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Finding Christ in First-Year Teaching

Wed, 11/25/2015 - 1:52pm
By Kevin Cacabelos, PLACE Corps Volunteer serving in Los Angeles, CA

About a month and a half into my experience with PLACE Corps, a feeling of happiness engulfed  me. As I knelt and prayed, I looked up at the cross while the choir sang “One Bread, One Body.” I glanced at my students who were squirming, whispering to each other and waiting for the cue to finally sit down.

Suddenly, an uncontrollable smile abruptly ended my state of prayer. I looked at my class of fifth graders and I saw myself in them. The power of empathy transformed my service experience into a spiritual experience. At that precise moment, I knew, I belonged exactly where I was and I belonged with the people around me.

Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education (PLACE Corps) is a teacher service corps based out of Loyola Marymount University. The program, built upon the pillars of Professional Development, Community and Spirituality aims to serve under-resourced Catholic schools of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Throughout a two-year commitment, teachers also live in community, striving to experience and strengthen their own personal spirituality.

Kevin Cacabelos and his class of fifth-graders pose for a picture during their class Christmas party After attending Catholic school for the entirety of my life, I unconsciously entered PLACE Corps thinking I knew it all – I experienced it all. Instead, I quickly learned that first-year teaching would be the most difficult endeavor I have ever undertaken in my life. Yet, despite its challenges, teaching continues to reveal the numerous blessings in my life.

At times I struggled with the question, “Where is Christ in the midst of all of this adversity, stress, and inexperience?”

How can someone grow closer to God during an 8-hour work day with no breaks, followed by six hours of graduate-level course work? Where is God in the educational inequalities that exist in the community I serve in? Where is God in the student who constantly misbehaves and refuses to listen to authority?

That moment of unrestrained happiness, at our school’s weekly Friday Mass, provided me with a stark reminder. There was no reason for me to be looking for God. Simply put, God is right in front of me. He is everywhere.

I come home every single day to a community of nine other teachers who support me. Sometimes they have answers to my problems, but more often than not, they just listen and nod their heads. After a long day of work, that is more than enough to keep a person going.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking I lack a connection with my students. I’m not from Los Angeles and I grew up in a comfortable middle-class household my entire life. But then, I remember my Catholic school education, my parents' sacrifices, and my own inability to stay still during Mass.

When I look at my students, I envision their great futures. Whenever I struggle reaching them, I remember what one of my former teachers told me when I began PLACE Corps, “Require excellence from your students. Be present to your students. And always remember that teaching is a journey."

Almost halfway through this journey, one special memory stands out to me. I have one student, let’s call him “Jack”, who gets on the nerves of his classmates and continually tests the patience of the faculty and staff of my school. Beneath his exterior behavior, though, is a kid who wants to fit in. He struggles socially, and desperately wants the attention and love of his peers. Despite his learning disabilities, he shows up to school every single day with an enthusiasm to learn.

Jack often gets nervous and resorts to giving up or misbehaving when he is put into uncomfortable situations. During our school’s annual Living Rosary prayer service, every student is asked to say a “Hail Mary” in front of the entire school. When explaining the procedure to my class, Jack came up to me in private and said, “Mr. C, I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this. Can you get someone else to go up for me?"

I wouldn’t let him bail out of this. For the next few days, I made it a point to practice the Hail Mary with Jack. Even then, he still expressed discomfort and resistance towards leading the entire school in prayer. When it finally came time for our class to say a decade of the rosary, Jack stood up and looked at me. He shook his head vigorously, put his hand in front of his face and said, “I don’t want to do this."

With a stern look on my face, I replied, “You’re doing it."

And when Jack’s turn was up, he effortlessly led the entire school in a “Hail Mary." When he finished the final line of the prayer, he looked up at me with a blank stare of shocking surprise. The other teachers mirrored Jack’s countenance.

After realizing what just happened, another smile overtook my face.

Jack returned to the pew and looked up at me and said, “Why are you so happy Mr. C?"

Words could not describe the pride and joy I felt for Jack at that moment.

I just smiled and chuckled. All of my struggles and all of Jack’s struggles simply did not matter at that moment. Christ was right in front of us – all it took was some encouragement and a little prayer.

To learn more about PLACE Corps, click here

A day in a life of... A Salesian Volunteer

Wed, 11/18/2015 - 1:19pm

My name is Linda Vanessa Zalapa Rojes. I am 20 years old and from Downey, California but am currently a volunteer at Oratorio Don Bosco in Tijuana, Mexico. This here is what I do on a daily basis.

At 7 am we have morning prayer where all the community comes together to begin our day with God and each other.

Following morning prayer we all come together for breakfast which is one of the most important meals of the day.

After breakfast Father Miguel and I head to Oratory Don Bosco which is approximately 30 minutes away. Once we arrive the students are usually in their classes so we make sure everything is done in the office.

At 10am the kids are on break time so I go outside and participate in their playing, we play many things such as soccer, football, basketball, or maybe sometimes just sit and talk with the kids. They love to ask me how to say words in English and it also helps me practice my Spanish. After a half hour break time is over and the kids go into their classrooms again.

At noon all the kids and teachers come together for prayer and then Father Miguel also spends some time talking to the kids about upcoming events or other announcements. Then the kids head off to different extra-curricular activities. I myself am in charge of juegos (games) so depending on the grade we might play basketball, football, or even just tag. Whatever it is we play they all love to be next to me.

School is over at 2pm, so that is when we have dinner. Father Miguel and I often visit the homes of families in the parish and we have dinner with them. I always love this time of the day because it’s so much fun to be able to get to know adults in the parish.

After dinner we get ready to celebrate Mass in the neighborhoods. This I love doing, even though sometimes the walk is killer! We walk through the streets saying the rosary and then stop at a family’s home to have Mass there.

Next we head back to Castillo where we will and have evening prayer and spend time together with all the other volunteers and fathers, and get our rest for the next day. And that wraps up an ordinary day here in Tijuana!

Click here to learn more about Salesian Volunteers!

Where Are They Now? Former volunteers working in homeless ministry

Mon, 11/09/2015 - 12:39pm
“Where Are They Now?” highlights volunteer alumni who carry out the spirit of service in different professions and ministries. This month we are getting to know some alumni who have dedicated their lives to work with the homeless.

Hi! My name is Kurt Runge. I served as a Quest Volunteer in Gros Morne, Haiti in 2004. Now, I am a social worker and the Director of Advocacy at Miriam's Kitchen, a non-profit working to end chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C. 

What did a typical day of service look like for you? In the first few months, much of my time was spent among people in Gros Morne learning to speak Haitian Creole. Some days were spent teaching English to students, other days I ran an after school program for teenagers. I spent a lot of time at a church-run facility for people who are elderly, have little money, and lack the ability to care for themselves. In the summer, I was joined by American and Irish volunteers who helped to plan and manage a camp for kids in the area. In the afternoon I would often play with kids in the neighborhood or visit with people in their homes.

