Bonita Springs man finalist for CCUSA Volunteer of Year

When most people retire in Florida, they might envision golfing, fishing or lounging on the beach, but that’s not what Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. volunteer Tim Gunderman would choose to do most days, which is why he’s nominated for Volunteer of the Year by Catholic Charities USA and is one of 36 finalists.

After moving to Bonita Springs from North Carolina, the former construction company owner noticed that Hurricane Irma had been very unkind to several migrant farmworkers’ homes in the area. Much of the damage from the storm was still evident with blue tarps on roof tops and other interior issues left unresolved.

Gunderman, who knows all things construction, was quick to spring into action and assisted with getting estimates for repairs, and assured Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., that each job was performed by a reputable company who guaranteed the work. He soon developed a friendship with families he calls, “the poorest of the poor.”

“These are the pickers, the packers, and such, and they’re not represented – people we rely on to get our food,” said Gunderman, from a Bonita Springs farmworker migrant camp, where he also volunteers to deliver food to families who do not have cars.

During the Pandemic when many locations were closed, Gunderman realized while working to repair the damaged mobile homes from Hurricane Irma, there were also hungry people who did not have transportation to pick up food for their families during this health crisis. It was a one-two punch to the families who were now out of work due to the Pandemic.

Gunderman, who joined the Order of Malta several years ago, soon crossed paths with Rebecca Maddox, owner of Three60 Market in Naples, who was donating food to organizations during the Pandemic.

Gunderman quickly began donating money to the cause of food production by Three60 Market, and through Catholic Charities volunteering offered to drive to the farmworker migrant camps a few days a week across Southwest Florida to bring nutrition to the hungry.

In a video to promote Gunderman’s nomination, Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane, Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida says Tim is “contagious” with his passion, and Catholic Charities CEO Philomena Periera says Tim sees the “Face of Jesus” in all he meets.

Gunderman has put in 1980 hours during this last year as a volunteer for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc.

“I grew up in a modest home, Okay. We had one bathroom.  I’m healthy, my kids are educated, what more do we need,” said Gunderman, as he handed out sandwiches, chips, and Easter coloring books and crayons to the families who lined up to see him this day.  “If I have the opportunity, I can give back.  You know, how much money do you need?” Gunderman said, as he choked up.

Click here ( to view the full video of Tim Gunderman’s work for Volunteer of the Year for Catholic Charities USA.

Catholic Energizer Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Special to the Florida Catholic

If you have ever needed bereavement services from St. Cecilia Parish in Fort Myers, chances are you have been hugged, supported, and loved by 88-year old Claire Johnson.

Since 2008, Johnson has been supporting the grieving of the Parish from the beginning of the planning process until the last song plays at the funeral for a loved one.

“I tell them when they come in, it’s ok, go ahead and cry. It’s part of the healing process and it is very therapeutic,” said Johnson, from the Parish library, where she meets those coming in to plan a funeral. “Some of them have never planned a funeral before, there is a lot to know.”

A nurse for 40 years, Johnson understands the grieving process and works very hard to meet a family’s needs because she admits as a volunteer for the Bereavement Ministry, she wants everything to be just right for those suffering the loss of a loved one. It was not that long-ago she was in their shoes.

Moving to Florida in 1970, Johnson lived in four foreign countries and nine states with her husband George, who retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service. The pair met in high school at the age of 15 in Lawrence, Mass., and were married for almost 55 years before his death.

“I came to St. Cecilia’s Parish to join a friend after being a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish since 1974,” said Johnson. “After my husband died 13 years ago, I couldn’t go back. It was too hard.”

Suffering the loss of a loved one can change a person forever. Johnson believes the Holy Spirit began working on her more than a decade ago to move into the Bereavement Outreach at St. Cecilia, where she joined many others and quickly learned what needed to be done.

It is not surprising then that Johnson obtained her master’s degree in Public Health at the age of 64 and went to work for the Lee County Health Department for many years, before retiring and volunteering for the Church full-time.

