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Service Spotlight-Mary Abkemeier

"I have learned humility.  I have learned to be thankful for what I have.   Growing up I thought that all families shared similar values and that all families were like mine.   I often ask myself why am I so lucky?   I have not ever been able to answer that question satisfactorily." - Mary Abkemeier


Mary Abkemeier, Ph. D., director of MS program in Computer Education, talks about why she volunteers and serves at five local agenicies is various capacities. Click to learn more about these agencies and get involved.

Why do I volunteer?

People often ask me that question and related ones.   My job, family and friends keep me very busy so why do I make time to volunteer and why.  I have so much for which to be thankful: loving parents and siblings, a wonderful marriage, great kids and grandchildren, a job I love, good friends and health and energy.  So, I feel the need to give back.   My problem is that I always want to say “yes” to a need.  I am not sure the word “volunteer” is a good one for me to use. It almost sounds like something I do as an extra.  For me, my volunteer work is just a part of me.  I see a need and respond.  I don’t usually have the time, but I try to make the time.

How do you see the mission, vision, values, commitment and identity of our university reflected in what you do?

The values of Fontbonne University, among which are integrity, respect, diversity, community, justice and service serve as models for my life.  Many of the people whom I serve have lost the respect of members of our society.   They have lost their dignity.  I try to keep the values of Fontbonne uppermost in my mind and heart when I interact with ex-offenders and/or the homeless.   As long as they are trying and are honest with me then I respect them and their efforts.

How has your service changed you?   What have you learned?

I have learned humility.  I have learned to be thankful for what I have.   Growing up I thought that all families shared similar values and that all families were like mine.   I often ask myself why am I so lucky?   I have not ever been able to answer that question satisfactorily.   But looking for an answer has taught me to be thankful for what I have been given.  I have learned that not all of what I need to know to lead a fulfilling and productive life comes from books and from people with Ph Ds.  Sometimes I am ashamed to admit that I did not think a specific person had anything to offer me only to learn later that the person is way wiser than I am.  I have learned not to judge a person by his/her outside appearance.

What kind of activities do you do?

Over the years my volunteer activities have changed. Years ago, my husband and I prepared couples for marriage through our parish. We did that for about 20 years.  We attended a lot of weddings and that was fun.  We were also both active with the Scouts.   Now my activities are focused on 5 organizations.  These are the organizations listed below.  They are CJM (The Criminal Justice Ministry), SVDP (St. Vincent de Paul Society), CWIT (Center for Women in Transition), St. Patrick Center and The Grace the Peace Shelter for Homeless Women.

Some of the activities are not really “hands-on”.  For example, I am president of the Advisory Board for CJM and that means I attend and run our quarterly meetings.  Prior to that,  I was a member of the Advisory board for 6 years.  I am a board member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and so I attend meetings.  Since I teach and work at Fontbonne, I feel quite at home attending or running meetings.   My colleagues will understand the humor in that statement.  I realize that in this advisory capacity I do have the ability to work for positive change.   At our meetings we decide on policies to advocate to assist people recently released from prison, we decide how to spend funds to help those in need, among other things.

However, not all of my volunteering consists in going to meetings.   I help prepare backpacks for ex-offenders and coordinate a backpack program at our home parish, St. Roch.   These backpacks are filled with essential items for men and women recently released from prison.  I am a pen pal to incarcerated people. I only have one pen pal at a time.  It is very intense because most of the time I am the only contact the person has to the outside world. 

Through CWIT I mentor female ex-offenders.   At St. Patrick Center I coordinate the Fontbonne casserole program and the St. Roch salad program.  I also coordinate the back-to-school backpack program for the children served by the Center.   All of these activities could not be performed without the help of my husband, Bill.  He is the one in the van on the first Tuesday of each month collecting the Fontbonne casseroles.  He is the one driving the salads to the Center on the 3rd Friday of every month. You get the idea?  Our house is often filled with backpacks, salads to feed 300, shoes for Joplin and similar items.

The work we (my husband I )do at the Grace and Peace Shelter for Homeless Women is seasonal.  Every other Tuesday, November through March,  I prepare dinner for the 20 guests who spend the night and the staff who will work that night.  Sometimes the ladies who stay at the shelter do not have an opportunity to eat healthy food and so I try to guarantee that on “our night” a healthy dinner will be served.  We talk to the ladies, sometimes we pray with them, we help the newly arrived guests get settled in their bed and feel welcome.

What are some of the things you remember most?

I recall appearing before a judge 5 years ago asking (pleading) with the judge to release my current mentee (I will call her Judy – not real name) to CWIT and not send Judy back to jail.   Both the CWIT court advocate for Judy and I saw something in Judy that told us she could finally be successful after many failed attempts to stay off drugs and alcohol.  The judge gave in to us, but her departing words to Judy said that she did not predict success this time and that probably Judy would be back in prison within two months.  As of fall 2011, Judy has been off drugs and alcohol for 5 years, has a very good job and apartment, has bought a car and now speaks to groups about how to overcome the “criminal” mentality.

I recall giving a presentation for CJM at the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Jefferson City.  On the day of the meeting I did not want to drive all the way to Jeff City, but I went anyway.  During my presentation, which was about people dealing with incarcerated family members, I kept noticing one woman in the audience looking at me.  Afterwards I approached her and asked her if she had questions she did not ask during the Q/A part and with that she broke into tears and told me her story.  I just listened.  She told me about the burden she carries every day of her life.  Right then I knew why God put me in that place at that time.  That woman needed someone that day and that someone turned out to be me.

When shopping for the backpacks I always recall a story Sr. Eugenio told me about reactions that ex-offenders display upon receiving a backpack.  Some will actually break into tears because it if the only item they can recall owning.

I always remember the gratitude expressed by the women who spend the night at the Grace and Peace Shelter.  When we pray with them before the meal, I am humbled by what I take away from their prayers of thanks.  Their prayers of thanksgiving make me realize how fortunate I am.

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