What is one memory from your time of service that has stuck with you? Why? I was touched by the generosity of the people I met. There were several students in my English class that I got to know well. One student in particular invited me to his home.  When I arrived, they gave up their only chair for me to sit, and although they had very little, they insisted I share a meal with them. This stuck with me because it taught me that even among deep poverty, generosity has no limits. The experience serves as a constant reminder to live simply and share the gifts that have been given to me.

How has your service experience impacted your career path? Although it sounds cliché, one thing my service experience in Haiti cemented into my mind is that unbelievable inequality exists in our world, but together we have the power to change it step at a time.

In what ways did your time of faith-based service better prepare you for the work force? My volunteer experience taught me to question the systems and policies that perpetuate poverty and inequality and work to change them.

My work brings me joy because … I get to be part of an effort to end veteran and chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C. Ending homelessness means preventing homelessness whenever possible. If someone does become homeless, it means ending it quickly so no one is homeless for years. It is exciting to see many of the people Miriam's Kitchen serves get a home of their own for the first time in many years. In the near future, D.C. will join other cities across the country like New Orleans and Houston, and end homelessness among veterans. Those cities are proof that ending homelessness is possible. I'm honored to be a small part of this effort in D.C.

How do you stay connected to your program or service site? Staying connected can be challenging. Now that I am a father of three, I am not always able to keep connected to the people I served with. However, I have many reminders of my experience there, from photographs, to artwork that serve as constant reminders of the people I had the pleasure to know and the lessons I learned.

Why serve? Marian Wright Edelman said it best: "Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time."

The fun stuff:

If you could get on a plane and travel to one place you’ve never visited where would you go and why? I would go to Ecuador. My wife studied abroad and volunteered in Ecuador and fell in love with the country. I have heard so many stories about it that I would love to experience it with her.

If you could be either a dog or a cat which would you be and why? A dog of course!

Hi! My name is Jordan Skarr. I served with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in Tacoma, WA from 2004-2005 and the Magis Program at Loyola University Chicago from 2006-2008. Currently I serve as the Director of Programs for the Ignatian Spirituality Project, a Jesuit ministry dedicated to sharing the gift of the Spiritual Exercises with those persons experiencing homelessness. 

What did a typical day of service look like for you? I worked at an agency called Nativity House. Its mission is to provide a place of refuge for persons experiencing homelessness during the day. My placement there was a wonderful composite of responsibilities including making 25 gallons of soup, learning how to play spades, and most importantly building a ministry of presence with the guests, many who found their time at Nativity House the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak day.

What is one memory from your time of service that has stuck with you? Why? The average day at Nativity House was loud, busy and chaotic. Hundreds of people would walk through our doors in need of a place to sit out of the rain, a warm cup of coffee, and a chance to enjoy the company of their community in a safe place. One day a young man, a few years my junior, pulled me aside and asked for a quiet place to talk. We pulled a couple of chairs together in the corner of the modest chapel and closed the door. He was shaking as he began: “I’ve been off heroin now for three days and I'm nervous I’m going to use again… will you pray with me?” We said a quiet prayer together and went to get some lunch. That moment, so humble and so honest, has stayed with me because it clarified for me what my service “year” was all about: building relationships that make a difference. It galvanized my conviction that I wanted to continue in this ministry.

How has your service experience impacted your career path? We collaborate across the country with 12-step based transitional housing facilities to offer folks a retreat experience that is life changing. That moment in the chapel, where the small flicker of recovery first was found, is in my mind, kindled throughout our retreats.

In what ways did your time of faith-based service better prepare you for the work force? We spent a lot of time “debriefing” at the close of the workday – we would intentionally take the time to process our time together. In a lot of ways, this was very similar to the Jesuit tradition of praying the “Examen,” a practice that invites mining one’s experience for the presence of God. Some days, both then and now, it is easier that others to see or to feel God’s presence; yet these quiet moments help sustain, inspire and energize for the next.

My work brings me joy because … It’s a great privilege to bear witness to some incredible transformations. This ministry is powerful not just for our participants, but for the volunteers as well.

Do you have any advice for volunteers who are wrapping up their year and transitioning out of their time of service? Any time of transition can be a minefield and I found it helpful to simply name and recognize the time for what it was. Keep in touch with your communi and find alumni, any way to keep connected to folks who have “been there.”

How do you stay connected to your program or service site? My wife Megan, a fellow FJV, and I were invited to be support people for our local community; this was a great way to stay connected.  We invited them over for dinner, explained what snow was for the southern natives, and prayed together during spirituality nights.

Why serve? In addition to deferring student loan payments, you can see a new part of the country, develop friendships that will last a lifetime, and put your faith into action.

The fun stuff: 

If you could get on a plane and travel to one place you’ve never visited where would you go and why? Barcelona has been on our bucket list for a while.

If you could be either a dog or a cat which would you be and why? I’d probably go dog because I like to run – but, cats also seem to be really good nappers, and as a young father, look for any opportunity to do that.

Hi! My name is Maureen Burke. I served with the Franciscan Capuchin Corps East (aka Cap Corps) in Washington, D.C. from 2010-2012. I now work with an organization that has pioneered the "Housing First" model, which has proven that placing individuals in housing first, then providing supportive services is the most effective way to end chronic homelessness.

What did a typical day of service look like for you? I was placed at Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, D.C., an organization that works with men and women experiencing homelessness. Miriam’s Kitchen serves fantastic meals every day, getting fresh produce from farmer’s markets and the White House garden. Miriam’s Kitchen also provides case management, art and writing therapy, yoga, guest-lead advocacy groups, and permanent supportive housing. I served as a case manager and every day was a new day. Whether I was writing out a clothing referral for the hundredth time, listening to a man talk about his “bedazzled” necklaces, handing out toiletries, testifying in front of the city council, or advocating for more affordable housing, I rejoiced in the tasks at hand.

What is one memory from your time of service that has stuck with you? Why?At Miriam’s Kitchen, when we felt our hearts overflowing because of the strength, resilience, and courage we found in the work of our clients,  we would bring our hand to our chest and call that moment a “heartpat.” One day, a client who I had been working with for months, and who was particularly challenging to engage, reached into my bag and pulled out my grandmother’s rosary. I attempted to set boundaries, as a good case manager should, and told the client that he was not to go into other people’s belongings and that the rosary was mine. The client was not receptive and proceeded to place the rosary around his neck, look me straight in the eye, and say, “No, Maureen! It’s mine!” He walked out of the office and I was sure I would never see my grandmother’s rosary again. Months later, the client returned, walked up to me and said, “Hey Maureen! You know that necklace you gave to me?” [patting his heart where the rosary fell] “I still got it.” That moment, that heart pat, will always remain with me because it was a time that brought me out of my “clinical, case management-self” and made me recognize that this client and I were on the same journey and that perhaps we both needed a little assistance from my grandmother’s rosary to get home.

