Missioner candidate Paul Heinzen has been volunteering at the Gift of Peace House in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday mornings as part of his formation.  For this Wednesday he shares with us a bit of his work and the unusual role that has lead to new friendships.

The Sisters of Charity, also known as Mother Theresa’s Sisters provide housing and health care for elderly men and women having various degrees of dementia on a quiet section of Otis street in north-east Washington, DC. I volunteer Wednesday mornings from about 8:30 to 11:30 to assist in the men’s ward.

The Sisters have mastered the art of organized chaos. It is sometimes difficult to figure out who’s in charge, but things seem to get done in a timely manner. Nobody notes my grand entrance on Wednesday mornings and the sisters and other staff simply work around me until I discover something constructive to do.

It doesn’t require my MBA skills to figure it out. There are breakfast dishes to wash, floors to mop, 10:30 lunch to prepare and clean up after, beards to shave, toenails to clip or a group rosary prayer to lead. Friendly banter is exchanged in passing, but nobody congregates around the proverbial water cooler.

Ernie is a client from North Carolina. While I shaved him the other day, Ernie commented that the staff spend more time praying than working. Maybe he was a foreman in his earlier life, but he could be right about the praying. When I tattled on Ernie, the sisters had a good laugh of agreement.

Dementia severity varies from client to client and from day to day. Most of the clients display occasional mental acuity, and surprise me with perceptive observations when I least expect them. An Ethiopian gentleman told me that I was a lousy manicurist, and not much better at shaving. Then I told him that I had hitch-hiked across Africa when Haile Selassie was still the God- Emperor of Ethiopia. Tez’s eyes lit up and I was immediately promoted to chief barber. On his better days I still get a smile and wave from Tez in anticipation of one of my great shaves. Gosh, I must be good!

After five weeks of Wednesday visits I perceive small gestures of recognition from many of these elderly dementia clients. Most of them arrived at the Home alone and with no historical information accompanying them. Some small gems of their respective history’s emerge during lucid moments, usually just enough to tease one’s imagination about the colorful tales that lurk behind each set of remarkably expressive eyes.

Might Tez have been a functionary in Heile Selassie’s court? He displays the demeanor of an imperial potentate. Wheel-chair bound Amos must have cut a fine tall figure of a warrior in the southern Sudan. God bless the Sisters of Charity in their ministry to preserve the dignity of these most vulnerable and seemingly useless men and women, both American natives and immigrants from exotic lands.

A Wisconsin native and returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Nepal, Paul Heinzen has been rebuilding portions of a Catholic church in British Columbia, Canada and has worked in development and fundraising in both Anchorage, Alaska and St. Michaels, Arizona. He holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Alaska and has worked for nearly twenty consecutive years in the international development field.