Son’s legacy lives on through Paul’s Pence Project

Project named after Paul Hoes, student in area religious special education program

DE PERE — Paul Hoes spent nearly half of his life participating in the Green Bay Area Religious Special Education Program. “That was his favorite place to go on Saturday mornings,and he just loved it,” said his mother, Jean Hoes.

Paul, 47, was born with developmental disabilities. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor on May 22, 2019, and died five days later. Susan Shefka-Peeters, who has directed the religious education program for 22 years, said Paul had a deep compassion for other people.

Susan Shefka Peeters, left, director of the Green Bay Area Religious Special Education Program, is pictured with Carl and Jean Hoes in front of tables with donated goods through Paul’s Pence Project. The project was named after the couple’s oldest son, Paul, who died in 2019. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“Paul had told me many times over the years that he realized he could serve others even though he had no money,” she said. “He wished that he could help others financially.”

That wish was finally realized more than 18 months after Paul’s death. 

Through the Paul’s Pence Project, $5,000 worth of basic household items, such as deodorant, diapers and detergent, were collected and delivered to Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Dec. 12. All of the items will be distributed to organizations helping people in need, such as St. John’s Homeless Shelter and A&A Alexandrina, a crisis pregnancy center.

The project’s creation and its success are part of the legacy Paul left behind, said Shefka-Peeters and Paul’s parents, Carl and Jean. 

“Paul would be so thrilled,” Jean told The Compass, while viewing the tables filled with bags and boxes of donations in the gathering area of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. “I know he’s looking down from heaven and seeing all of this and saying, ‘Wow.’”

How Paul’s Pence Project began was something his father said was extraordinary.

“From the day Paul died, every day, I would find a coin, a bill, in the most unusual places,” said Carl. “I would go to a carwash and find a coin laying on the floor. I would go out to pick up the paper and there was a quarter standing on edge on the curb.

“It seemed so unusual that we were getting this money, and after a while I said, ‘I’m just going to save this.’ So when we got up to about $150, we decided the special ed program was the place for it to go.”

Jean presented the jar of money to Shefka-Peeters at the beginning of this year’s program, which was moved online due to the pandemic. “(Jean) asked what I thought Paul would want done with it,” said Shefka-Peeters. “I suggested that we gift each of Paul’s friends in the program with $5, with the instruction that they should use the money to buy something for the poor.”

The Green Bay Religious Special Education Program serves youth and adults with developmental disabilities. The Saturday program includes time for religious education, faith formation and the celebration of Mass.

Shefka-Peeters said the program has a special focus this year on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, based on resources provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She knew that encouraging participants to buy something for the poor was a good fit. 

“With the isolation of COVID, I felt that it was important that my friends know that they are not powerless and that there is always something that they can do,” she said. 

Paul’s parents agreed. What Shefka-Peeters did not share with them, however, was the second part of Paul’s Pence Project.

“I told each of them to say, ‘A friend gave me $5 to help the poor. … Would you join me?’ So they started collecting,” she explained. “No one involved in this effort has any great wealth, but small things offered with great love can indeed add up.”

The “pay it forward” approach did add up. The $150 distributed to 26 class members eventually turned into $5,000 worth of supplies.

“I am speechless,” Jean told The Compass while looking over the tables of donated goods. She said that Paul always had a heart for the poor. 

“We didn’t have a lot when he was growing up, because of doctor bills, but we always found ways to help people without having a lot of money,” said Jean. “We baked cinnamon rolls on Saturday mornings and took them to homeless shelters. Just little things that don’t cost a lot of money and could still help people.”

Through all of their challenges, said Jean and Carl, relief on their faith.

“What’s kept us going is our faith. Knowing that Paul is with God and that he’s happy. He’s not disabled anymore,” said Jean. “He’s where he should be, and we’re looking forward to being with him someday.”

The couple has another son, Michael, who is an attorney and lives in Charlotte, N.C. “They were very close,” said Jean. “Michael was very protective of his brother, even though Paul was older. If anybody ever said anything about his brother, who was disabled, he would let them know that was not appropriate. He wouldn’t allow anybody to say anything bad to Paul.”

Shefka-Peeters said Paul’s Pence Project was a success due to her students.

“These are among the finest people that I know,” she said. “We talk about having your Father’s eyes and your Father’s heart. I really do believe that these people have their Father’s heart and eyes. I think they see us all as we could be if we were to be what God made us to be.”