What inspired you to serve? “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.” After receiving a solid education, grounded in social justice and community at Saint Mary’s of Notre Dame, I was inspired by the lives and works of individuals like Dorothy Day, MLK JR, Saint Francis, and other saints.

How has your service experience impacted your career path? After two years at Miriam’s Kitchen, I was inspired to get my Masters in Social Work and continue working with men and women experiencing homelessness in D.C.

In what ways did your time of faith-based service better prepare you for the work force? As I continue on my career path, I am grateful for the skills and practices I picked-up in Cap Corps, including living a more intentional life-style, occasionally stepping back and reflecting on what I am doing in order to be more purposeful and effective in my work moving forward. This strength from faith gives me the confidence to show up each day for work, knowing that progress is being made, even if we can’t always see the fruits of our labor.

My work brings me joy because … I get to walk with people on their journey home. Nothing makes me happier than spending time with others and hearing their stories and hopes and dreams. My clients make me laugh, make me cry, and inspire me every day.

Do you have any advice for volunteers who are wrapping up their year and transitioning out of their time of service? Think of the values and practices that you learned in your program this year and take them with you wherever you go. Stay in touch with your community members and remember that you all survived the year together and are that much stronger because of it. You will be faced with many challenges after this year. You were labeled as a “volunteer” this year, but remember that every day, you have a choice in how you live and offer your life: You can hate something, or love every moment of the process. Find what brings you joy.

How do you stay connected to your program or service site? I work with the same client population and thus, am very lucky to be partnering with Miriam’s Kitchen in continuing to end chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C. I’m also very blessed to be near the Franciscan Brothers who supported me during Cap Corps and am always excited when I reconnect with my housemates and Cap Corp’s fearless leader, Margaret McIntyre.

Why serve? We’re all here by the grace of God and should be overwhelmed with gratitude for the joy and struggle that comes with each day. How do you want to show your thanks?

The fun stuff:

If you could get on a plane and travel to one place you’ve never visited where would you go and why? Where Saint Francis made his name of course – Assisi! I would love to walk the steps that Saint Francis walked, see the sights that made him burst into song and smile, and to feel where he found his perfect joy.

If you could be either a dog or a cat which would you be and why? Easy. Dog. Dogs are loyal and so eager to be with people AT ALL TIMES. They don’t care what society thinks of them and appear to enjoy doing really goofy things. They’re quick to forgive and will make you smile in a second. Plus, I admire their ability to take power naps and eat each meal like it’s their last – take nothing for granted. Dog is God spelled backwards and both bring joy to the world in a special way.

Final Score? Dogs - 3, Cats - 0

This article first appeared in our Staying Connected newsletter for Former Volunteers, a project done in collaboration with the Catholic Apostolate Center.
Click here to visit the Staying Connected archives.

National Vocations Awareness Week: Resources for discernment

Thu, 11/05/2015 - 9:30am
Catholic Volunteer Network aims to support current and former volunteers in their vocational discernment process. You may find the following organizations helpful in your personal discernment journey.

  • AVE - After Volunteer Experience Program 
    This program, sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, is an outreach to young adult women who have participated in a post-college year of volunteer service, domestic or international. AVE will provide a reflective space to integrate the volunteer experience and discern future directions in life and ministry. From August 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015 we initiated the AVE program with two women returning from volunteer service. The length of the program will be one to three months, the start and finish dates to be determined according to the needs of the participants and availability of space at Casa de Caridad in southern New Mexico. The program includes basic elements of intentional community life, weekly volunteer service experience, spiritual direction, and counseling (vocational, mental health, career). For further information and an application, contact Sister Janet at
  • VISION Vocation Network
    This site offers one of the most comprehensive resources available in print and online for those seeking information on Catholic religious vocations and men’s and women’s religious communities. Since 1987 VISION has been providing hundreds of thousands of readers each year with information on the broad spectrum of Catholic religious life through first-person accounts, profiles, photo stories, and articles about discernment, community life, vows, ministry, and Catholic teachings. Online features include a Community Search, Vocations Calendar, and Vocation Match.
  • Catholics on Call 
    Catholics on Call supports Catholic young adults (ages 18-30) as they strive to discover God’s call in their lives, and explore the possibility of a life of service in the Church. A national vocation discovery program of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union, Catholics on Call is dedicated to helping young adults from diverse backgrounds explore a call to ministry in the Church and to learn about leadership roles as lay ecclesial ministers, men or women religious, or ministry as ordained deacons or priests.
  • A Nun's Life
    A Nun’s Life Ministry was founded by Catholic Sisters Julie Vieira and Maxine Kollasch in 2006. This online faith community and nonprofit ministry reaches out with a pastoral presence to thousands of people worldwide each day. The website at is a place where you can talk with Catholic sisters and nuns and lots of other people on topics such as spirituality, prayer, community, ministry, and more.
  • The Catholic Apostolate Center
    Visit this site for plenty of helpful resources on vocational discernment, including Pope Francis' reflections on vocation and resources specifically for men, women, and those discerning marriage.
  • ¡OYE! 
    This website and annual publication provides many resources for Hispanic young people who are seeking to learn more about how to live out their faith. ¡OYE! seeks to initiate a dialogue to start building a vocational awareness and culture, a safe space where questions can be asked and where the conversation about radical and crucial issues such as commitment and relationship with God can take place. ¡OYE! is a resource provided by Claretian Publications.
  • offers a wealth of resources to young people considering vocations and all Catholics interested in promoting and fostering vocations.The site features video testimonies of priests and consecrated men and women and their unique vocation stories. Texts on the basics of prayer, a collection of meditations, and a discernment checklist provide further guidance through the discernment process. One of the key features of this site is its interactive nature. Inquirers can receive help in locating a vocation director in their area as well as type in their questions and have them answered by a priest.
We've also compiled a list of discernment resources recommended by former volunteers and friends of Catholic Volunteer Network. 
We hope these resources help you follow the life that God is calling you to! 

