Donations used to help with past due rent, utility bills
By Jill Kruse-Domeyer
Witness Editorial Assistant
AMES — For the past 40 years, a ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames has provided parishioners the opportunity to put into practice Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The appropriately named “Love Your Neighbor” ministry provides emergency assistance to individuals in Ames and other communities in Story County who are in need of help with overdue rent or utility bills.
Between July 2018 and June 2019, the Love Your Neighbor ministry provided assistance to 281 households, consisting of 403 adults and 260 children. In terms of actual assistance provided, the total during that one-year period came to nearly $86,000.
Dave Dirks, who chairs the Love Your Neighbor Committee at St. Thomas Aquinas, believes those numbers speak to the great need that is present in the community. He said sometimes all it takes is an unexpected medical condition, a car requiring an expensive repair or the loss of a job to leave someone at risk of homelessness.
“Ames is a pretty affluent city,” Dirks said, “at least for Iowa, let’s say. And I think it is easy for people to not notice or realize the amount of people who are struggling or right at the margins of being able to stay in their apartment.”
The Love Your Neighbor ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas has evolved since it was established four decades ago — the fund began with a gift from parishioner Esther Burns with the specific purpose of helping Vietnamese refugees who were resettling in Ames at that time.
Today, the Love Your Neighbor ministry focuses on general rental assistance and utility payments. Those seeking funds call in on Thursday mornings to line up an appointment to meet with one of the parish’s eight volunteer interviewers the following week. There are eight appointments available on a weekly basis. The volunteer interviewers sit down to meet one-on-one with those asking for help to determine whether assistance will be provided. When assistance is given out, it is typically limited to a maximum of $300.
There are no requirements that those seeking financial help from the parish be Catholic or belong to another Christian tradition. “There are no questions about your spirituality or belief system or anything,” Dirks said. “Any neighbor in Story County is welcome.”
However, interviewers do ask clients if they would like to be prayed for by the parish, and many accept the offer. Interviewers also sometimes provide information about the Ames parishes’ Stephen Ministry, which offers a one-on-one caring relationship with a trained layperson to people experiencing a life crisis, which the clients can pursue if interested.
Love Your Neighbor interviewers also sometimes help clients connect with other services in the county, for example, sharing with them where they might go to obtain a free meal.
Volunteers are diligent in ensuring the Love Your Neighbor ministry is funding only legitimate needs. Dirks said procedures are in place to prevent people from abusing the system, so those who are helped are “deserving people whose stories are really on the up-and-up.”
Those seeking assistance must show that they have contacted other agencies and first sought assistance elsewhere. They also must provide a copy of a utility bill showing the past amount if they are requesting utility assistance or a copy of their lease and past due notice from the landlord if they are asking for help with rent. They also cannot have received assistance from the parish in the past 12 months and are required to provide identification. If assistance is provided, it is sent to the rental owner or the utility company. Money is never given directly to clients.
The Love Your Neighbor Ministry is funded by a 3 percent tithe of the parish’s weekly collection, which includes envelopes, loose change and direct deposits. The ministry also receives grants from other sources on occasion. During Advent each year, the parish brings in goods for sale from a local fair trade store that serves as a fundraiser for the ministry, and other parish groups sometimes share the proceeds of their fundraisers with Love Your Neighbor as well.
A significant source of funding for the Love Your Neighbor ministry is individual donations. “We have a number of loyal donors that always respond and always come through,” said Tom Budnik, the coordinator of ministries at St. Thomas Aquinas, who is heavily involved with the Love Your Neighbor ministry among his other program responsibilities.
A goal of the parish, Budnik said, is to have approximately $20,000 remaining in the Love Your Neighbor ministry fund at the end of each month. Budnik said this fall the balance dropped significantly below that level, but, “Lo and behold, we got a $5,000 donation from a parishioner, so we were able to keep that up.” “People are extremely generous,” he added.
Those who receive assistance from the Love Your Neighbor ministry appreciate the help they’ve been given, and Budnik said the parish will on occasion receive a note of thanks from them in the mail. He also tells the story of at least one individual — a single mom with three children — who was assisted through the Love Your Neighbor ministry and found a way to give back and help the parish help others.
Budnik shared, “About two months after she received some assistance — we have an annual Advent collection here, a food collection for the food pantry — there were three bags of groceries in the basket that we put out, and inside one of the bags was a note saying, ‘I am the person that you helped with my rental assistance. Thank you so much. I would just like to pay it forward. I’m in a position to do so.’” “That’s an impact,” Budnik said.
Don Alexander, parish secretary for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, receives a phone call for the Love Your Neighbor ministry. Those in need call weekly and later meet with volunteers who evaluate each case individually. When Alexander is unavailable, Net Larson, the parish’s financial secretary, takes the calls. (Contributed photo)