Dedication to God through people

More than eight years ago, T.J. Chmielewski became a resident at Autumnwood Care Center. As a former Boy Scout leader and educator, he had enjoyed giving his time for community service. In 2009, he entered the Secular Franciscan Order.

“I had always felt that my avocation was to help people,” Chmielewski said. “Before I came out here, I had heard about the Third Order of St. Francis, but didn’t have a way of getting there. At that time, I didn’t have a car.”

When Chmielewski did obtain a vehicle, he traveled to the shrine in Carey for instruction. Membership in the Third Order requires a period of reflection and formation. He was disappointed to find no one his age in the class. It was mostly women who were older than he.

Now, Chmielewski attends instruction in Green Springs and is serving as the vice president of vocations for the group. One of the sisters from the Tiffin convent gives him a ride to the monthly meetings. Eight people regularly attend.

“It’s a small group, but we’re very active,” Chmielewski said.

Membership in the Third Order is open to married or single Catholic men and women. Secular Franciscans, or “Tertiaries,” are not required to live in a religious community (e.g., a convent or monastery), but they are expected to practice Franciscan values in their homes and communities. Autumnwood is

Chmielewski’s “neighborhood,” so he pursues a simple lifestyle and reaches out to other residents.

“I work with the people who don’t seem to have help. I push them around in their wheelchairs and get them to activities,” Chmielewski said. “I’m also the sacristan here at Autumnwood. We’re very lucky to have a chapel.”

“Even though we are a non-denominational facility, it is really important that all of our residents enjoy the ability to worship,” said Mary Lee Creeger, therapeutic recreation, marketing director and volunteer coordinator.

A native of Toledo, Chmielewski graduated from the University of Toledo. He came to Tiffin for a teaching job at Calvert High School. While teaching in Catholic schools, he learned more about St. Francis of Assisi.

“St. Francis really attracted me. He was a man who did a lot for his church. He, in his early life, was quite rowdy – I don’t think I was that rowdy when I was younger,” Chmielewski said. “After his conversion, he really dedicated himself to God. That’s what I try to do, dedicate myself to God, through people.”

When he first moved to Autumnwood, Chmielewski brought along his pet ferrets, Thelma and Louise. Their hutch was in a lounge area where all the residents could watch and handle them. The Autumnwood Auxiliary paid for the ferrets’ veterinary care until they passed away a few years ago.

“They were very good pets for me. I shared them with Adelbert, my roommate. A lot of the residents used to like to hold them and play with them,” Chmielewski said.

He also serves as president of the Autumnwood Residents’ Council, which meets monthly. When Chmielewski is not assisting others, he watches movies on DVD and rides a three-wheeled cycle around the grounds three times a day for about an hour at a time.

Sundays, Chmielewski takes a Seneca County Agency Transportation bus to St. Mary Church to distribute communion at Mass. Sometimes he brings communion to Autumnwood residents who are not well enough to attend church or come to the chapel. Ash Wednesday, he plans to distribute ashes to residents, visitors and staff.

Because Volunteers of America is a Christian organization, residents at its facilities are encouraged to worship and live by Christian values, Creeger said. She added having an “internal chauffeur” is helpful to the staff and the people who benefit from Chmielewski’s efforts. Creeger said residents also can take an example from him and try to do more than stay in their rooms all day.

“Even with all his health issues, and other things, he still does a lot of things in the community. He still does his Eucharistic ministry at St. Mary. He’s been an active volunteer at the library. All last summer, he helped with the summer reading program. Since he’s a former teacher, I’m trying to connect him with tutoring,” Creeger said. “He wants more than just living in a nursing home.”

In recent years, nursing homes have been trying to find activities that help residents remain involved in groups outside of the facility. Allowing residents to travel to other locations for interaction with other citizens adds to their quality of life, Creeger said.