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Growing up Catholic in Central Missouri, Chelle Smith-Vandergriff struggled to connect with her faith in ways she found meaningful.
Turning outward proved to be the key.
“Acts of service were ultimately how I found depth and richness and meaning within my faith life,” she said.
Now, she gets to help other people discover that connection for themselves.
“I love talking to people about finding ways that they can volunteer in the community and find ways to do acts of service,” said Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff, senior director of Volunteer Engagement for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).
She is the contact point for anyone wanting to assist with any of the ministries Catholic Charities offers in the diocese.
“They can always reach out to me and we can walk through the parameters, if they have a specific interest, group size, and location, and we can always find meaningful ways to plug them into our mission,” she said.
“How we share our mission varies a little by age group,” she noted. “But the message of helping the poor and vulnerable in our community — that’s universal.”
It can also be powerfully spiritual.
“Many young people and young adults find that connection through acts of service, and through serving neighbors in need,” she said.
Alongside Health & Nutrition Services staff, Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff welcomed over a dozen service groups throughout 2022, many from local Catholic schools, to the Catholic Charities Food Pantry in Jefferson City for on-site service experiences.
Strengthening Catholic Charities’ partnership with Helias Catholic High School, she helped onboard several hundred students in preparation to perform Christian service hours at Catholic Charities.
“To date, we have 483 Helias Catholic faculty, staff and students in our volunteer database,” Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff noted.
She works closely with Helias Catholic faculty members, including William Schatte, the school’s service coordinator.
She contacted him a few weeks ago, when snow and cold weather sidelined several volunteers for that afternoon’s mobile food pantry at the Jefferson City Knights of Columbus Hall.
He sent an email to students, who were home for a snow day.
“We had a great turnout for such short notice,” Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff noted. “It was wonderful.”
Last fall, 32 members of Helias Catholic boys’ and girls’ soccer teams helped move 40 years’ worth of files from Catholic Charities’ former second location to its central office on Edmonds Street.
“Because so many students answered the call to volunteer, they were able to move and unload over 100 boxes in under an hour,” she stated.
Drawn to service
Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff is a graduate of Immaculate Conception School and Helias Catholic, both in Jefferson City.
She was introduced to service projects by Janet Hernandez, now deceased, who was the parish youth minister.
In high school, she took a Christian service class taught by Coach Ray Hentges. She performed most of her required service hours at what was then St. Joseph Home for the Aged.
“I loved every minute of encountering those folks right where they were in their lives,” she recalled. “Sometimes having conversations, sometimes taking part in activities, sometimes reading with them.”
After graduating from Benedictine College, she served as coordinator of youth ministry at St. Stanislaus Parish in Wardsville. There, she noticed young people being drawn to service just as she had been.
“Something about service just connects people in ways they don’t find within church walls,” she noted. “And once that connection is made, they’re a lot more drawn to the Catholic Church.”
She later worked for 9½ years for the Missouri Department of Social Services as a trainer for the child abuse and neglect hotline unit.
In 2021, her husband, Mark, went to work for Catholic Charities as warehouse coordinator for the Health and Nutrition Program.
“He came home with positive things to say every day, how it was so challenging but rewarding, how he loved the people, how he loved the mission-driven work environment,” she recalled.
She found out about an opening for a senior director of volunteer engagement, a position she had the skills, the experience and the passion for.
She applied, interviewed and got the job.
While addressing students, Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff takes notice that even those who are not initially drawn to serving often become intrigued, enamored and energized with Catholic Charities after hearing about it and doing some service work.
“That happens often,” she said. “I would say, nearly daily.”
Several months ago, a group of students arrived at Catholic Charities to work on an expanded service project.
“We found that if we do that beyond a couple of hours with a bunch of students, they might get a little squirrely,” Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff recalled.
As a remedy, the staff worked to develop several age-appropriate, interactive activities to introduce the students to Catholic social teaching and issues such as poverty and food insecurity.
The activities have evolved and been refined over time.
Last November, a group from St. Joseph Cathedral School in Jefferson City visited the center to tour the facility, serve in the food pantry, and learn about Catholic social teaching. They also participated in small-group discussions led by Father Paul Clark, and then made greeting cards for pantry members and guests of Jefferson City Room at the Inn.
Lori Stoll, Food Programs Coordinator at Catholic Charities, worked with them on a poverty simulation that afternoon.
“Lori’s activity showed students just how close anyone might be to experiencing poverty,” Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff noted. “Her activity made real for the students the daily decisions that people experiencing poverty have to make.”
Each of the activities can be tailored to specific ages.
“We speak about these things in ways they can understand,” she said.
Here to help
Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff also works with the Catholic Charities Refugee Services program to help organizations in the community form a co-sponsorship group to help a newly arrived refugee family.
“These groups are matched with clients for at least a six-month commitment, and they essentially help newcomers become successfully integrated into their new communities,” she said.
Local businesses, civic groups, Catholic and non-Catholic churches and schools and other entities contact Catholic Charities to learn about and often help with some aspect of its mission.
She connects them with the right people.
Last spring, students from Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia did a day of service, helping the Catholic Charities Refugee Services staff clean and organize the agency’s donation inventory in Columbia.
Several schools have gathered everyday necessities for refugees and assembled the donated items into welcome kits.
The Little Flower Group at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Taos put together welcome kits for newcomers and then visited Catholic Charities and learned about the services offered there.
Some young members of the Boys & Girls Torch Club in Jefferson City come on-site monthly to assist with various projects, such as sorting and stocking food items for the pantry.
She often represents Catholic Charities at volunteer fairs in local schools. Following a visit to Columbia Independent School, students wound up doing service work for Catholic Charities Refugee Services.
“There are just so many opportunities to do outreach, to talk about what we do, the impact it has on our community, and ways for people to get involved in it,” she noted.
Mrs. Smith-Vandergriff thanks God every night for the connections to faith and community being formed in people of all ages, especially young people, through service at Catholic Charities.
“It’s so wonderful to see young members of our community stepping up and becoming involved,” she said.
She invites schools beyond Jefferson City who organize field trips the Capital City to incorporate time at Catholic Charities for an immersion experience in service.
“There’s a lot to learn here that they can hopefully take back with them, wherever they live,” she said.
She asks for prayers for continued strength and providence for the Catholic Charities staff.
“But more so, I would ask for prayers for those we serve,” she said, “for God to keep their hope alive to help them find support and comfort.”