“I attend every funeral with the family, because it’s important they know they have an advocate until the service is completed,” said Johnson, who also serves as the Sacristan for the Masses.

One might think that is quite enough to keep a person busy, however, she also volunteers as a Eucharistic Minister to the Homebound, operates as a sous-chef for the Lenten fish fry, conducts private home visits for hospice patients and prays the rosary at their bedside. She also leads the Rosary Group on Tuesdays following daily Mass.

As a decorator and coordinator for the former Senior Lunch at the Parish, she says the name was changed to Lunch Bunch. It sounds nicer.

“I am part of an excellent, caring team of bereavement ministers – and I’m very blessed!”



A 35-Year Journey from Parish Staff to Volunteer

Who’s Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

To experience true energy and joy spend a few minutes with Diane Sochacki, a retired St. Catherine Parish office secretary and obvious jack-of-all trades after 35 years, who now serves as a volunteer, at 81-years young, because she can’t slow down.

It was the mid 1980’s when Sochacki and her husband moved to Sebring from Toledo, Ohio, and became members of St. Catherine Parish.  When registering her young family in the Parish office, she asked the secretary if they needed any volunteers.  The 70-year old woman told her, “No, we are fine.”  So, she never volunteered for anything.

The Pastor at the time, Father Jose Ruiz, caught up with Sochacki after Mass one day and asked why she never volunteered for anything.  Sheepishly, she replied, “I didn’t think you needed any help.”

Sochacki laughs when she remembers a parishioner telling her in front of the broccoli at a Sebring grocery store, that Father Ruiz really needed help with a lot of different things because his secretary became quite ill.

As a former executive secretary in Ohio, Sochacki would then spend the next 35 years as the St. Catherine Parish secretary, and the first face and welcoming committee of the Parish for families stopping in to register for baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals. She produced the weekly bulletin and embraced technology along each step of the way, from ledgers and adding machines, to computers and iPhones. Sochacki took many sick calls to help locate Father Ruiz, so he could go to hospitals and homes of the sick and dying.

It brought much sadness when Father Ruiz himself was eventually diagnosed with a fast-moving terminal cancer.

“Oh, that was hard,” she recalls. “Father didn’t want to tell people he had terminal cancer. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t say he was going to die, so instead he’d say, ‘While I’m away’,” said Sochacki.

The Parish staff became instrumental in joining the Diocese of Venice to plan the memorial service for Father Ruiz and forced all to own up to the reality that Parish life must continue beyond Father Ruiz.

In 2003, Father Jose Gonzalez took over as Administrator, and eventually as Pastor of St. Catherine Parish, having previously served since 1994 in the Hispanic Apostolate in Avon Park, Sebring and Lake Placid. Having a right hand like Sochacki must have been priceless.

“Father Jose grew this Parish to include the school and added many different ministries and activities which were not here before,” added Sochacki.

The Parish has also become increasingly diverse with Filipino- and Indian-language prayer groups, Masses in English and Spanish, as well as religious education classes in English and Spanish, not to mention all the School activities occurring regularly. Now as a volunteer, Sochacki oversees Liturgical Ministries for the Parish.

“I like to say that Father Ruiz built the Parish, and Father Jose grew the Parish,” Sochacki said, smiling.

She was also responsible for learning, growing and using the new software for ministry scheduling for the Parish. Let’s hope Sochacki doesn’t forget to schedule in her own 50th Wedding Anniversary on August 25, 2020.

“I already attended the Anniversary Mass on February 1 at Epiphany Cathedral with Bishop Dewane. We were so excited to have our picture taken with him!” she giggles.

Valentine’s Day: Students offer comfort to seniors

Being “A Disciple of Christ” means thinking of others, just as Christ did during His ministry on earth.

A group of 17 students from the St. Joseph Catholic School Builders Club did just that. Instead of going home at the end of a half-day of school, they opted to spread Valentine’s Day cheer to the residents of the nearby Summerfield assisted living facility in Bradenton.

