By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Joanne Eller, a long-time volunteer in the inner city, celebrated her 80th birthday with her children and grandchildren, serving dinner to the homeless March 16 at St. James Soup Kitchen. She smilingly accepted congratulations on her birthday, which actually occurs March 25. A piece of chocolate or a handful appeared out of a big bag and disappeared into happy hands.
For the past 25 years, Joanne Eller has collaborated with Elayne Myers, Middle School Science Teacher at Nativity of Mary School in Independence, to bring joy to inner city nursing home residents through Nativity’s Christmas program for shut-ins.
But her service for others goes back even further. And the seed was planted when she was a girl, growing up in Kansas City.
Joanne Fisher was born March 25, 1932. She lived with her parents and siblings at 28th and Jarboe, a few short blocks from Sacred Heart Church. “Back then,” she recalled, “the Irish went to Sacred Heart Church and the German went to Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows.”
She attended Sacred Heart Grade School, taught by the Sisters of Loretto, with Charlie and Peggy, her brother and sister. After graduation, Joanne and two friends attended Lillis High School.
“I had two skirts and four blouses for school all four years,” she said. “I still remember that. Lillis was a good school, and the Benedictine Sisters planted a seed that grew as I got older. I’m a Benedictine Oblate.”
She graduated from Lillis in 1949. “I immediately went to work in the office at Kennedy Sales Company (at 25th and Southwest Blvd.) I walked the three blocks to work. That was where I learned to run a switchboard. I can still remember cutting off the boss in the middle of a phone call. Was he mad!”
Joanne and Jack Eller were married in 1952, “and I continued to work up till the Friday before Mary Sue was born.” Three sons followed — Michael, John and Steve.
About 1970, Joanne became acquainted with Deacon Don Schmit of St. Elizabeth Parish. Deacon Schmit, with fellow St. Elizabeth parishioners Jim Lillis and Jim Giguere, wanted to learn more about the charismatic renewal movement that was sweeping the country. After meeting a Catholic priest of the renewal movement at an evangelical church on Truman Road, and talking to him, the three men started the first Kansas City Charismatic prayer meeting later that year. Joanne began attending the prayer meetings regularly.
In 1978, she traveled to Conception Abbey and there met Marian Melcher Egan, who later became Joanne’s spiritual director, as well as beloved friend. Egan, who died a few years ago, lived at Lake Lotawana, which is not far from Joanne and Jack’s home in Independence.
Through the prayer meetings, she started working at inner city nursing homes as a volunteer. Around the same time, Deacon “Jerry” Derousselle, who served at St. Joseph and St. Therese Little Flower parishes, established a shut-in program at St. Louis Parish. Joanne volunteered her time.
“At one time,” she recalled, “17 nursing homes participated in the program. We’d have three Red Cross busses bringing people to St. Louis parish. There’d be snacks and food and there was a ton of chocolate milk donated by Belfonte Dairy. Roy Searcy, a Blues pianist and vocalist who had played at several Kansas City nightclubs for years, played piano and the old folks would dance. There were volunteers from Nativity Parish in Independence and of course, St. Louis Parish helping the old folks. It was great!”
When the program dissolved some years later, Joanne went to old St. Mary’s Hospital at 26th and Main in Kansas City. She volunteered at the hospital for 9 years before it closed and brought attention to the elderly and disabled patients there to the staff and students of Nativity of Mary School in Independence. Joanne hosted an activity for the patients at St. Mary’s one year and about 90 people showed up, she remembered with a smile. Then in 1988, Trinity Lutheran Hospital purchased St. Mary’s, and the activity program was dissolved.
Since then, she has continued to volunteer at Carroll Manor, 34th and Campbell; Paseo Nursing Home, 34th and Paseo; and Myers Nursing and Convalescent Center, 23rd and Walrond. Nativity Middle schoolers join Joanne each Christmas in visiting the residents of those nursing homes.
“The students decorate big Folgers coffee cans and fill them with homemade cards, candy, treats and items like toothbrushes. Elayne Myers and the kids bring them to the nursing homes and oh there is such happiness among the residents when they come. Most of them have no family or friends to come visit them. I’ve gone to Carroll Manor or Paseo or Meyers in the spring or summer and when I go in their rooms, I see their dressers are pretty bare except for the coffee cans the kids brought them. Some of the residents have four or five cans on their dressers.”
Joanne is known as the “candy lady” to residents of Carroll Manor and Paseo Nursing Home, because of the big canvas bag of candy she frequently hauls along with her.
She has cut back on her visits to the nursing homes somewhat as Jack, her husband of almost 60 years, is not in good health, although his spirits and attitude are positive. Her Boston Terrier, Gracie, is also getting old, with failing eyesight and hearing, and Joanne wants to be at home with them.
But it has been a real joy to have been involved with the nursing homes, she said. “My father was a resident at Wadsworth Nursing Home and Red Cross volunteers would visit and entertain the residents there. I look at this as paying it forward for the care and affection shown to my father.”
In recognition of Joanne’s service to the elderly, the disabled and the friendless, her children and grandchildren arranged for a “family service night” at St. James Soup Kitchen in honor of her upcoming birthday. St. James Place director Doug Langner picked up six sheet cakes, to ensure that all the people coming through the soup kitchen line got a piece of birthday cake. There was a lot of laughter, hugs and handshakes, as people approached Joanne, who sat in a corner of the Bill Waris dining room with her bag of candy. A few minutes later, they took their trays, and their candy, to a table, smiling widely.
Joanne hopes that as the Nativity students grow into adulthood, they will look back on their visits to the nursing homes and carry it on into the future. “Visiting the old folks in the nursing homes is a little thing,” she said, “but it makes a big difference to them, the residents. There are a lot of inspiring people living in nursing homes.”