Dioceses collaborate on vaccination campaign

November 17, 2021

Rosmann family

Dioceses collaborate in vaccination campaign


Out of a concern for their neighbors, the Rosmann family of Shelby County in the Diocese of Des Moines shared their COVID-19 stories as part of a four-diocese communications collaboration.

The Iowa Catholic Conference and the four Catholic dioceses of Iowa launched a statewide video campaign to encourage use of the COVID-19 vaccine to their neighbors. In a partnership with Catholic Cares, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Iowa Department of Health, the campaign features Iowans from across the state who share their reasons for supporting vaccinations.

Father Brent Lingle, pastor of Storm Lake St. Mary Parish; Alondra Meléndez, Catholic school alumna and student at Buena Vista University; and factory worker Dawn Suksai and her grandson, Ethan Phakonekham, will be featured in print as well as on video messaging, sharing their COVID-19 vaccination stories.

Iowa currently ranks 22nd in fully-vaccinated residents as compared to the rest of the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, the percentage of rural Iowa residents vaccinated lag behind the state’s urban areas. Iowa Catholics are slightly above the average when compared to other segments, yet some Catholics still struggle with the decision.

Campaign origins

Kent Ferris, social action and Catholic Charities director for the Diocese of Davenport, originally had the idea of working on faith-based messaging to encourage vaccination after conversations with the University of Iowa Medical Center staff and Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference. The group decided to apply for a Catholic Cares grant to assist with the messaging.

“We realized that might be something the four bishops would be interested in together. We knew they had put together their comment statement last December. All of them were very encouraging toward people getting the vaccine with the understanding that some people would decline,” Chapman said, noting he presented the idea to the bishops, who agreed to collaborate.

Chapman, Ferris, and representatives from the dioceses began to meet via video conferencing to put the plan into action. MJ Meister, of MJ & Associates marketing firm in Des Moines, was recruited to join the team and add her creative and technical expertise.

The goal of the campaign, explained Ferris, is to raise awareness among rural Iowans about the vaccine by offering real human experiences that are calm and thoughtful on a topic that has become controversial.

“Our messages are grounded in the Catholic and Christian belief in the common good,” Ferris explained. “For those who still have questions about whether or not getting the vaccine will make a difference, we want people to know that their friends and neighbors across Iowa believe in the vaccine … It’s worth our efforts to join the conversation across our state.”

Meister noted she was motivated to volunteer her time and talent to the campaign to communicate messaging from Iowans who have received the vaccine out of concern for others.

“We want to show the conversation out there doesn’t represent us,” she said. “These are stories of Iowans not on the news, not being controversial. I wanted to contribute to this effort and help the voices of regular Iowans to be heard.”

Stories across the state

The campaign team selected individuals across the state to provide motivational testimonies about being vaccinated and explaining why they are encouraging others to do the same. To include a wide variety of Iowans, subjects of different ages, ethnicities and vocations were recruited to participate and offer their vaccine experiences.

Daniel and Ellen Rosmann, farmers near Harlan, and their family agreed to share their story of losing family member retired priest Father John Vakulskas to COVID-19 last year. They also shared why they believe in receiving the vaccine.

Ryan Burchett, small business owner from Davenport shared his story of why he feels strongly about the vaccine as one way to protect the employees, family, customers and friends of The Mississippi River Distilling Company. Like many locally-owned distilleries in Iowa, they turned to producing hand sanitizer during the pandemic “as a way to help the small communities of Iowa and to keep the company actively in production,” Meister said.

In the Diocese of Sioux City, Meléndez shared that she was encouraged to receive the vaccine to continue her volunteer work in local schools. The BVU college student said she also wanted to protect the health of her family, including her father, Ricardo Meléndez Faz, who has some health issues. Meléndez contracted COVID-19 last year.

Being bilingual, she was able to record her interview in Spanish and English to reach a wider Iowa audience.

Father Lingle pointed out that he has buried 10 parishioners of all ages and ethnicities who died from COVID-19. He and a majority of his Catholic school staff and students contracted the virus before Christmas 2020, resulting in a cancellation of weekend Masses. The pastor recorded a message encouraging the vaccine to protect others – in English and Spanish.

Grandmother Dawn Suksai explained she regularly encourages her family to wear masks, wash their hands and become vaccinated. She said she was proud that no one in her family have contracted the virus.

The digital media department of Buena Vista University assisted Meister with the Storm Lake recording to help spread the vaccine promotion message.

Meister said she was pleased with the willingness of the Iowans she recorded, sharing their stories for the benefit of the health of their friends, family and neighbors.

“They were so willing to step up and share their story. … They each come from a different walk in life, but their sentiments are strikingly similar,” she said. “They are thinking about the greater good. I believe that’s what is going to help us get through this pandemic.”

Campaign rollout

The campaign materials will be rolled out in waves in the next two months across diocesan, Iowa Catholic Conference and secular media communications channels. Those interested in learning more can go to www.iowacatholicconference.org/getvaccinated .

As the messaging from the campaign is distributed, Chapman said he is hopeful the efforts motivate more vaccinations against the virus.

“The idea would be that the campaign moves a few people who are reluctant for various reasons and nudge them along to get the vaccine and possibly get the vaccine for their family. The bishops were pretty clear, encouraging people that this is something they believe is a positive for the common good,” he said.

The ICC director recalled the fear in the outset of the pandemic and noted, “We got what we prayed for. Remember the early days of the pandemic and we were concerned with how quickly this spread? Now we have a vaccine. We got our prayers answered. Hopefully, people will pay attention in that regard and be nudged along to get the vaccine if it’s possible for them.”