Students played a variety of games with the residents; the most popular of which was a variation on bingo. As a special treat the students brought gift bags with prizes (nail polish, lotion, deodorant, words games, and other items) for the participants. For residents who did not wish to take part in the games, students took time to speak to them as both young and old alike shared stories about their lives.

Resident Betty learned to play Yahtzee (a dice game), while enjoying spending time with the students. “It is so sweet for them to visit. They are so kind and very energetic.”

Another resident, Joyce, said she was impressed that the students volunteered their time to visit when they could be home or outside playing. “When I was young, we could only be seen and not heard. It is amazing that these young ones care enough to want to be here. It means so much to me and to everyone.”

As a special treat, residents were given Valentine’s Day cards, each with a handwritten note expressing kindness and warmth.

The Builders Club is a service leadership program of the Kiwanis Club, and encourages students to work on service projects in their community. Anthony Longo, Club President, said his fellow students wanted to do something special for others as “Disciples of Christ,” so reaching out to spend time with the residents of an assisted living facility seemed like the perfect option. “We organized this because we wanted to do more, and Valentine’s Day was the perfect time. We work on projects for the school, but this was something special.”

Teacher Mara Curran said she was impressed when the students opted to skip going home early so they could spread the “light of Christ to the residents of Summerfield.” Many of the students had visited the facility at Christmas when they were in kindergarten, so they inquired about doing so again at a time when many have no one with whom to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

As part of the ongoing 35th Anniversary of the Diocese of Venice, Bishop Frank J. Dewane challenged the young people of the Diocese, in particular the students at Diocesan Catholic schools, to become “A Disciple of Christ” in how they lived and acted.

For their volunteering at the assisted living facility, each student was recognized and presented with a #DisciplesDOV t-shirt, courtesy of the Diocese of Venice Offices of Education and Communications.

Student Valerie Rettig said it was fun to visit the elderly in the assisted living facility stressing how important it is to reach out to others. “As ‘A Disciple of Christ’ we are each called to follow God and Jesus; working hard to be a good person and kind to everyone, not for fame or recognition, because we are all Children of God.”

Serafina Calonneso said “A Disciple of Christ” is someone who is kind and loving to everyone. “We are called to help to make the world a better place. Being “A Disciple of Christ” will help make that happen.”

Former surgeon cuts to the heart of the matter

Who’s Making it Happen

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

For much of his career as a general surgeon in Chicago, Ill. and a small Kansas town, Dr. Fernando Ugarte admits he didn’t make too much time for Church outside of Sunday Mass. That changed dramatically since his retirement three years ago with a move to Southwest Florida, and an influx of time and talent.

It seems Ugarte now makes himself available for Parishes in the Sarasota area which may need something.  Whether as a Eucharistic Minister with Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Lakewood Ranch, or through the lens of his camera as a photographer for special projects with St. Jude Parish in Sarasota or the photography club with Our Lady of Carmel Parish in Osprey, Ugarte is ready to help.

“Photography makes me realize the beauty of the world and the loveliness of the things that are around us,” said Ugarte, a Peruvian born Catholic. “I discovered through the lens of my camera I can see things that other people don’t notice.”

Parishioners of St. Jude Parish may have spotted Ugarte’s work through the refurbishment of the Parish’s outdoor Stations of the Cross, which appeared rundown next to the new walkway surrounding a serene lake filled with beautiful birds.

“This is one of those little miracles for me, that I still find shocking,” Ugarte explained.

When he was seven-years-old and attended Jesus Hostia Parish in Lima, Peru, Ugarte grew up admiring the Stations of the Cross in his hometown Church. Now, 70 years later, he would photograph each Station, with a plan of creating permanent metal images for the Parish, which are better designed for outdoor wear and tear.

Mistakenly, the manufacturer sent the wrong size pictures, which were too small. How disappointing, he thought, to know the beautiful Stations of the Cross might go to waste. That was until he happened to be at St. Jude Parish and noticed that their Stations of the Cross needed an upgrade.

“I went right home with the measurements, and what do you know, the pictures of the Lima Stations that I received in the wrong size, fit perfectly in the little frames at St. Jude,” he laughs. “What are the chances of that!”