National Vocation Awareness Week: The connection between service and vocation

Tue, 11/03/2015 - 11:41am
By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
-Mohandas Gandhi

For thousands of CVN volunteers - a year of service has a deep impact on their vocation. Many leave the experience changed in profound ways, with a stronger faith and a new sense of purpose. A recent study conducted by CARA surveyed over 5,000 former volunteers to see what impression their service experience had on their lives. Here are some important findings:

  • 87 percent of volunteers cited their religious beliefs as an important motivating factor in their decision to serve. 62 percent indicated that their service was an important part of their vocational discernment process. 
  • Nearly half (46 percent) of former volunteers attend religious services at least once a week. This is significantly higher than the U.S. population (27 percent) and the U.S. Catholic population (25 percent).
  • Almost two in five former volunteers (37 percent) have considered a vocation to ordained ministry or religious life. 27 percent of these respondents have considered a vocation very seriously, and 35 percent say they have considered this somewhat seriously.
  • Six percent of former volunteers are currently living out a vocation to vowed religious life or ordained ministry today. 

To read the full report of the CARA study, please click here.

Through the experience of living in intentional community, working with minimal resources and engaging in simple living, learning to view the world through the lens of social justice, and committing to spiritual growth - our volunteers have the unique opportunity to examine the ways that God calls us to a life of service to others.

Daughter of Charity and former volunteer, Sr. Meg Kymes explains, "Being a volunteer introduced me to sisters in a more personal way. The program gave me a network of people my age who supported my discernment and encouraged me. The year of service can open you up, gently, to God's will in your life, no matter what form that takes."

For so many, living and working closely with the poor is a way to quiet the noise that distracts from hearing the voice of God. The experience of meeting Christ daily in the people they serve and the community of volunteers they work alongside is one that can never be forgotten.

This week, as we celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week, we recommend a year of service to anyone who may be seeking a deeper understanding of their vocation. Browse through our RESPONSE directory to learn more about the 200+ programs that make up the Catholic Volunteer Network.

A Day in the Life

Thu, 10/22/2015 - 10:53am
...with the New York Intern Program at St. Mary’s and Church of the Heavenly Rest, by Erin Richards

 Erin Richards, a volunteer with the New York Intern Program, poses in front of the community residence. View from outside the Church of the Heavenly Rest on E 90th and 5thAvenue

Being a part of the New York Intern Program means you automatically have two new communities: one at St. Mary’s, our home, and one at your worksite, mine being Church of the Heavenly Rest. One thing that both places definitely have in common? There is always something going on! That means there are always lots of people and lots of opportunities to be involved.

Erin and her four roommates, also volunteers with the New York Intern Program

St. Mary’s is a small community. Every week my roommates and I get together for a spirituality gathering which we take turns leading. It can be about anything we want, which gives us time to think outside of the box and discuss new interesting topics, but also to check in about how things are going. After that there is always a group dinner. Each week it is with a different group and there is never a dull moment when 15 people get around a small table- just laughs and good memories!
One of many Wednesday night dinners at St. Mary’sHeavenly Rest is made up of an amazing team of people. On any given day there are at least 5 activities going on, from youth ministry, to planning the 150th Anniversary, to everyday meetings and programs, to outreach activities! Heavenly Rest is a church that has deep and inquiring spirituality. It encourages you to think about church on more than just Sunday mornings, cares for the needs of all ages and stages, does God’s work outside our doors, practices stewardship as discipleship, and is always joyful and fun.  
First ever staff selfie with those at Heavenly RestThe outreach committee at Heavenly Rest is always planning something, from community meals on the Holidays, to Toy Drives, work with a neighborhood school, and a first ever parish wide day of service. The outreach committee focuses on different ministries, such as a youth, aging, and hunger/nourishment. The entire parish has the opportunity to volunteer for and get involved in these events. Anybody, no matter where you are from, can walk into Heavenly Rest and immediately feel a part of a loving community!

  Setup for a senior meal that took place in September at Heavenly Rest, just one of the events that the outreach committee does

To learn more about volunteering with the New York Intern Program, click here

Many Layers of "Justice"

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 12:45pm
By Joe Loney, Maryknoll Lay Missioner serving in Quallacollo, Bolivia

We met in a ten by five foot room, which serves as a computer skills room, library, interview room and combined storage-closet for the new comers and sleeping quarters in the nighttime.  Through the grapevine Miguel learned that the free lawyer from the “Church” was attending to legal questions.  He must have waited fifteen minutes or more as the men were lined up outside the door, patiently waiting their turn as they sought second opinions, confirmation that their lawyers, prosecutors and judges were telling them the “truth.”

This, however, was not a free legal aid clinic activity in an office building.  We were in the jail/prison aptly named “San Pablo” located in Quillacollo, Bolivia.  Three hundred and fifty men are incarcerated in an old colonial home, where at most 150 should be housed. Lumped together are those from 15 to 75 years of age, accused and convicted, violent and non-violent, first time and repeat offenders. Clouds of saw dust filled the air because the men have assembled an open air carpentry shop in the former central patio of the mansion, making simple chairs and desks out of shipping pallets so they can earn enough to feed, clothe and medicate themselves as the government funds are woefully inadequate. As part of the Prison Ministry sponsored by the Catholic Diocese, I was doing my best to help them with their legal concerns.

After working as a Deputy Defender for the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit for ten years and now working in the Bolivian prisons for nearly five years, I thought that I knew something about helping out women and men with their legal concerns.  After all, I had not only graduated from Wayne State University´s Law School, I had also obtained a law degree from the Universidad Mayor de San Simon in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  Brainwashed twice, as my family members and friends sometimes remarked.

With my finely tuned legal antenna and practiced interview skills, I quickly gathered that Miguel had been arrested for selling drugs near a school, was a first time offender and used the proceeds to support his own habit.  So far, I thought to myself, nothing was complicated and I began to explain the requirements for a bond (According to Bolivian law--proof of regular employment or full time student status; verification by the police of his actual residence; proof of community / family ties by the presentation of birth certificates of his parents, spouse, siblings and certification by the local neighborhood association) when I noticed that he did not seem to be overly interested.  I also saw that my “standard” advice on the opportunity for probation for first time offenders, especially if we had him reviewed by a physician who could certify that he was a drug user, was not particularly interesting for Miguel.

Something or someone, as a person of faith I believe it was the Holy Spirit, prompted me to use a new skill that I had learned in a workshop on forgiveness and reconciliation—fundamentals for implementing restorative justice.  I asked Miguel how the drugs helped him.  He began to share that over a year ago his girlfriend had ended their relationship and that the drugs allowed him to sleep and dream about her.  He also shared that he had not dated anyone else during the last year and had her name tattooed on his arm after their relationship ended.

Upon reflection, I am amazed how the restorative justice focuses on the underlying, unmet basic need that results in the actions we label in the criminal justice system the crime, is so critical to changing the individual´s future and preventing recidivism.  Basic needs in the restorative justice sense are those such as love, acceptance, respect, being part of a group or family, power, freedom, personal security and pleasure.  If I had never asked how the drugs affected him, I would have never gathered an insight into his basic need for love and acceptance.  Miguel shared that his parents simply told him to “get over it” whenever he wanted to talk about his feelings about his ex-girlfriend and his basic needs.

