On the Front lines of Charity
11/1/2013Carla Jean Whitley
On Sept. 7, the football-crazed city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., saw hundreds of people pouring onto a lawn dotted not with the crimson of the University of Alabama, but instead with tents arrayed in red, white and blue. As community members and veterans gathered on the grounds of the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center for a welcome home event, among the first to greet them was Steve Leisure, a Fourth Degree Knight and the Order’s 2012 Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service (VAVS) Volunteer of the Year.
“Thank you for your service,” said Leisure with a big smile as veterans young and old stopped by the K of C table for snacks and beverages.
Managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the VAVS program serves American veterans and their families. Since partnering with the VAVS in 2002, the Knights of Columbus has played a major role in VA facilities nationwide through its Serving Those Who Served program, which is spearheaded by the Order’s Fourth Degree, also known as the Patriotic Degree.
Although they have long been recognized for their ceremonial role marching in parades and appearing at events in formal regalia Fourth Degree Knights are becoming just as well-known for their volunteer service to veterans. Motivated by faith and charity, 1,240 Knights currently volunteer at 136 of the 153 VA medical centers throughout the United States.
The welcome home picnic is one of several volunteer activities that Leisure helps to coordinate at the Tuscaloosa VA. Throughout the event, though, he remained humble about being recognized nationally for his service, which includes 6-10 hours a week at the medical center.
“I was really surprised to get [the award]. I didn’t think I did that much,” said Leisure, who serves as culture of life director and financial secretary of Tuscaloosa Council 4083 as well as faithful navigator of Tuscaloosa Assembly. “It brought tears to my eyes. There are guys who work a lot harder.”
A congenital back problem disqualified Leisure from military service, but he now sees his volunteer work as a way to practice patriotism. “I figured this was a good way to give back to those who did serve our country,” he said.
Although Leisure was eager to volunteer and has, in fact, helped others since he was a child assisting elderly neighbors he wasn’t sure how to get involved. The Knights offered him that opportunity. He has volunteered his time at the VA for the past few years, since the Tuscaloosa Assembly started rosary and Communion services for veterans.
It was the Knights’ focus on charitable work that led Leisure to join the Order in 1994, 10 years after he became Catholic. He describes the Knights as “the public face of the Catholic Church” and sees his membership as an opportunity to live out his faith.
In the process of volunteering, Leisure has regularly exceeded expectations, said Stephanie Massey, a program manager for recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Tuscaloosa VA. She met Leisure three years ago and has worked with him annually in preparing the “Picnic in the Park.”
“He is just so willing to do whatever he can do to help out,” Massey said. “It’s one thing for somebody to call and say, ‘Hey, I want to set up a table.’ They show up, do their thing and leave. Steve and the Knights, they really do way more than that.”
Although western Alabama is not a heavily Catholic area, Knights are responsible for a number of programs offered at the Tuscaloosa VA. In addition to supporting the welcome home event, they hold a weekly Communion service and a monthly Mass, distribute rosaries, offer transportation to off-site Masses, visit patients, collect toiletries, and participate in Veterans Day and Memorial Day activities.
A NATIONAL TREND
Leisure and his brother Knights in Tuscaloosa aren’t alone in their dedication to supporting veterans. Such service is a natural extension of the Order’s charitable mission, and in particular the Fourth Degree’s patriotic focus.
“Knights of Columbus have been volunteers at VA hospitals at the local level for a long time,” said Col. Charles H. Gallina (USMC/Ret.), who serves as the Order’s assistant for military and veterans affairs, national VAVS representative, and liaison to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
This relationship allows the VAVS a centralized point of contact in communicating with K of C volunteers, while also making volunteer opportunities easily accessible to Knights who want to participate. Executed through the Fourth Degree, the program is open to Knights Orderwide.
Likewise, all volunteers have a number of opportunities throughout the national VA system. Former VAVS Director Laura Balun, who retired in July after 32 years with the VA, said she had 108 different volunteer assignments when she was chief of service in Washington.
“[Volunteers] weren’t there to supplant employees, but they were there to supplement employees,” she said. “They were able to give that personal touch.”
The Knights’ involvement has been particularly significant as organizations have provided fewer VAVS volunteers in recent years, according to Balun. By contrast, K of C involvement has tracked upward in the past decade. In 2012, Knights accounted for more than 100,000 hours of donated service.
The Knights also create distinctive programs at the medical centers, including religious initiatives, vocational rehabilitation, arts and crafts programs, pet therapy opportunities, holiday celebrations, parties, and outings to ball games and performances.
According to Balun, the Knights’ success in recruiting volunteers to assist veterans has served as a model for the VAVS national advisory committee, for which Gallina serves as recruitment chairman.
While the veteran-focused Serving Those Who Served program aims to expand into every VA medical center, there are service opportunities even for Knights who aren’t located near such facilities. K of C units can conduct drives to gather supplies such as clothing, books, movies and religious items for patients.
Leisure said involvement with VAVS through the Knights has been valuable on a personal level.
“My favorite part is taking Communion to patients, to see them when they receive Christ, to see the smile that comes on their face,” he explained.
Simply asking a patient how he is doing, and giving him a handshake and a hug, can mean a lot, Leisure added.
“It’s a blessing that God has put me where he has and is using me to work with veterans. It gives me a lot of pleasure to give back to those who gave so much.”
CARLA JEAN WHITLEY is a writer and editor based in Birmingham, Ala.