“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Galatians, 5:14).
The social outreach to the elderly and disabled program of St.Elisabeth Convent marks its two year anniversary. In July 2014 sisters Anna Kovalevskaya and Zenaida Lobosova were blessed to begin this virtuous and essential service – to take care of the severely ill people and people advanced in years living alone at home. Two years is quite a short period of time, but it is long enough to bear fruit and to look at the recently done work.
So what was done during that time? Sister Anna, as a head of the service, will answer all the questions better than anyone else.
For all these years that the Convent has existed, the topic about home-care service was mentioned quite often. Minsk is a large city, and there is a lot of people who need such help. But it is hard to organize the casework service and take care even about several people, especially when you start from nothing. Sister Anna faced that problem for herself. Despite the fact she was well-experienced in staff management (before the Convent she worked for big commercial organizations), that very work seemed new to her and required much more attention to detail. Two years ago she had to find out how to organize this service, where to find sisters and what qualities the sisters need to have to fullfill this obedience.
-Sister Anna, how did you manage to solve those problems?
-We began our service via written notes in churches, in small church shops. We told about it at the meetings of the sister of charity, during father Andrew’s discussions with the parish. And, of course, we used the internet. I asked the editors of the Convent’s website to create a separate page for the casework service. We wrote an article for this as well, called “We are learning how to love”. In the newspaper an interesting article was published, too. I was talking to the journalist for 3 hours. This article helped me to explain those who came to apply, what our service would look like. I just asked them to read it to find out what we are dealing with. What is more, Anna Yakimovich, the author of the article, became a volunteer.
And of course Father Andrew prayed for us, and we all felt that. Now I do not have to search for new people, because when we get new requests from people, a new sister applies as well and vice versa. It truly feels like God sends us these sisters to help and support.
-People need a calling for such ministry, don’t they?
-Yes, and this is the main requirement. When people call us because they just cannot find a job and think “Why do not to try to work in casework service?”, then I know that it would not pan out. At first, we send a sister on the existing post to watch how we take care of the the elderly and disabled individuals. We had several training sessions in a hospice facility, and some people left after that. It seems they understood that it was not for them.
-What do you mean by “post”?
-By this we mean a sister’s presence by the bed of a person in need. But we do not send untrained sisters to such people. At first they help those people, who just need household help.
God helped us to start. When we had no experience, He guided us, He literally took a sister by the hand… now we have a structure, documentation, and the staff of trained sisters, many of whom have already proved to be true sisters of mercy.
-What do you mean?
-Being by the bed of an ill person, they showed sacrifice of their souls and mercy of their hearts, their patience and humility. Another important trait is obedience. Artistic approach like “I do what I want” is not unacceptable in this case. And blaming relatives, going into family problems and situations is not an option for us.
-What does the sister’s work start with? You get a request for help – and what’s next?
-We come to the new post and create a plan: we decide how much time and care each particular person needs. On that basis I can do further analysis and decide whose character, knowledge and abilities will fit better with that particular person.
-The approach is quiet personal, isn’t it?
-Yes, it is. We have created a structured plan of our service, in which it is stated how our work should be organized. For example, which documents each sister should fill out. It can be the time schedule, or a blank with general information about a person, which includes the description of the illness and the list of necessary actions.
-How many sisters do you have now?
-There are 25 casework sisters and 13 volunteers. There are also 3 brothers among them. At the present time we are working with 60 people. For all the time the service exists, we have got more than 300 requests. Thank God, we can help most of them by speaking to them regularly and giving advice.
Is there any difference between the volunteers’ work and the work of casework sisters?
Volunteers have a permanent job and help us in their free time. They visit the elderly people who need household help or just conversation.
-So they work not for profit, don’t they?
-Or course. But for the sisters this ministry is their main obedience. And if you deal with elderly or sick people, it means you have to be near them most of the time. You have to visit them 3 or 4 times a week, but sometimes sisters do it even every day. In this case a visit includes sanitary-hygienic care: to wash a person, to change the clothes, to help with other needs. All these things need accuracy. If there is a doctor’s recommendation for physical therapy, then the sisters can help with some exercises against bed sores or change bandages and dress the wounds. Household help may include: cooking, feeding, and shopping for groceries… Sometimes it may also include help with utility payments, taking the person to the hospital, or calling a
-How can people find you? Where are you getting requests most of all from?