Today I wonder about the hundreds of interviews I have conducted as a criminal defense lawyer.  How many really addressed the unmet, underlying human needs of the women and men I interviewed?  How much of my training and my professional pride has been too narrowly focused on just one aspect of the totality of circumstances of the detained person?

My prayer is that it is not too late for me to become more concerned with the integral needs of the women and men I serve.  I sleep better at night knowing that Miguel is now receiving counseling to allow him to verbalize his basic needs and to identify alternatives to drugs to satisfying those needs. I am grateful to Catholic Volunteer Network for leading me to this place.

To learn more about Maryknoll Lay Missioners, click here

A Day in the Life

Tue, 10/20/2015 - 9:10am
...of a Salesian Volunteer, by Melissa Camarena

Hello! My name is Melissa Camarena and I am 23 years old. I am from Downey, California and am currently doing volunteer work in Ciudad Juarez. I live in a community with 4 Salesian priests and 8 other volunteers from the US, Spain, other parts of Mexico, and Argentina.

My morning usually starts at 8 a.m. with morning prayer called "laudes". In the morning prayer format, each volunteer takes a turn leading prayer or reading the Liturgy of the Word.
After that, each volunteer is sent off to his or her designated oratory to do any work that is needed. This ranges from trying to expand current projects, to organizing urban camps where we play and work through many activities with children.
The evening is my favorite time! This is the time where we go to the "brigada de alegria". We go out into the neighborhoods, waving flags and calling kids out to play.
I've just started my journey here in Juarez, but I feel the next 10 months will be filled with new experiences and opportunities to grow.
To learn more about volunteering with the Salesians of Don Bosco, click here

Standing Against Environmental Racism

Tue, 10/13/2015 - 1:03pm
By Naim Edwards, Serving with Cap Corps in Detroit

Naim Edwards, Capuchin Corps Volunteer Just this morning, as I was preparing to write this blog, I learned a new term – environmental racism. It is defined by the Energy Justice Network as “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.” I presume most of us consider hazards to include living near a landfill, incinerator, coal-fired power plant, or any entity that may contain or emit chemicals harmful to us. I agree with that, but I also believe being separated from a healthy environment to be a form environmental racism.

For example, forcing Native Americans to live on reservations, which are often areas difficult for humans to subsist in due to poor soils (for agriculture) and a lack of human resources. Similarly, concentrating “brown” people in urban slums (poor in soil and resources) and using policies and systems to keep them there are forms of environmental racism. Additionally, I’d argue that destroying people’s environments through war, deforestation, or contamination so that it is no longer desirable to live there is also a form of environmental racism. Both the contaminated and the deficient aspects of this injustice are prevalent in Detroit, a city marked by fossil fuel refineries, power plants, and incinerators, as well as communities that have been neglected and deprived of resources.

The BioBlitz, organized to expose and encourage youth and local residents to be scientists,
involve academics in community initiatives, foster intergenerational interaction,
and reconnect people with nature.My life in Detroit focuses on restoring natural beauty to the city. I do this through native plant and vegetable gardening with the understanding that healthier environments foster healthier minds and spirits. Aside from increased access to healthy foods, it is well documented that urban gardens and green spaces contribute to more positive, resilient individuals and communities . Thus, I am part of a larger movement to empower people simply by making their worlds look better. Of course, organizing others in the gardening and restoration process further strengthens and multiplies its benefits.

Children learn to identify insects, plants, and other organisms. Everyone has the right to interact with living things other than humans and our pets. We should not have to leave our communities to experience nature’s beauty. We share our planet with countless other organisms; their presence in our lives is a source of stability, hope, and inspiration. The value of watching a plant grow, birds singing and playing at a feeder, or butterflies fluttering about should not be underestimated or taken lightly. I have witnessed first hand the power and wonder of reconnecting people to nature.
Some Food Warriors learning about biodiversity at D-Town Farm in Detroit. 
With the implementation of a community garden, I invited a small group of people to engage in the supposedly mundane task of starting seeds for the project. I had the fortune of at least having their curiosity to start with, and once the seeds begin to sprout, there was an air of excitement and praise of new life and opportunity! People who chose not to engage in planting seeds were jealous that they didn’t participate in giving life to our little plants, while those who did were joyful and anxious to take care of their new found responsibilities. I’ve also witnessed anxious people dismantle their fear of spiders or snakes after having the opportunity to handle and observe these creatures in a safe way.

A young Food Warrior has made a new friend during a BioBlitz.Imagine cities full of people giddy and yearning for spring to start, not simply to get away from our cold, seemingly lifeless winter, but ready to witness and support new life. These attitudes can be extended into our homes, schools, and work places. New life inspires new ideas – new beginnings. Detroit’s marginalized communities need to feel and experience revitalization, and adding jobs (which isn’t really happening) is not enough; we must add substance, biodiversity, and relearn vitality from nature with all of its power and life giving energy.

To learn more about Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, click here

An Early Sunset

Fri, 10/09/2015 - 3:12pm
By Matthew Guiffre, Mercy Volunteer Corps, serving in Guyana South America

There is nothing easy about living in Guyana. Navigating the city streets of Georgetown is difficult, household chores need to be done more mindfully than in the United States, and even simple tasks like taking a shower or prepping to go to bed require more effort than I’m used to. Everything is just a little bit more difficult. Thankfully, as I’ve been adjusting to this new culture, country, and way of life over the past month and a half, I have had two saving graces that have kept everything in perspective. The first is my community of MVC volunteers who are experiencing the ups and downs of living in South America with me on a daily basis. The second is my job. No matter how difficult a single day may be, I’m always grateful to head to work. It serves as a constant reminder of why I’m in Guyana in the first place.

Mercy Volunteer Matthew Guiffre enjoys a beautiful day in Guyana,
South America, with his  students.I’ve been working for just over six weeks now at an orphanage for boys about fifteen minutes outside of the city of Georgetown in a small village called Plaisance. There are over fifty boys that live at the orphanage and about half of them attend the K-6 school on the grounds of the orphanage. Once the boys reach grade 7, they go to school at a secondary school in the next town over. I’ve been teaching the fifth grade class since my arrival and it has been…quite an experience. There are just a handful of boys in each grade. So, I spend my mornings and afternoons with three nine year olds and a thirteen year old who is repeating 5th grade for the second (or third?) time. They’re great kids, always keeping me on my toes. As the days have worn on, I’ve realized just how important the role I play in their lives is. Not to sound like a conceited fool, but the information that a fifth grade teacher dishes out to his/her students is essential stuff for life. For example, in the first few days of school, I’ve already taught the boys how to use quotations marks in Grammar class and how to do long division in Math class. When it comes to teaching vital lessons like these, I take the job very seriously. It’s fun to be able to teach something fundamental to little human beings, and it’s exhilarating to see them begin to understand it. On the flip side though, it’s slightly terrifying when you correct their homework and realize that they are still missing some of the basics. Alas, all part of the ups and downs of teaching. I’m learning really fast, I love being able to learn on the job.

