Here to help

Life of simplicity and reverence brings two Mennonite women to Columbia
as volunteers and as advocates of their faith
Sunday, October 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:46 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Quiet and focused, 20-year-old Beth Stoltzfus goes about her Tuesday mornings working behind the information desk at University Hospital with a smile. Dressed in the plain long dress and black hair-covering favored by women in her faith, Stoltzfus works on behalf of the Mennonite Christian Public Service Program, a nationwide Mennonite volunteer organization for men and women.

Stoltzfus came to Columbia from Minerva, Ohio, this summer. When she arrived, she met Shana Unruh, 23, of North Dakota, who also volunteers for the program. Their decision to volunteer was a chance to get away from home — but definitely not a vacation.

In August, Stoltzfus and Unruh started a six-month program to volunteer at Columbia’s three hospitals and Rainbow House, an emergency shelter for children who have been or are at risk of being abused or neglected. The young women work in the mailroom, at the information desk or gift shop and in medical records, and they deliver flowers.

“You know you’re helping someone,” Stoltzfus said. “Taking flowers to someone and seeing them smile, knowing you brightened their day.”

This was not the first time the women had left home. Stoltzfus spent three months as a nanny in Belgium, and Unruh taught at a private Mennonite school for a year in Mississippi. Mennonites belong to a 475-year-old branch of Christianity dating back to the Reformation who, in general, believe in living simply and in active mission work teaching the Bible.

The women live with Devern and Jeanette Nightengale, their host parents, who they call “Momma and Poppa.” Stoltzfus and Unruh share a bedroom in the tidy, four-bedroom home in west Columbia. With no television or radio, the “family” enjoys simply being in each other’s company — at the dinner table, walking on nature trails and making scrapbooks on a crafts table in the basement. They also sing once a week at rest homes in Columbia and enjoy singing at home while preparing dinner or practicing a cappella.

The Nightengales volunteer through the Christian Public Service Program serving as host parents for the women who come to volunteer. After he was a farmer and she a teacher for many years, they decided they wanted to be a part of a mission service. Right now, four women live with them.

“It’s a service that if you want to do something for others, it’s a sacrifice,” Jeanette Nightengale said. “It’s not a rocking chair service.”

Jeanette keeps house, and Devern drives the girls to work and keeps financial records — allotting them $10 a week for lunch and cosmetics.

After raising four boys, a house full of young women is new but enjoyable, the Nightengales said.

“It’s a full-time job for us, but we both wanted to give our time,” Jeanette Nightengale said. “I’ve been with the school system for 20 years, and I like to do things that make a little difference. It’s a rewarding service with many blessings.”

Since moving from southwest Kansas to Columbia last May, they have hosted nine women, including the four who are there now. The house, owned by the Christian Public Service Program, has been a home to four sets of “parents” and 21 women. The Nightengales will move on in May.

Many Mennonite women go to school through the eighth grade and then either get married, teach or volunteer, Stoltzfus said. Most children are required by the state to attend school until age 16, but Amish and Mennonite people gained a religious exception through the U.S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder.

Stoltzfus chose to volunteer because she enjoys helping other people.

“It’s very rewarding. I’ve been blessed,” she said. “I haven’t had a hard life and other people have. I like to help them.”

Unruh, who said she is humbled by the volunteer experience, chose this kind of service because she likes hospital work, especially seeing patients and children.

“When I’m delivering gifts or candy, sometimes the children can’t even stand themselves,” she said.

Emily Smith, the volunteer coordinator for University Hospital and Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, appreciates the women’s caring attitude and is amazed at how quickly they learned hospital policies and procedures.

“Every one of the volunteers from the Mennonite Christian group has been wonderful,” Smith said. “I have heard nothing but wonderful qualities about the girls from staff and how caring they are with the patients.”

While working, the women are frequently questioned about their black hair coverings, conservative dress or unique religion. The questions don’t bother them, said Stoltzfus. She and Unruh see their service not only as volunteering but also a chance to clarify their religion to those who ask.

“Mission work goes hand in hand with the volunteering,” Devern Nightengale said. “The girls are exposed at the hospitals when people ask, ‘What kind of people are you?’ But that is why they’re here. We are here to be a help to mankind.”

Though their days are spent working at the hospitals, learning doesn’t stop there. Family life has its own lessons.

“They all come from different homes,” Jeanette Nightengale said. “They’ve all been raised differently, and then they come here and blend with everyone. It’s a bit challenging. That’s what I really liked about Beth — she was determined no matter who the girl was that she would be roommates with that she was going to get along. That was a blessing.”

With six people in the house, coordinating schedules and sharing household chores can be tricky. The girls are responsible for cooking breakfast and dinners twice a week as well as keeping their rooms and bathrooms clean.

Sometimes, the full house gets even busier. Last weekend, Beth’s friends came to visit to celebrate her birthday — that meant 11 people around a breakfast table made for six, which is not uncommon. On average, dinner is made for 12 every weekend because of visiting relatives and friends.

“It’s an experience for all of us to work together,” Jeanette Nightengale said. “What I’ve enjoyed is sharing ideas and recipes, ways of doing things different than I have learned.”

When Stoltzfus is done volunteering in February, she plans to return home to Minerva, with no certain plans beyond that. She said she knows, though, that she will continue to help others.

“It broadens your horizons,” she said of her work in Columbia. “There are other people out there who need help and want love.”

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