Grantee Spotlight: Deaconess Nurse Ministry

July 2, 2024

Walking into the food pantry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help reveals a welcoming atmosphere with more than food to offer its North City neighbors.  Brochures and fliers for resources line tables in the entryway, an office houses a Vincentian volunteer to assist with utility assistance or substance abuse support, and a large sign on an easel points visitors to see the nurse on site–free of charge.  The nurse, Debbie Ramza, is a smiling face waiting outside the door of her dedicated exam room to greet everyone who walks by as she encourages them to get a blood pressure check or chat about other resources they need.  

Though others working in the food pantry are volunteers, Debbie is actually an employee of Deaconess Nurse Ministry.  Deaconess Nurse Ministry employs over a dozen registered nurses that work at up to 30 different food pantries, soup kitchens, houses of worship, outreach centers, independent/affordable senior housing and faith based organizations in the St. Louis region. Since 1989, they have focused on whole-person healthcare that offers the healing love of God.  They currently serve over 1,000 people per year in three programs: Community Outreach, Senior Health, and Congregational Care.   This particular program is focused on reaching older adults in food pantries, though Debbie would not turn anyone away.

Debbie explains that she provides much more than health screenings.  The initial and ongoing visits include education about healthy lifestyle and disease prevention, chronic disease management, addressing social isolation and loneliness, medication management, fall prevention and safety, and identification and assistance in applying for available resources. Debbie created her own poster board filled with commonly requested resources and printed copies of applications for these services to eliminate extra steps for the patients.  She provides computer access to applications for resources, and makes follow up calls with clients to obtain those resources, as most older adults being seen at food pantries do not have access to a computer and have varying levels of literacy to navigate complicated social service systems.  The most commonly requested services that Debbie hears are dental (not covered by Medicaid or Medicare for adults) and utilities/rental assistance.   

Debbie notes that “the community is my office,” and she only goes to the Deaconess office to restock supplies that she keeps in the trunk of her car for older adults with extra needs–such as Ensure nutritional supplements, Depends incontinence products, or other items given by Deaconess donors to help meet basic needs when Food Stamps and Social Security income are simply not enough.  She told a story of an older adult that she sees regularly at the food pantry who was going on a date but had no nice shirts to wear.  She was able to go to a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store and purchased him six polos that were like new.  He was so appreciative that he hugged her with tears in his eyes.  

Client comments on surveys show how appreciative of the work they are. Some recent statements include "I have a wonderful feeling of ease and welcome with the nurse," another is "highly appreciative for the nurse who gave her emotional support," "I am so thankful for [the nurse], she serves me with joy,” and "Right now life is overwhelming and feeling unsure and nervous with all the financial issues and responsibilities. I really don't have anyone for support…Thank goodness for the nurse who gives me the comfort and care I need." 

Donna Smith-Pupillo, Executive Director since 2010, says that every time she visits the nurses in the food pantries, the food pantry volunteers and staff say how the nurses are valued and an integral part of the team.  Inspired by “seeing the face of God in everyone we meet,” Deaconess Nurse Ministry stations nurses in places like Our Lady of Perpetual Help Food Pantry because they understand the role of the social determinants of health over a lifetime of a person. Donna states, “the impact is enormous as people have lived with inadequate housing, poor education, lack of employment opportunities, food deserts, minimal transportation, and limited choices over a lifetime. It is not one year that they have experienced these, but decades, which has impacted their health and well being. In this population it is not surprising to see diabetes and high blood pressure…Stress, lack of ongoing medical care, money for medications, and the lack of access to healthy food have led to these diseases being so prevalent in the community.”  Deaconess has had proven success as they helped 12 clients stabilize their blood pressure, 62 clients stabilize their blood sugars, 80 patients incorporate chronic disease education into their life, and three people move into affordable senior housing through this partnership last year–all of which led to increased hope and overall well-being for older adults. 

Marillac Mission Fund has funded the Deaconess Nurse Ministry since 2004.  Marillac Mission Fund partners with Deaconess through the Community Outreach Program to provide case management to 100 low-income older adults in St. Louis reached through local food pantries.  It is a novel approach to reaching older adults that have the greatest needs so that they may continue living independently with dignity.