My classroom is a simple room with no walls between my room and the other classrooms in the school. All that separates each “classroom” from the next one over is a blackboard. I would have thought that it would take quite some time to get used to this way of teaching and learning, but I quickly grew used to staying focused on my classroom and the kids have been learning like this their whole lives, so they don’t even notice that there are five other lessons going on simultaneously with their lesson. The only time I have any issue with my four boys losing their focus is when the first graders are singing along with a cassette tape to an “Itsy Bitsy Spider” song that they all learned when they were in first grade. No matter how many times I try to coral them back into our lesson, they always feel the need to sing along with their six-year-old friends in the next classroom over.

I have no materials to speak of to teach my students with, other than a few pieces of chalk and some outdated, tattered textbooks. Somehow though, it’s enough. Yes, it would be greatly beneficial to have a copier, pencils, crayons, notebooks or loose-leaf paper, but we make do with what we have. It takes a lot more creativity to teach a group of boys with nothing but chalk and my imagination than it would if I had a “Smart Board” and access to the Internet. I do find it humorous; however, that at the end of each day all four boys and I are always covered in chalk –our clothes, our faces, there’s no escaping it!

The Mercy Volunteer Corps Guyana community celebrates a Guyanese festival in Georgetown.At the end of each day I’m tired and I welcome the fact that Guyana’s close proximity to the equator means that the sun sets right around six o'clock each night. I think of it as the earth giving me permission to wind down and head to bed early. No matter the day, whether it’s Monday or Friday, I’m always exhausted by the time I’m arriving home. Thankfully, the tired feelings I experience are all just remnants of a good day’s work, in which I did a little teaching and, ironically, ended up learning so much more about life, love, and how the world works in the process.

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, click here

Ten Tips for Making the Most of Your Service Year

Thu, 10/08/2015 - 10:20am
By Elyse Wegner, serving in Los Angeles with the Episcopal Urban Intern Program

Changing the world starts with youI have had the honor of being an Episcopal Urban Intern in Los Angeles for the past ten months.  I know that when the program ends, I will leave a completely different person. I will leave with a newfound passion, energy and vision for social justice. I will leave my cohorts, fifteen unique and inspiring individuals, but we will always stay connected through this experience. Ultimately, I will leave the program and this year will come to a close, but the program and the valuable lessons I’ve learned will never leave me.

Lesson one: No expectations allowed  
Leave your expectations at home. Don’t expect to get everything right away. Don’t expect to be everyone’s best friend. Don’t expect to always get a seat on the bus. And definitely don’t expect for everything to go your way. Intentional community is about compromise and realizing that what you do affects those around you.

Lesson two: Try new things
The Episcopal Urban Interns together on a retreatMost of my job entails traveling to our 17 partner churches and helping the program coordinator facilitate free cooking and nutrition classes. In these classes, we teach the participants about health and try a new recipe every class. Some participants are hesitant to try dishes with ingredients that they are not accustomed to such as whole grain noodles or vegetables. However, they are pleasantly surprised one hundred percent of the time. This kind of exposure opens up a world of opportunities and truly changes lives.

Lesson three: Ask questions 
It’s okay to ask questions. It shows interest and stimulates conversation. You will do yourself and those around you a disservice if you pretend like you know everything. This service year is about broadening your perspective and recognizing that people are resources.

Lesson four: Just do something 
There are those who crave significance, and those who work hard for causes they believe in and thus, create significance-a lesson I learned from our Executive Director at Seeds of Hope who is always sharing his wisdom. It has been so inspiring to watch people I work with just making stuff happen and I’m hoping that their company has decreased my tendency to procrastinate. Just do something, start somewhere and use failure as a platform to humble yourself and learn.

Lesson five: Invest in relationships 
Give people the time they deserve. Greet them, get to know them, and most importantly, listen. Productivity and collaboration go out the window when someone feels like they aren’t being heard, especially in underserved populations. You will encounter people from all backgrounds who will think very differently than you. Having thoughtful and difficult discussions will instill confidence to share your opinion while respectively hearing someone else’s perspective.

Lesson six: Share your ideas 
I remember it was my first or second week of work and I was still unsure of my place within the organization. We were at a meeting and ideas were being thrown out about how to solve a problem. I kept my ideas to myself because I did not want to intrude. Later on in the car I mentioned my idea to my boss and he asked why I didn’t bring it up in the meeting. I did not share my ideas because I lacked the confidence and was new to the professional world. Sharing enlightens the discussion and might spark creativity within someone else.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Lesson seven: Honor your commitments 
You will be glad that you did. I came into this year knowing that every week I would share a meal with my housemates and gather as a group of fifteen every second Sunday. The community aspect was what drew me to the program and I welcomed the structure and expectations. However, what sounds really good on paper, can end up becoming a challenge in real life. There are days when I don’t feel like going to church or having a long discussion about house duties with my roommates. But I do my best to be there because it brings me out of my shell and allows me to see the world through other perspectives.

Lesson eight: Go with the flow
Not one single day at work has been the same. I love the spontaneity of my job and most days, it doesn’t even feel like work because I am enjoying the service and company of those around me. However, there are days where I find myself digging into really tough ground to plant a tree or shoveling a truckload of mulch into wheelbarrows and feeling like the pile never shrinks. But you get through it and stick to the task because if you put it off until later, it will never get done. Remember, you are not above any job and having an open mind will make you a better team player.

Lesson nine: Stay Positive
It’s simple. Complain less. Give thanks more. Doing so will enrich the experience and create a positive environment that others around you will appreciate.

Lesson ten: Doodle and always tell the truth 
Our executive director always shares a stroke of genius with us at our staff meetings. We actually have a quote book of “Tim-isms” that have just left the rest of us in awe. This quote speaks to me mostly of embracing creativity and maintaining your integrity.

There are so many more lessons that I will cherish and keep close to my heart, but these ten are a good place to start. Invest in people, moments, places, and causes you believe in. True wealth is measured by our memories.

To learn more about serving with the Episcopal Urban Intern program, click here

A Day in the Life...

Wed, 10/07/2015 - 12:30pm
of a Marist Volunteer, by Luis Ramos
Once you arrive on property at the Marist Brothers’ Center in Esopus, New York (MBCE), you are surrounded by trees and countryside, and immediately welcomed home. That might sound odd for a moment, but it is always our hope that people who visit us feel welcome and at home.

