Good Works in the Commonwealth

By Joyce West | 6/30/17 11:30 PM

This program looks at those who do good work. As Mother Teresa becomes Saint Teresa, Kentucky Life visits her Missionaries of Charity chapter in Jenkins. Misfit Island Wildlife Rescue Center cares for hundreds of animals in Henderson; volunteers keep Kentucky’s State Nature Preserves in fine form; and Danville’s Grace Cafe is a pay-what-you-can community restaurant committed to providing locally-sourced, nutritious food to residents.


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Mother Teresa of Calcutta was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in fall 2016. Forty years ago, she came to Jenkins in Letcher County to establish a convent of the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity.

“The benefits that the Missionaries of Charity provide in Eastern Kentucky are what you might call largely intangible benefits,” said Sister Dominga. “Being known, being loved, being there for somebody. Those things are very important.”

Catholic clergy take three vows: of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The Missionaries of Charity take a fourth vow, Sister Dominga said: “Wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. We do not accept payment for any of our services. We don’t accept government grants or regular sources of income. We depend completely on divine providence.” The sisters help with food distribution and help people with material needs as much as they can.

On a trip to the United States, Mother Teresa learned that there was need in Appalachia, and met with the bishop of Covington. “She was captivated by Jenkins and immediately wanted to come here,” Sister Dominga said.

The Jenkins house opened on April 30, 1982, with four nuns: two from India, one from Singapore, and one from Pennsylvania. The sisters began visiting to see what the needs of the neighborhood were. “It had been a mining town, and it wasn’t anymore. There were a lot of people without work. A lot of old people left alone. A difficult rural poverty, different from the cities,” said Sister Dominga.

Many of the people don’t have enough food or the means to repair their houses. “Old people have been left alone while young people go and find work in the cities,” she said. In addition, some of the young people who remain get into drugs and crime. “And so it is the same thing. A painful feeling of being completely unwanted and useless,” Sister Dominga said.

The convent (which still consists of four nuns) does not merely hand out help to those who come to them, the sister said, but instead the sisters visit the needy in their own homes to get to know them and understand their needs. The local residents make the sisters feel like they are part of a family, she said. “We looked a little strange when we arrived in Kentucky in these clothes (saris) which are straight out of India. But after a while, we’re normal for them,” she said with a chuckle.

Grace Café
The Grace Café in Danville is a different kind of restaurant. “We don’t have prices. We have suggested donations,” said Rochelle Bayless, executive director.

Grace Café is nonprofit, community restaurant that offers locally sourced food and homemade meals. “You can pay what you can. You name your price. Or anybody can volunteer for 30 minutes in exchange for a meal,” she said.

The concept behind the restaurant is to give people a hand up, Bayless said. People who can afford it are encouraged to “pay it forward,” donating money to buy meals for those who cannot afford it. “We want people to participate in our mission,” said Bayless. “We want the community to participate.”

Typically, the café offers a choice of two soups, two salads, and two sandwiches. They do an entrée on Saturday night and brunch items on Sunday. The menu changes daily. The café might have chili made with locally raised beef, or local kale and peppers. The restaurant grows its own basil and oregano out front. “Everything is made from scratch,” Bayless said.

Bayless credits her staff, including Chef Grant Neff, for the café’s success. The café is open seven days a week. The goal is that no one in the community goes hungry, Bayless said. Donations, which are placed in the entrance hole of a decorative birdhouse in the cafe, are anonymous. The café also accepts debit and credit cards for donations. “We hope our birdhouse is filled every day,” she said.

Nature Preserve Volunteers
Kentucky’s State Nature Preserves are kept in fine form thanks to an army of volunteers. These protected natural areas now number 63 properties across the state, covering 28,000 acres in total. They are protected by law for educational and scientific purposes.

Most are open to the public throughout the year for hiking, bird watching, photography, and nature study. The system relies heavily on volunteers for maintenance of the properties.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderful people who’ve given wholeheartedly of themselves, their money, and their time even, to help us with projects on the preserves,” said Joyce Bender, acting director of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.

Work done by volunteers includes maintaining trails, stocking pamphlets so visitors have information and maps, and securing boundaries.

At Pilot Knob State Nature Preserve in Powell County, volunteer Kyle Elliott and Bender replaced boards on a foot bridge. Elliott lives nearby. “It’s about a 20-minute drive for me,” he said. “I thought I’d like to get out in the woods and do something.” He heard about the volunteer program and signed up. People of all ages enjoy the preserve. “And of course the reward every time you hike to the top of Pilot Knob is the view,” Bender said.

Some volunteers pursue personal interests while checking on the property. Volunteer Jim Allen photographs butterflies while visiting Quiet Trails State Nature Preserve, located along the Licking River in Harrison County. “Call it enlightened self-interest,” Allen said. “I’ve always found my spiritual needs fulfilled by being out in the woods, being out in the peace and quiet of nature. So yes, it’s not only a privilege to come out and look over this great place, but it’s also a pleasure.”

Not all nature preserves are pristine areas without human contact. Quiet Trails was an old farm purchased by Bill Wiglesworth, who made it into a private nature sanctuary before he and his wife donated it to the state. Allen said such places offer insects, birds, and mammals a place to be free of pesticides and herbicides.

The volunteers are unsung heroes, said Bender. “They come out here without a lot of attention from us. They’re doing this work because they get something out of it, but they’re giving so much too.”

Misfit Island
Misfit Island Wildlife Rescue Center in Henderson has been operating since 2011 on 500 acres in Henderson. It was founded by Linda Williams and Max Soaper.

“We take care of injured deer; we also take in pigs, ducks, geese, rabbits, squirrels, bobcats,” Linda Williams, wildlife rehabilitator at Misfit Island. “Minks, otters, beavers, all kinds of waterfowl. Whatever animal God has ready for us, we take in.”

The rescue center is so named because it takes in animals not wanted otherwise. “We take in not only the injured animals that can be released back into the wild, but we also take in the disabled animals that normally would be euthanized,” Williams said. “And we work really hard to heal them and rehabilitate them. And we give them a safe haven.”

The property has been in the Soaper family since 1834, said Soaper. Misfit Island has been featured on “Bandit Patrol,” a reality series on the National Geographic channel.

The number of animals taken in by Misfit Island any given year runs into the hundreds: in 2015, they took in a total of 673 animals. Some of those animals, like birds of prey, went on to other specialized rehab centers.

Williams said only the severely injured animals are released at Misfit Island. How far will she drive to get an animal in need? “I will drive about three hours,” she said. “Deer, raccoon, skunks, and beavers are my specialty.”