When Sue Storke agreed to go with a friend to a Bloomfield Rotary Club meeting July 21, she had no idea she was about to be honored as Bloomfield’s Citizen of the Year.
She’d agreed to attend the meeting at the insistence of Sister of St. Joseph Deanna Gears, pastoral associate at St. Bridget/St. Joseph Parish in East Bloomfield. But she didn’t understand why she was there until the Rotary leaders began talking about the award.
"I thought, ‘Oh, Sister Deanna’s getting this award,’" she told the Catholic Courier. "When they said, ‘Sue Storke,’ my mouth just fell open. It was the furthest thing from my mind."
Storke, who belongs to St. Bridget/St. Joseph, is an active volunteer in the parish and in her wider local community. Liturgy coordinator for the parish, she also serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, sacristan and regular volunteer at parish functions.
When she’s not at the parish, Storke often can be found assisting residents at the Ontario County Health Facility, helping young people with disabilities through the Cerebral Palsy Association’s Horseback Riding Program at the Meadows at Mendon Stables or delivering meals to the elderly for Meals on Wheels. She also helps seniors living at Bloomfield Meadows, shops for weekly groceries for a disabled neighbor and drives a van for Sisters of St. Joseph living in the infirmary at the order’s motherhouse in Pittsford.
Storke also is involved with a number of other community organizations, including Bloomfield’s Blessing Room community cupboard. Yet she doesn’t volunteer because of the accolades it brings, which is why she was surprised by her recent recognition.
"It just became a way of life for me. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t volunteering," she said.
Driven by faith
Volunteer work has been part of Storke’s life since she was a child, and she always planned to be an active volunteer once she retired from her full-time job at Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. in Batavia. She made good on that pledge in part because of the great need she saw.
"I’m also saying thank you to the Lord for my health, my job, my family. I’m just counting my blessings and saying thank you for the life I’ve had," she said.
John Tydings, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Penfield, likewise views volunteer work as a way to give thanks for his blessings.
"I see people in situations that I’ve never been in, and I’ve been pretty lucky most of my life. I just see what I have and what they don’t have," said Tydings, who volunteers twice a week at St. Peter’s Kitchen in Rochester and three days a week with Meals on Wheels.
This is a common motivation for volunteerism, noted Patty Lorenzen, director of St. Peter’s Kitchen. The soup kitchen’s 150 volunteers come from a variety of faith backgrounds, but for many the decision to volunteer is rooted in faith.
"I can’t speak for everyone, but I would just assume it’s people’s answer to God’s call to them," Lorenzen said.
"Being a Catholic, you’re trying to do your part to help people," said St. Peter’s Kitchen volunteer Mary Mackey, a member of Guardian Angels Parish in Henrietta.
Dominick Armignacco, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Greece, said his spiritual director encouraged him to begin volunteering at St. Peter’s three or four years ago.
"I felt I was being called to it. If you’re listening to the Gospels, to the Word, you can’t help but feel drawn to (service)," Armignacco said.
Indeed, service to others is the heart and soul of the Gospel, noted Basilian Father Joseph Lanzalaco, director of campus ministry at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
"That’s the whole message of Christ, to minister to and be cognizant of the poorest of the poor," he said.
Father Lanzalaco said Jesus clearly emphasized this call to service during the Sermon on the Mount, when he gave his disciples the eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), the first of which is "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Later, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells his followers that on the day of final judgment the world’s people will be separated into two groups. Those who fed and served the hungry and thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited those in prison would inherit God’s kingdom, while the others would join Satan in hell.
"That’s what I set my belief from. When I start to lose focus or things get confused, I have a center to go back to," Father Lanzalaco said.
A similar message consistently can be found throughout the Bible, especially the Torah, which comprises the first five books of the Bible, agreed Father Lanzalaco and Sister of St. Joseph Donna Del Santo, one of the coordinators of the SSJ Volunteer Corps in Rochester.
"Most of what Jesus says is lifted quite liberally from there. He was a Jew, and you can’t lose sight of that fact," Father Lanzalaco said.
"Jesus was formed by these teachings, and that’s what Jesus taught us," Sister Del Santo noted.
The six Sisters of St. Joseph who run the SSJ Volunteer Corps use these Scripture passages in conjunction with Catholic social teachings to help young people understand how they are called to live their lives as Catholics, she added.
"Our faith calls us to be engaged in the world," Sister Del Santo said.
High-school and college students who participate in the program spend most of their time volunteering at local service sites, such as St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center and Bethany House, a Catholic Worker home for women and children. Before they pair off and begin working at the sites, however, they take a group bus tour throughout the city, looking out the windows as they pass each site and gauging each neighborhood’s quality of life, Sister Del Santo said.
Participants then work at the same site for the duration of their service experience, rather than rotate throughout sites, so that they can develop relationships with the people they serve and listen to their stories.
"When you start naming people and hearing their stories, it’s a life-changing experience. It’s trying to see the other as a neighbor and not just a project," Sister Del Santo said.
Rewards outweigh costs
The SSJ Volunteer Corps helps young participants develop a commitment to volunteerism and understand the reasons behind it. This will be increasingly important as the current volunteer force — which includes many senior citizens — dwindles.
Lorenzen said St. Peter’s Kitchen has already lost a number of its older volunteers due to health reasons. Many senior citizens these days have more family obligations than did the senior citizens of the last generation, she said.
Senior citizens often tend to flock to Florida during the winter months, noted Armignacco, who has noticed the kitchen is staffed a bit more sparsely in those months.
Moreover, the struggling national economy recently has put pressure on a number of volunteer-supported nonprofit organizations, particularly those that require volunteers to do a lot of driving. A May survey of Meals on Wheels programs in all 50 states found that 58 percent of the responding programs had lost volunteer drivers due to skyrocketing gas prices, according to a press release from the agency. Forty-three percent of those programs said the loss of volunteers forced them to eliminate delivery routes or consolidate their services.
Meals on Wheels of Rochester has not been immune to this national trend, Tydings noted.
"We’ve had some couples … that did it a few days a week and had to cut it back to one day a week," he said.
Although he spends about $50 a week on gas to fuel his service with Meals on Wheels and St. Peter’s Kitchen, Tydings said he doesn’t plan to let high gas prices keep him from volunteering.
"I keep on going. I’ve got money to buy gas," he said.
The benefits he reaps from volunteering outweigh his costs, he said. Storke agreed.
"It is the most rewarding thing you can do," she said.