Our mission statement reads: 
"The Marist Brothers’ Center at Esopus is a place where a Marist approach to ministry, formation, and service work together to evangelize young people and adults." It is truly exciting to live this out during this year with my fellow volunteers! Our volunteer community lives in The Cottage, one of a few different houses that is on the property.

Doing the dishes--a daily task
A day in the life of a Marist volunteer can change quickly! Our volunteer community has a few hallmarks. One pretty common one is taking care of dishes and serving meals in our dining hall. This, along with being present and available to groups, is part of our work of hospitality.

Our very organized kitchen
RetreatsA school group on retreat
School groups, parishes, and colleges come to the MBCE for programs year round. The types of programs they run vary from retreats to peer group mentoring or even workshops and seminars. Sometimes we run retreats for groups based on their needs and what they would like to do. We plan activities, presentations, and experiences for participants. Helping run and plan these retreats is part of the MBCE living out its mission to evangelize youth.
Prayer is an important part of the daily routine
Outdoor AdventuresRetreatants learning team-building skills

Another type of offering we have is an Outdoor Adventure retreat. Different elements, or stations, serve as activities to facilitate team building and community exercises. These are always a fun way to get the message across to our younger students while they are keeping active! They are definitely a favorite of mine.

Walking into the forest while blindfolded means you must trust your companions!CommunityPart of our volunteer life involves living in community. This is a lot different than just having housemates, because it is an intentional community! It’s not like a dorm. We share meals, prayer, time to relax, and definitely work! 
This year's group of volunteers includes myself, Rosemarie Mulligan, and Nina Lokar. (Right to Left) 
Playing chess in our free timeMaintaining Our Home Apart from retreats and other programming, it takes a lot to maintain the houses and property we live on. Whether it is moving furniture, cleaning different parts of the house, or mowing the lawn, we’ve got plenty of space that needs work. It can get tough, but our community is up to the challenge. I’m looking forward to learning how to drive a tractor!
A new furniture delivery means a day of hard work! Joining the Marist Volunteer Community was a decision I felt comfortable with. I had been visiting this property since I was a sophomore at Mount Saint Michael Academy, a Marist Brothers’ high school. Being able to contribute to the incredible work that goes on here is something I am proud of and grateful for. Right before I began this year, Br. Owen Ormsby (executive director of the MBCE) told me “I want this to be a year of growth for you”. I fully expect that! I expect a year of hard work, fun times, and growth. Come visit us anytime! I mean it!
To learn more about the Marist Volunteer Community, click here
To follow Luis and other volunteers' journey, check out their blog here

My New Sight: Michelle

Tue, 10/06/2015 - 12:30pm
 Michelle Baumann is a world-class golfer and baker who just graduated from Creighton University. Since she is serving in Colorado, she is taking full advantage of the beautiful landscape by going hiking when she can. Read on to see what it's like to begin a year of service with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers!
Michelle (blue hat, kneeling, center) and the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers on a hike
My name is Michelle Baumann and I am currently doing a year of service with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers. CVV was started in 1995 by Bill and Mary Frances Jaster, who wanted to start a service program for young adults influenced by the spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul. CVV is a year-long program for up to 20 young adults interested in doing a year of service at a non-profit agency in Denver, CO. Each individual have the opportunity to choose which site he or she will work at based off of the interests of the volunteer. Some of the services sites this year include homeless shelters, urban gardens, elementary schools, refugee services, and day shelters.
I chose to do a year of service because I know I want to go back to graduate school, but I am not sure if I want to get a Masters in Social Work or Counseling Psychology. I decided that I wanted to spend a year learning what it would be like to be a social worker to determine if that is the career path for me. This year, I am working at Urban Peak, a homeless shelter for at-risk and runaway youth. The shelter provides overnight services and case management for youth ages 15-20. At the shelter, I spend my time in two different positions. First, I am a Direct Care Counselor, in which I assist with meal services, laundry, answering phone calls, etc. My second position is a Shelter Case Manager, in which I assist youth with finding resources in Denver to help them accomplish their goals.
Individuals in CVV live in an intentional community with the other members of CVV. We have two houses, so each house has 10 volunteers. As a part of the CVV community, activities are scheduled throughout the week to share and reflect on the experiences of the volunteers. I think the community event that is most significant for me and the most unique to CVV is the community dinner that happens on Monday nights. Every Monday, all of the volunteers leave work early to have “Reflection and Discussion” with the community. Topics for R&D include removing judgments and setting boundaries at work. After R&D, CVV has Mass together in the chapel in the CVV houses followed by dinner. Anyone in the Denver community is invited to attend Mass and dinner, usually totaling 25-30 people.
Living in such a large community has taken some time to adjust to. With so many roommates and no homework, it always feels like something is going on, which is both good and bad. I love being able to go to common areas and usually find someone hanging out or playing a game. However, it can be difficult to take time for myself instead of spending time with my roommates. FOMO (or “Fear of Missing Out”) is something that I am adjusting to. It can be difficult to choose between spending quality time with my friends and spending time by myself to de-stress from the day.  CVVolunteers are dedicated to living a simple life. Simple living includes using public transportation/biking, living off a stipend, living without wireless internet, and taking shorter showers. Prior to coming to CVV, I thought living simply meant giving up things so I could only live with things that are absolutely necessary. Now, I see it as choosing to live without excess in order to live in solidarity with the people we are serving. It is determining what things in my life are wants and what things are needs. Some aspects of simplicity have been a bigger adjustment than others. For example, two of the things that required getting used to were using public transportation/biking and living without wireless.
Although I have only been in Denver for about 2 months, I am loving everything so far! I could not be happier with CVV and I am so thankful that I have chosen to spend a year here. Bill and Mary Frances, as well as the rest of the staff at CVV, are all wonderful people. All of them are so supportive and willing to help in any way they can. My volunteer experience would not be as wonderful as it is without my fellow CVVers. They are some of the most inspiring, dedicated, funny, and loving people I have ever met. I cherish the friendship I have with each one of them and I am so excited to see what the rest of the year has in store for us!
To learn more about serving with CVV, click here!

A Day in the Life....

Mon, 10/05/2015 - 8:00am

of a Salesian Volunteer, by Dany Benitez

My name is Dany Benitez.  I am 24 years old and I am from Venezuela. I am currently a Salesian Volunteer at Saint John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA.  I would like to take this opportunity to share how my life as a Salesian volunteer is on an ordinary day.

            A typical day for me is to wake up at 5:30am to join in the morning prayer service.  I enjoy starting my day asking God for strength and to help me face any challenges I might have that day. 

 After that, I start with my apostolic service by accompanying and monitoring students before and after school at Saint John Bosco Boys’ Club.  This is also referred to as Oratory.  I greet the students and help them to start their day off fresh.

