How do you care for people’s souls? Start deeper conversations

What if people answered truthfully when someone asked them, “How are you?”

What if there was a way for service providers to study hope among the populations they serve, like immigrants and refugees?

What if these providers could tell whether their efforts to improve people’s quality of life are truly making a difference?

These questions loomed large for St. Joseph Community Health Foundation (SJCHF) executive director Meg Distler and her board. Meg Distler

SJCHF has a history of caring for individuals “body, mind, and soul” in vulnerable populations. For more than two decades, the foundation has been granting funds to service agencies and tracking how those grants impacted clients’ physical and mental wellness.

But about two years ago, Distler says the board began digging deeper into how to measure the third component of their commitment to vulnerable populations: How do you care for people’s souls?

If soul health has to do with an individual’s level of purpose in life, how do you track whether a service provider is making a difference in someone’s hope and purpose?

The problem starts with current societal politeness, Distler says.

“We’ve lost language in an effort to be socially comfortable,” she says. “When someone asks, ‘How are you?' What do you say?”

She answers herself, “Fine.”

She says that’s the standard response, the only one we really expect to hear. Yet, that’s not often how people really feel. There’s more to it than that.

“I’ve been startled by the hunger that is out there to connect on a deeper level and in a more meaningful way,” Distler says.

To address this deep hunger, SJCHF asked eight of its faith-based grantees to help it come up with the questions for a spiritual health evaluation, while being mindful of the breadth of spiritual belief systems that exist.

In the pilot project phase, the group focused on creating questions to assess an individual’s level of hope and of sense of purpose for their life.  

An example question that the service provider Catholic Charities chose to ask is: Do you have strength enough to carry on day after day?

Another agency is asking clients to respond to: “I am at peace almost 100% of the time and have the support I need.”

The intention of these questions is to test each client at the intake stage and then again after services and connections have been provided to them to see if the intervention has moved the needle on giving individuals more hope, a better sense of purpose, or a better outlook on the future.

Each agency created its own questions. As one of the grantees, Catholic Charities runs more than half a dozen programs through federal agencies, coordinating interpretation and transportation services, among other things, for newly-arrived refugees to the Fort Wayne area.

Resettlement director Nyein Chan admits concerns were raised about the term “spiritual” being attached to the survey tool.

“Our federal funds have lots of restrictions regarding religious expectations,” he says.

Catholic Charities serves families in the northeast Indiana community.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was notified, and in turn, a call came in to Catholic Charities.

“They said, ‘We need to see those questions,’” Chan says. “I was nervous,” he admits. “But very soon, we had another call. Not only did they like all the questions, but they now recommend that all resettlement agencies throughout the U.S. consider using these questions.”

In an effort to be clear about what the survey measures, the title has now been revised to define it as a measure of “holistic well-being.”

Janet Stephenson, contracted as a coach to assist the funded agencies to evaluate spiritual health, believes SJCHF is on the right path to addressing holistic health.

“Holistic health acknowledges the interconnections within the body, mind, and spirit that make up the whole person,” she says. “Research shows a correlation between spiritual health and overall well being and quality of life.”

Deep questions help service providers meet people's needs.

Understanding an individual’s level of hope, sense of peace, purpose, and meaning, gratitude and other attributes of spiritual health, can help service providers gain insight into their client, address red flags, and ideally, lead to better outcomes for their clients, Stephenson says.

At Catholic Charities, the pilot survey is coming back with promising results. Most scores are going up, indicating that the services and interventions are succeeding—helping newly-arrived refugees navigate the system and settle into their new home.

The scores that have dropped have also provided insight, Chan says. They have allowed new conversations to begin between clients and case managers, bringing up the role of expectations in resettlement.

Catholic Charities hosts events to help refugees settle in northeast Indiana and become American citizens.

When some new arrivals anticipate a land of great, immediate, and widespread success, their scores may drop, as their lived experience is a bit more of a struggle than what they’d imagined. Others, who maybe had anxiety about getting along in America and had lower expectations about the ease of transition, may score higher as they connect with resources and services and start to envision themselves thriving in their new home.

Distler is pleased with the preliminary experience.

“The new effort doesn’t cost a dime, but we’ve become so much better at talking to clients and at listening to clients,” she says. “Even our agency staffs feel better equipped to support client success.”

Overall, the survey is giving service providers another measure of success for their work that goes beyond numbers and data, Chan says.

“Now, clients say, ‘Oh, these questions show me that people care about me,’” he says. “When we find ways to increase hope and sense of purpose, people know they can handle whatever comes along. No matter rich or poor, refugee or native, you can have difficulty in life. Increasing hope and sense of purpose is important for all of us.”

Read more articles by Rebecca LaRue Karcher.

Rebecca LaRue Karcher has worked in media, public relations, and local government for more than 25 years in Fort Wayne. Her undergraduate degree in Journalism is from the University of Kansas. She also has a master’s in Organizational Leadership from Indiana Tech. Currently, she is serving as director of Communication and Community Engagement at Trinity English Lutheran Church. She has one son, who is in graduate school. In her spare time, she practices yoga (but not enough) and acts in community theatre whenever she gets the chance. Neither her husband, Rich, nor herself is from Fort Wayne, but they love their friends and the opportunities here.

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