The following article was written by Nancy Barthel for the Compass, the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.
Sometimes just changing a light bulb can make someone’s day brighter, especially when it comes with smiles and some friendly conversation that gives a lonely person something to look forward to.
That’s the goal of the nonprofit Amani Outreach and its “simple home adjustment for seniors.”
Upon referral or request, Amani Outreach provides pairs of volunteers who visit the homes of seniors and persons with disabilities to offer a listening ear and perform small, routine maintenance in their homes. This can include changing light bulbs, replacing batteries in smoke detectors and similar projects that can be completed without the use of major tools.
The program, which began in 2018, was the idea of Paula Rieder. She now serves as program coordinator not only for Amani Outreach, but for all five outreach programs offered under the umbrella nonprofit Whatsoever You Do, Inc., located at 505 Clinton St.
She brings a valuable background to her chosen field: Rieder has ministered in parish work as well as with individuals who struggle with homelessness.
As a volunteer ministry team member at St. John’s Homeless Shelter in Green Bay, Rieder was honored in 2017 as one of the “Wisconsin Heroes.” Wisconsin’s then-first lady Tonette Walker surprised Rieder with the honor at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, where she also works as hospitality coordinator.
The nomination summed up how Rieder looks at her community: “Where some may see insurmountable challenges, Paula sees opportunity to create solutions for the issues of poverty in our community.”
A longtime member of Holy Family Parish in Brillion, three years ago, she was a pastoral minister at St. Raphael Parish in Oshkosh when she came up with the concept of the program which was implemented in Green Bay. “It was from the people that I served, they gave me the idea,” she said.
The word “Amani” is Swahili for “peace,” said Rieder, and that, she emphasized, is what volunteers try to bring into the lives of those they serve.
Currently, Amani Outreach has 12 volunteers and serves about seven people each week. All volunteers go through a criminal background check as well as training before making visits.
“We always go out in pairs. … It’s for the best of the receiver and the best of the volunteers,” said Rieder.
One volunteer might work on a light switch, for example, while the other volunteer visits.
“Sometimes the ones that we may do the service for don’t always have the best memory, so it’s good to have a back-up (volunteer),” Rieder added. Volunteers always leave an Amani Outreach card behind at the home.
An example of someone Amani volunteers help is the person who has become widowed. Invariably, household tasks had been divided up and, when a spouse dies, the spouse left behind can be lost.
Some of these people can get along very well in their home, said Rieder. However, for example, they might not change a ceiling light bulb because they can’t climb a ladder. Other simple tasks like changing furnace filters or tightening door handles can also go undone.
How does Amani Outreach connect with the people they serve?
“We get calls sometimes from children,” Rieder said, “and they’ll ask if someone will come and visit their parents who don’t get seen often.”
She may also receive an email referral from a concerned person or formal contact from a social service agency, like the Brown County Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC). She then visits the candidate.
“We always go through a little orientation with them as well,” she said, explaining to the person the range of services they do and do not provide. She also requests emergency contact information.
What happens next “all depends on what the receiver wants,” said Rieder.
“Sometimes it’s a one-time service. We go in and do the repair they want.”
But usually it blossoms into more.
Individuals are so pleased, for example, that the light bulb they couldn’t reach has been replaced, that it opens up a conversation about other services they need, like lawn care, house cleaning or meal services.
“What’s nice is I take their ideas and then I look for ideas of people who might be interested in doing that,” she said. Amani Outreach “opens the door to something much greater.”
When a return visit is planned, “They’re all excited. They’re waiting for you,” said Rieder. “There’s something to look forward to in their week.”
Individuals pay for the items needed for repairs, such as light bulbs or furnace filters.
But Rieder also recalled a time she walked into a situation of “extreme poverty.” There was no working toilet and the individual could not afford to pay for repairs. Amani Outreach found a way to get those done at no charge.
“We work closely with the ADRC,” she emphasized, which can also arrange for Meals on Wheels and provide referrals to professional services.
“If we see something isn’t right … we work together,” Rieder said.
“There are a lot of good organizations out there that want to help, but it’s just a matter of making that right connection,” she said.
‘WORD OF MOUTH’ CONTACT
The understanding and caring Amani Outreach volunteers provide are key to making the program work, Rieder emphasized. “Most of them are in their 50s and over,” she said, with most hearing about the program by “word of mouth.”
“We have people who like to tinker. They want to know how they can make a difference. … This is a way they can give back to the community,” he said.
“When I look at the volunteers … we have the handy one that goes and then the good listener … It works out perfect,” she said, adding, “People can be in a room filled with people and still be lonely, so we provide the listening ear.”
“I feel so much better when you leave, you make me so happy,” is a typical response to an Amani Outreach visit, she added.
The other services provided by Whatsoever You Do are: Streetlights Outreach, “a feet-on-the-street” community outreach ministry; Spokes of Hope, which provides “well-serviced bicycles” to people who use a bicycle as an important mode of transportation; the Giving Garden, which provides produce to low-income individuals; and Spirit Way, which provides spiritual direction to individuals through the services of trained, certified spiritual directors.
Whatsoever You Do programming is funded through profits from the books, “God Plays a Purple Banjo” by Deacon Steve Meyer and “Confirmed in the Joy of the Spirit” by Tony Pichler and Paula Rieder, as well as grants, donations and an annual fundraiser. Pichler, director at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality, and Deacon Meyer of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Green Bay, co-founded the original program, Streetlights Outreach, in 2004.