-They find our page when they search for such services on the internet. All the sisters who work in small shops know about our service and provide people with my contacts. Sometimes people, whom we have helped, refer our service their relatives and acquaintances. We have got some requests, for which there is no resources now. People say they want to work only with the sisters from our Convent, and that is why it is a a very important responsibility. I always say to our sisters, that we are not just attendants. People look up to us and have high expectations from us. They think that if we are from the Convent,
then we are faithful, responsible, fair and merciful. Actually, all these people are former accountants, lawyers, and psychologists. Of course, at first it was really difficult, because we did not know how to take care about such people…
-How did you train it? We know that the Belorussian Orthodox Church has a special sisterhood union, which organizes the courses for casework sisters.
-14 of our sisters finished these courses. We were taught how to interact with such severely ill people. And well-skilled attendant gave us lessons just near the bed of her patient. Natalya Zhuk, one of our sisters, was in Moscow and visited special seminar on transportation of the severely ill people. Now she can teach this technique our new sisters. So you see that we have managed to prepare our own specialist. Moreover, I have finished ten-month of courses of social service organized by Moscow Patriarchy. Then I went to Moscow to go through the practical training. The skills are important, but Father Andrew once said that we will learn how to change diapies, but what is more important, is to take care of the people’s souls.
-Does it mean that you have to help these people not only physically, but also spiritually?
-This is the most important thing. We visit different people. Some of them have never have confessed or communion. Some of them have family problems, the others are spiritually weak. And we try to make some first steps, try to show our care and mercy. Then we began to pray together, to read the Holy Gospel.
-If they do not mind this?
-Of course, we cannot force them. We should do it without constraint and be very tactful. Sometimes we just read some books or talk. And it is a real joy for us, when a person who was baptized many years ago, in childhood, who lived for many years without confession and knew nothing about all those things, decides suddenly to confess and partake of the Holy Mysteries.
How can the sisters foster their spirit? Their work is really difficult and demands much responsibility!
You are right, the spiritual life is very important for them. We should be united in our ministry, and support each other, be interchangeable and trust each other. God helps us a lot in this.
Home-care service is not just care for the severely ill and elderly people. The sisters are linked to their patients both spiritually and physically, and each of them has his own character. This ministry is impossible to serve if there is no Christ between a sister and her patient. That is why we decided to organize the meetings during which we can discuss some questions that arise in our work, and pray all together.
Father Andrew took part in our meetings sometimes and guided us as well, answered our questions. But we needed a priest, who could be with us all the time and strengthen us spiritually. Finally, Father Andrew blessed Father Sergius to help us. The first thing we did together was a moleben served in our cathedral.
-Your ministry is expensive enough. How do you find funds?
-The relatives of the people we care of make some donations. But often we have to deal with people of low income, who cannot afford to pay for our services. That is why we decided to take part in the grant contest called “Orthodox initiative”. And we have won the prize! The money we got was spent for office equipment, some means of care and medical supplies for severely ill people, and sisters’ trainings and uniform.
Recently the information about our patients and our service has been published on some popular local web-sites, and this allowed us to get donations for the low-income families. That was quite surprising: more than 215 people responded and transferred us more than 5500 belorussian rubles (approx. $2700). This finance allows us to support six low-income patients. What is more, two volunteers joiner our team. It is really great that people are ready to help those who are in need! Before Easter and Christmas we organize the campaign “Mercy” in some big shopping malls of Minsk, and people are glad to donate. We pack the gifts and send one to each of our patients. The part of everything what we got, we send to the private rest home “Family port”.
-Sister Anna, what are your next plans? Do you have any expectations about your further work?
-You know, people call us almost each day and ask whether it is possible to place their old relatives with us. So that is why we need a true “mercy home” for elderly and disabled people. At the present moment it is our dream.