CCUSA’s 2019 Volunteer of the Year uses gardening skills to help others

September 13, 2019

You might think that working more than three decades in the Catholic school system should be followed by a calm and relaxing retirement. And it is one way to cap such a generous career.

But there’s another way, less traveled perhaps, demonstrated by Jana Hukriede, Catholic Charities USA’s (CCUSA) 2019 Volunteer of the Year.

After 34 years of teaching, coaching and administering in the Springfield, Mo., Catholic school system, Hukriede retired not to a beach or mountain getaway but to a wide field of volunteering.

Hukriede volunteers as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and a lector at her parish. She helps local Catholic schools by substitute teaching when needed. She volunteers at Relay for Life, which is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. And to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri (CCSOMO) she gives an incredible amount of time and talent, the service for which she received the volunteer of the year award.

“I got started back in 2013 when Catholic Charities moved its offices to its present location and had an open house,” Hukriede said. “I wanted to make the garden near the entrance presentable for the opening.”

From that humble beginning, so characteristic of her care and service, Hukriede has built an impressive gardening operation that now includes flowers and vegetables. She saw an opportunity to expand her efforts since CCSOMO’s new location not only housed the executive offices but also a home for homeless and pregnant women, called LifeHouse, and 11 acres of grounds.

Hukriede’s idea was to grow vegetables that could feed the residents of LifeHouse. It was a great idea that continues to pay dividends. The residents are the direct beneficiaries of the vegetables, but CCSOMO also benefits from a significantly lower food bill for LifeHouse, which means the savings can be used for other programs.

To appreciate fully the value of the gardening operation, one needs to keep in mind that Hukriede started from scratch six years ago with a few fellow planters. Now she manages a team of more than 40 volunteers and provides an abundant crop of vegetables too long to list. Just part of the crop includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, kale, onions, green beans, zucchini, spinach, okra, tomatoes and cucumbers.

In addition to the vegetables, Hukriede is overseeing the building and maintenance of a greenhouse that will allow year-round harvesting. She is currently searching for funds and materials to get the greenhouse in top shape. It still needs electricity, a convenient water source and a roll-down canvas side that can be opened during better weather. In the meantime, Hukriede is also studying and searching for a more effective irrigation system for the garden.

Beyond the material benefits of the gardening operation, there are also intangible ones. The volunteers that work with Hukriede feel a sense of purpose and satisfaction in being involved in such a well-run program. The women of LifeHouse feel loved and included in the community. Some of them help in the garden, too, as they await the birth of their children, and so they have an experience of working on a team and being valued, something they did not always have.

Maura Taylor, executive director of CCSOMO, commented on this aspect of Hukriede’s volunteering: “Jana’s commitment to charity and service sets a high standard that is especially restorative of faith in humanity for many of our clients who have suffered from extreme deficits of these gifts prior to coming into care.”

There are many good ways to spend one’s retirement, and Hukriede might have chosen a more traditional way. But there are a lot of people in the Springfield, Mo., area that have been blessed because she did not. Asked about her generous volunteer efforts, Hukriede said, “God gives you certain gifts, and if you can use those gifts to help others, you should do it.”

We thank God for the wonderful gift of our 2019 CCUSA Volunteer of the Year, Jana Hukriede.

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