream floats, popcorn and music. In the winter, it sponsors the Souper Bowl. Employees bring in soups that their co-workers purchase for $2. The proceeds go to St. Mary's Warrick outreach programs. St. Mary's Warrick is a 35-bed facility 17 miles east of Evansville.
"People enjoy that we have so many activities to help them and community members," said Maggie Speicher, executive assistant at St. Mary's Warrick. She joined the mission rep program in 2009. "And it gets everybody involved. I can see that it has pulled departments together."
Schultheis said her favorite annual celebration is Mission Representative Day during Healthcare Week, when she organizes an ice cream social for her co-workers throughout the information services department in southern Indiana.
"It's truly me as a person giving back to those people that I minister to," she said. "It's up to each rep to choose to do what they want, but it's set aside as a time to say thank you for everything our co-workers do to help us extend the mission."
Each mission representative also assists with outreach projects. Among the first that Speicher organized at St. Mary's Warrick was a mitten tree. Each member of needy families in the community wrote a wish-list item on a paper mitten. The mittens were hung on a Christmas tree at the hospital. Many employees took a mitten, bought the gift, wrapped it and brought it to the hospital.
"The families came in and were so overwhelmed," Speicher said. "They were crying because they couldn't believe such a small hospital could collect so much."
St. Mary's Warrick also sponsors a food drive twice a year for a local pantry, which has expanded over the years to include clothing and then cash donations. Speicher turned the drive into a competition among departments and bought a trophy that travels to the department that donates the most.
"It's a total win-win-win," Speicher said. "Our co-workers feel rewarded. It's fun for us and benefits those in need. It's a warm fuzzy to help you make it through the day."
Employees in Schultheis' department at Ascension Information Services are scattered throughout locations in southern Indiana, making esprit de corps a bigger challenge. A year ago, she decided to invite all department employees to lunch once a month. It was such a success that she and her department leadership decided to add a charitable component. Once a quarter, the department gathers for either a service project or to organize a fundraiser for a local charity. Then, they have lunch together.
"I think my department has grown tremendously in spirituality and keeping others in mind because of the mission rep program," Schultheis said.
Spreading the word
Sr. McConnell sees potential for growth of the mission extenders approach beyond St. Mary's Health. She noted that one of the mission leaders from St. Vincent in Indianapolis attended a training day and collected program material to set up a pilot program. Sr. McConnell also has spoken to colleagues at other Ascension ministries about duplicating or customizing the program.
"I know that our outreach and mission awareness and celebrations would not be as visible and viable without our mission reps," Sr. McConnell said. "I see them as mission's hearts and hands and eyes. Without them, it would be difficult to be that present and that viable. They're a great asset. They're integral."
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