Volunteer movers at Bethlehem House in Omaha hoist a dresser onto a trailer as part of a recent move for a mother transitioning out of the home. From left, Craig Tylski, of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley, lifts from on top of the trailer. Lifting from below are Dick Wirges, of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, and Vern Ortmeier, also of St. John the Evangelist. SUSAN SZALEWSK/STAFF

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Bethlehem House volunteer movers help set up new homes, new lives

On a recent late-summer morning, five volunteer movers stepped out of their vehicles and got to work, beginning at 8 a.m. to dodge the afternoon heat.

They sorted through furniture and other home goods and loaded the items onto trailers from a storage building at Bethlehem House, a maternity home in southeast Omaha that helps pregnant women and mothers in crisis.

From there, the movers hauled the items to an apartment in Council Bluffs.

The men – mostly retirees and members of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley – sacrifice their time and occasionally their aching bodies to help new mothers get a fresh start in life, setting up homes for the women and their babies.

Luke Lukowski, of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley, carries couch cushions out of a storage building at Bethlehem House. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

They jokingly call themselves the “Medicare Movers.”

About three hours later on this particular morning, “Emily” (not the mother’s real name, at the request of Bethlehem House) and her 10-month-old daughter took in their newly furnished apartment.

It was filled with donated items collected and redistributed by Vern Ortmeier and his team of movers at Bethlehem House.

“I’m just grateful for the Bethlehem House,” Emily said, “because without them, I wouldn’t have any of this.”

“Those men are amazing,” she said of the movers.

The volunteers who helped with her move were all members of the Knights of Columbus Council 7034 at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley. It’s part of their mission as Knights to help others in need, Ortmeier said.

TJ Ernst, executive director of Bethlehem House, said the volunteers put in a huge amount of time, energy and resources.

Ortmeier, for example, typically volunteers about four days a week for Bethlehem House. He and the other volunteers, he said, have helped move furniture and supplies for 47 Bethlehem graduates over the past 4½ years.

“It’s just invaluable, Ernst said of their efforts. “They provide these gals an additional layer of love and support and care … just wanting them to succeed.”

For Ortmeier and the other movers, their work is just part of their faith.

They know that what they do for others, they do for Jesus, he said, referencing St. Matthew’s Gospel passage: “… whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me.”

CREATING A HOME

The movers – as well Bethlehem House staff and other volunteers – know how to make an apartment a home, down to the smallest details: lamps, dishes, towels, bedding, diapers, waste baskets, cleaning supplies and small appliances.

Ortmeier oversees donations of furniture for the cause, while his daughter, Karla Franzluebbers, and her daughter, Sophia, of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna, help collect the smaller items.

Whatever a mother might need, the volunteers find it.

Most of the furnishings are used, but many are still in mint condition. “We get some really good stuff for the gals,” Ortmeier said.

Once at the apartment, Vern Ortmeier, left, and Mark McCleery re-assemble a donated bed. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

The volunteers vary, based on availability, and include relatives and fellow Knights of Columbus. The men have used their skills to make numerous improvements at Bethlehem House, including building a prayer garden and the storage building.

Before the actual move-in day, a mother will pick out furniture and other items from a selection in the storage building. Most of the women have few belongings of their own, Ortmeier says.

Emily’s furnishings were all tagged with a slip of paper on the morning of her move. 

Once at the apartment, the men removed the front door to help squeeze everything through. Then they began arranging and assembling.  

Tylski has become an official crib assembler for the crew. Not because he’s an expert, he said, but because he’s built them over and over again. Donated cribs don’t always have assembly instructions, and sometimes they don’t have all the parts, he’s learned.

He brings along a tool bag and makes adjustments as necessary.

“It’s been a learning process,” Tylski said.

“This one’s too easy,” said Dick Wirges, of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha,  as the two put together a crib in the Bluffs apartment.

“This is the easiest one we’ve had in a long time,” Tylski agrees.

Emily walked into the baby’s room and saw the constructed crib for the first time.

“Aw, the crib,” she said. “I think I’m going to sleep in it tonight.”

NO LONGER ‘STUDS’

After assembling Emily’s bed in another room, Ortmeier and Mark McCleery, also of St. John the Evangelist Parish, lugged a heavy chest up a flight of stairs in the two-story apartment.

“Vern, you’re not supposed to let them pick heavy furniture when they have a two-story home,” one of the movers jokes.

“Yeah, Vern,” another one chimes in.

“Most of us are elderly,” Tylski had said earlier. “We’re not 40-year-old studs.”

Anyone under 60 is a youngster by his definition. That would include McCleery, who’s in his 50s and not retired or semi-retired like the others.

The movers felt especially blessed when on at least one occasion a man fresh out of college was part of their crew.

Nearly finished with their work at Emily’s apartment, they replaced the front door and sprayed its hinges to stop it from creaking.

Once their job was done, the movers posed for a photo with Emily and her baby outside the front door. The photo has become a tradition after each move.

Lunch at an Omaha tavern afterward is another tradition.

After the volunteers left, Emily rested for a moment inside. The apartment “feels more real,” she said, now that her new belongings have filled the home.

Before Bethlehem House, she lived in a home for recovering alcoholics and other addicts.

Her government-subsidized apartment is her new base.

Tammi Hess, a family life manager at Bethlehem House, plays with a brand new apartment resident after Hess helped the baby’s mother transition out of Bethlehem House and into the apartment. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

Not a perfect home, she admitted. But Tammi Hess – one of the movers that day and a family life manager at Bethlehem House – reminded Emily that the apartment is a temporary step as she continues to improve her life.

Bethlehem House will continue to be there for her, with its after-care support. And the movers will be ready to help other mothers get their new start. 

“It’s nice to do something to give back in retirement,” Tylski said. “It’s fun to see the women in a home environment with their kids.”

For most of the moms, that occasion is a first, he noted.

“We get more out of the moves than the gals,” Ortmeier insists. “It’s a good feeling to help somebody. That’s what we’re on this earth for.”