Parishioners can see the colorful metal Stations of the Cross currently on display at St. Jude Parish, but mostly Ugarte can be seen during Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Angels Parish, where he only trained to be a Eucharistic Minister three years ago.

“Oh, I was extremely nervous, I was shaking like a leaf the first time I gave Communion to people, thinking that I was going to do a bad job,” Ugarte recalls.

This, from a man who spent his entire 52-year career as a successful surgeon operating on people.

“Well, I soon discovered how important it was to be a Eucharistic Minister,” Ugarte admits. “It’s important not to rush, and I learned how we should look at people in their eyes while giving Communion. You can see how they feel, and you can see the soul of a person by looking into their eyes.”

Ugarte says it’s important for him to connect with God and the person, as a Eucharistic Minister.

“I have the feeling that I am doing something wonderful,” he says, tearing up.

Who’s Making it Happen – Smoothie lady feeds the soul

Susan Laielli – Special to the Florida Catholic

A heart of gold is what you’ll find when meeting and getting to know volunteer Rebecca Linarez of St. Michael Parish in Wauchula; but she’ll simply say it’s her gratitude to Our Lord that keeps her working nearly seven nights a week for the Church.

Volunteer volunteer Rebecca Linarez of St. Michael Parish in Wauchula is know for making smoothies.

Regardless of her full-time job as a senior clerk with the Florida Department of Health’s WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and Nutrition Division, Linarez can be found Monday through Wednesday evenings at St. Michael Parish. Sometimes she is preparing snacks and making her famous fresh mango smoothies for the children in Religious Education, or teaching the Catechism to first graders on Thursday nights. Maybe she is helping with youth group events on Friday night, or serving in the food bank on Saturday mornings, and then it’s back to making smoothies and snacks most Sundays.

On some nights, if needed, she even may be driving the school bus to pick up children for Religious Education.

“The moms and dads are working in the fields all day and are too tired sometimes to get the kids to Church, so we help them get here,” said Linarez, as if she’s caring for family.

It all began nearly 20 years ago when Linarez, who was not really involved with the Church at all, says her husband walked out leaving her with their three children, ages 17, 14, and 7-years old to clothe, feed and raise. Regardless of having a job working for the Department of Health, she was worried about her children’s future, and their well-being. That’s when she visited St. Michael Parish to speak with the Sisters about finding help for her family.

“Oh my, the Sisters were so helpful to me at that time. I wanted to direct my kids to something better in life – I owe God a lot,” said Linarez.

Her new relationship with God Almighty would soon be put to the test it seems when in 2004 Hurricane Charlie destroyed her family’s mobile home, leaving the family homeless. Adding insult to injury, when the application process was beginning for emergency aid, she was told she made too much money to qualify for assistance.

“It was only a few dollars over, but we were left in limbo with nowhere to go,” said Linarez, who never gave up praying and having faith despite some pretty dark days.

Linarez was blessed to receive a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer, but this would be allowed for a short period of time, and it took forever to figure out the system in order to start to repair the hurricane damages to her mobile home, and the land costs where the trailer sat were adding up.

“I didn’t have enough money to pay for the land where the destroyed property was located, and repair the house, so it was like a ‘Catch-22,’” explained Linarez.

When times seemed the darkest, a woman came out of nowhere she recalls, and told her about a program through the county to help repair the mobile home.

“I couldn’t believe it! I filled out an application and it was approved. The county’s program helped me tear down the old home and rebuild another one on the same spot, and that’s where I live today, all these years later,” said Linarez, smiling.

Her glowing eyes tell the whole story of the joy she feels today, and the consistent need deep in her heart to give back to God for all she has received from Him.

Seven days each week, St. Michael Parish and the students are blessed to have the Linarez making her famous smoothies and teaching the Catechism while instilling her thankfulness in the more than 900 children who attend Religious Education classes at the Parish.

“They say, Ms. Linarez, are you making your smoothies?” she laughs.  “Oh yes, you bet!”