By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
OTTUMWA — This post, dated June 20, appears on the Facebook page “Whatsoever You Do Inc. (WYD Inc.): “10 calls just in a week … regarding homeless women and women with children in Ottumwa. The need for shelter is great … and it isn’t going to get better.”
Mary Margaret Butler, a lifelong Catholic, created the Facebook page with her friend Sarah Meeker to assist people in need in their community. Butler trusts that God will help her and a network of volunteers to open an emergency shelter early next year for women and children who are homeless.
The timeline depends on funding for renovation well underway to transform a former Presbyterian church into an emergency shelter. “We hope to open early next year on a partial basis while construction continues, and to have the full project completed by the end of 2021 or the first part of 2022, depending on grants and donations received,” Butler said.
Ottumwa is without an emergency shelter for women and children who are not victims of domestic violence. “Our shelter will serve Wapello County and surrounding counties. WYD estimates approximately 150 to 200 homeless in just Wapello County. This includes people living on the streets, in cars, abandoned houses, tents, and those hopping from one couch to the next.”
The pandemic already has left people with lower incomes struggling to pay their bills and falling behind on rent and mortgage payments. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted a statewide moratorium on evictions May 27. An evictions moratorium for people receiving federal funding for housing expires later this summer.
Butler’s concern for people who become homeless began long before the pandemic took hold in mid-March. About five years ago, she and her husband, John, saw a man sleeping behind a fast-food restaurant in Ottumwa. Pads in worn-out shoes soaked up blood from his feet. “That man wasn’t getting the help he needed. Everyone just ignored him. So we decided to help the homeless,” she said.
Initially, WYD Inc. provided tents and sleeping bags for people who were homeless. When winter set in, the nonprofit organization rented apartments for people who needed a roof over their head. That effort continued for three years, but became unsustainable. WYD obtains all funding through donations, grants and fundraisers — including an ongoing can collection drive that has generated $19,000 this year.
WYD, created in 2011 by two women who wanted to do something useful on Facebook to help people in need, provided the foundation to establish the emergency shelter. WYD matches donors of furniture and other household items with recipients through a careful vetting process.
The late Sister Donna Donovan, CHM, who served in Ottumwa, was also a family friend who supported the ministry and mission of WYD. After Sister Donovan died in September 2018, her religious community, the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, donated her house to WYD. The sisters have long been involved in housing and shelter in Davenport and their motherhouse was previously located in Ottumwa.
“What Mary Margaret is doing is in line with our mission with what we are doing in Davenport through Humility Homes & Services,” said Sister Mary Ann Vogel, CHM president. “We decided it would be a way to continue our ministry in Ottumwa, by helping her organization.” Sister Vogel also referred Butler to HHSI for consultation on establishing a shelter.
Proceeds from the sale of Sister Donovan’s house went toward repairing the leaky roof of the large church building, said Butler, who plans to honor her friend’s memory in the shelter’s chapel.
The shelter will provide rooms for moms and kids, for single women, a kitchen, laundry, nursery and a chapel. Butler said she has plenty of volunteers to assist, including a nurse. She also plans to use a program to help women become self-sufficient.
Faith, patience and perseverance have been Butler’s constant companions along the way to fulfilling her dream to ensure that women and children have a place to stay in an emergency. Setbacks have never deterred her. Even the pandemic, which forced cancellation of some fundraisers, caused a pause and not a stop to paid and volunteer labor.
“Whatsoever You Do” is a recipient of the Diocese of Davenport’s Works of Charity collection, an annual collection taken up in parishes throughout the diocese, said Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities. The collection this year takes place July 25-26.
“Mary is a classic example of the passionate parishioner, who by virtue of professional work responsibilities knows very well the painful reality of unmet needs facing those living in poverty,” Ferris said. “She sees the face of Christ in those she serves, critically important in this moment when so many feel isolated because of the pandemic and the accompanying economic hardships.”
Her work on behalf of people struggling to make ends meet, living on the margins of society, is an answer to prayer. “When I hit 50, I felt like my life was going in circles,” she said. “I prayed. I asked God to show me what he wanted me to do. ‘Let me work for you,’ I said. My dad always said, ‘Be careful what you pray for.’” Her dad’s advice has helped her to be realistic.
“I worked full-time, but I had to quit my job because this work is full-time, she said. “When God is your boss — and what better person to have as a boss — then that is enough reward for me.”
Her husband, who works full-time, provides tremendous support to his wife’s work for WYD. She admits the time and energy both devote to the effort can be stressful. They and many volunteers continue because of the words of the hymn that inspired the Facebook page: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people that you do unto me.”
How to help
Financial contributions will help WYD Inc. to open an emergency shelter in Ottumwa. To date, WYD has spent $175,000 on renovation of the church that will become the shelter. WYD founder Mary Margaret Butler estimates an additional $450,000 to $500,000 is needed for the project, to be completed in phases. She anticipates opening the shelter on a partial basis early next year, with acquisition of around $40,000 in funding. Visit the WYD Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/501c3NonProfitOrg/ to make a donation, or send a check to WYD, Inc., 105 S. Iowa Ave., Ottumwa, Iowa, 52501.
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