There are no limits to need – big and small – even in just one area like Madison. Filling those needs for Madison’s poor and elderly are about as much as Barbara Harnishfeger and her all-volunteer team at the Shepherd’s Center at Madison can handle.
The statistics of the works done through the Shepherd’s Center at St. Joseph Church on Gallatin Pike South are startling: more than 40 ministries, 600 boxes of food delivered monthly, minor home repairs, household chores for the elderly, grocery shopping, and more.
Then there are the high-profile works, such as the 629 homemade dinners given to the poor, elderly and homeless on Thanksgiving – on Nov. 24 this year – and Christmas.
Those are the quantifiable results, the numbers that help to bring in donations. But it’s the unmeasurables that help to bring in the volunteers. The satisfaction of carrying out corporal works of mercy, and the smiles, looks of surprise, and the thanks that come when meals are delivered and chores are completed.
Although volunteers during the holidays are always needed, especially at Christmas when it falls on a weekend like this year, people flock to the St. Joseph Parish Life Center to prep, cook and deliver meals on the holidays. It is a workforce that spans all ages, interests, faiths, businesses and other charitable organizations.
Gilda York of Ambassador Formal Wear brings a group of young men known as Social Graces. Kay White and Bryan White, alumni of Tennessee State University and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, bring a team of wrestlers. The Sovereign Military Order of the Templars of Jerusalem, and the Kiwanis are among the volunteer force that help prepare Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. Students from public and Catholic schools help while filling their service hour requirements. Even the Madison Post Office helps out by giving Harnishfeger a heads up about people along their routes who might need some help.
“It’s not just a matter of being poor,” Harnishfeger said. “You could be a millionaire. We don’t turn anyone away.” That’s because the Center is also addressing the loneliness component. So many people are left alone. Many elderly are expecting family members who never show up, and the reverberation of that loneliness resounds like a bell’s clapper clanging wildly.
“A psychiatrist told me that if I ever have to cut programs, I shouldn’t cut the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals,” Harnishfeger said. “The suicide rate at that time is too high. It’s more than a meal. It’s having someone to touch them.”
Julie Rodgers and her husband, who also organize a monthly Room at the Inn at St. Joseph’s, became involved because they personally witnessed the abandonment of someone in need. A friend, who was a young mother, was paralyzed in a car accident and admitted to a nursing home with only rare visits from family members. Rodgers said she died alone in the nursing home this past April. The people the Shepherd’s Center serves, she said, could be “any one of us.”
Jada Martin, a seventh grader at St. Joseph’s school, volunteers with her mother, Laura. Last year, they helped coordinate deliveries to apartment complexes.
“It’s nice to see a smile on their face,” Jada said of the people who received meals. “We’ll sit (and visit) with them sometimes.”
The visiting is an important and all too short part of the delivery process. Rodgers said the more people they have delivering meals, the more time they can sit with people Jennifer Rodgers does a lot of the coordinating on Harnishfeger’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=Barbara%20Harnishfeger. There, people can also see photos of the many activities and volunteers that make this organization so successful.
But then there is also the indefatigable Barbara Harnishfeger who started the Shepherd’s Center 26 years ago because the 1990 census indicated Madison had a high population of poor and elderly. With some seed money from St. Joseph, she approached a Methodist minister about buying the name “Shepherd’s Center” from him. The organization then grew to “fill in the gaps” left by other services for the elderly in Madison, Inglewood, Old Hickory and Goodlettsville.
Now 76 and needing a walker to get around, Harnishfeger remains undeterred in her mission, still picking up government commodities to deliver to those in need and making plans for the growth of the Shepherd’s Center. Her plans include raising funds to purchase a 15-passenger van to drive people to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, fitness classes, the cemetery to visit loved one’s graves, and also to fun activities.
Funding has become more difficult over the years, she explained, and she will not accept government funding because the controls are too tight. “If I want to talk to people about God, then I can do it,” she said.
Changes in corporate tax laws have severely limited what businesses can donate. Each year, teens from across the country who come to Nashville for the Catholic Heart Work Camp donate their time to help people in the area. Harnishfeger used to coordinate 100 teens and 15 projects to paint the inside and outside of homes and trailers. She could get plentiful donations of paint and supplies from building supply chain stores. Then, she might get 35 cans of paint from each. Now, due to limitations of corporate donations, she gets one.
She has the youth group clean apartments and homes instead of painting. Additionally, older supporters have died or gone out of businesses.
“It’s constantly starting all over again,” she said.
Monetary donations are always needed and can be sent to The Shepherd’s Center, P.O. Box 1243, Madison, TN 37116
For Thanksgiving, people willing to deliver meals are needed. For Christmas, volunteers are needed for each part of the preparation and delivery, in addition to items needed for gift bags, most of which can be purchased at dollar stores. Some of the items are: playing cards, hankies, hats, gloves, scarves, kitchen towels, flash light and batteries. For a complete list, please see Harnishfeger’s Facebook page.