 After that I have the opportunity to teach two Spanish classes as well.  I teach a group of ten students by helping them not only learn the Spanish language but understand it as well.  

I also teach a group of fifteen AP Honors Spanish.  At times, I assist the teachers in the World Languages Department with students who need extra tutoring in Spanish and I assist with special events such as, “Dia de los Muertos” or the “Spanish Conference for Parents.

In the evening I join the community prayer service, followed by dinner.  On Wednesday evenings, I finish the day off with a bit of exercise.  I am a Zumba Instructor at St. Dominic Savio Church.  I teach Zumba exercise routines to a group of ladies and men of all ages.  As a group we work off any stress that we might have had that day to keep our bodies and minds healthy.

Since I’ve met the Salesians of Don Bosco, I believe that we can offer a creative approach that makes a difference in people's lives.  I hope that God will continue to call on me and guide my steps each day.  I want to be a useful tool of his and hope that he keeps me "in service".

To learn more about serving with the Salesians, click here

My New Sight: Ryan

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 10:08am
Ryan Majsak is a recent University of Notre Dame graduate, who is serving with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in San Francisco as a law clerk with the Eviction Defense Collaboration. Read on to find out why sheep and goats inspire him to serve, and what cooking on a tiny budget can teach you!

What is it like living in community with other volunteers?

Living in community with other volunteers is both a blessing and a challenge. It can be difficult to share such an emotional and stressful experience with people I have just met, but it’s also a great chance to create lifelong relationships. We are a family. We eat together, we spend time together, we laugh together, we argue with one another, we make community budget decisions, we talk about our faith together, we talk about world issues together, and we share in each other’s highs and lows. During my service, I wanted to live in community, because I didn’t want my experience to have start/pause button that I pressed when I arrived and left work. I wanted to be immersed in a lifestyle that was reinforced by my community members. Reflection and discussion with others living similar experiences can help give perspective on things that I am experiencing, and likewise I can learn from what my community members share from their placements. We are diverse in our backgrounds and beliefs and we learn how to respect and be open to others’ opinions and values. It’s not an easy situation, but it’s one that has forced us to learn and grow with each other.

What inspired you to serve?

Often times I reflect on a passage from Matthew 25 about the Sheep and the Goats:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’This passage has become a constant presence in my mind when I encounter someone in need. For if I claim to love Jesus, how can I ignore those in whom He dwells? I decided to do service because I wanted to work directly on behalf of and in solidarity with others. Through my placement at the Eviction Defense Collaborative in San Francisco helping low income tenants fight their evictions, I have the opportunity to play a part in making a significant positive impact on others’ lives every day.

What continues to inspire you, now that you've started?

Every JV house has a patron who is well known for their work in the social justice sphere. Our house’s patron is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We have many pictures and artwork that decorate our apartment that have his likeness and quotes. The central piece in our living area is a painting done by a former JV who used to live in our house that has the Golden Gate Bridge and underneath has a quote prominently displayed from MLK Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” It is inevitable that at some point each day that I glance at that painting to the point that the quote seems to endlessly echo in my head. Now that the initial “high” of joining a fast-paced nonprofit organization has worn off, patience, focus, and compassion is more difficult to maintain during the long intake of clients or the more mundane tasks of the job. MLK’s words reinforce and remind me of the reason why I joined the JVC and help me find the extra motivation necessary to give my entire self to those whom I am serving.

Has "simple living" been a struggle so far?

Simple living is certainly a challenge, but it is a rewarding one. Cooking with a very modest budget has reminded me that eating for taste and complete fulfillment is a privilege that not everyone experiences. I have been surprised just how resourceful we have been and how far we can stretch our limited food budget. It makes things easier that we are living simply as a community, and we are able to support each other on days that it is especially difficult.

It also is hard to suffer when we have so many generous people and organizations trying to feed and entertain us. I have joked with my community members that we are the most well-connected poor people in the city. Former Jesuit Volunteers, friends, family, and our organizations invite us to picnics, barbecues, meals, and then send us home with all of the leftovers. In fact, their generosity is so abundant that as a community, we have talked about how guilty we feel about receiving so much from others. We dedicated ourselves to a simple lifestyle not so that we could continue living comfortably, just on the dollar of someone else, but to understand and fully embrace in solidarity the decisions and realities that those we work alongside deal with on a daily basis.

For me, an unforeseen challenge has been the slightly uncomfortable adjustment to accept so many handouts without repayment or reciprocation. I have had to allow myself to become humble enough to just accept others’ persistent generosity with mere gratitude. I now understand the feeling of pride and almost a sense of dignity that is lost when receives handouts out of pity or because of the existence of an unequal relationship. Now that I have been on both sides of that interaction, I am now more aware of the feelings of those receiving aid and how to make them feel as comfortable as possible to help them maintain their dignity.

Another challenge is limiting our use of technology. We decided to get WiFi with the use of our personal stipends for the main purposes of communication with friends and family and for working on applications. However, the temptation exists to rely on devices rather than people to entertain ourselves. Living simply emphasizes relationships over things, and technology can be a large barrier to that.

To learn more about serving with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, click here

My New Sight: Mikaela

Fri, 09/25/2015 - 8:14am
Mikaela Prego is a May 2015 graduate of the University of Notre Dame who is currently serving with ACE in Denver, Colorado. So far, she has had 4 full days of teaching school and describes herself as "slightly sane and fully crazy at the moment". She loves the mountains of Colorado and already has been to the top of Mt. Evans! 

What inspired you to serve?This is a hard one to answer. I am not completely sure what convinced me to apply to my program and then accept it. I just kept finding myself being drawn to ACE and I just couldn’t say no, everything fit together so well. The desire to serve though was planted in me in high school. My school’s motto was “servium,” or “I will serve.” I felt like I did not give enough time to service during college and a guilt sort of built up and hung around me all through junior and senior year. I wanted to refocus myself. It was actually a youtube video of Stephen Colbert’s commencement speech at Northwestern University that reminded me how important it is to always be serving those around you and so I acted on that feeling.
Mikaela (bottom) and the Denver ACE communityWhat continues to inspire you, now that you've started?My community, all the people in my program, all of the people who did this before me and all first year teachers inspire me every day. It is incredible what teachers do and that they are able to do it well. I am constantly inspired by the passion I see in my community, in my school and those who are invested in education. How can I not want to be a part of something that is working so hard to give children everything they need to succeed?
Of course my students inspire me daily. I want to help them. I can see how much they know that they don’t even realize and I would love to be someone to help them realize how much they actually know, and how much they are teaching me. They are truly incredible, even on days when they talk all through the hallways or forget how exactly to sit in their chairs or that glue sticks should not be glued to the desk. They are pretty cool humans.Denver ACE Community after a hike to the top of Torreys PeakWhat is it like living in community with other volunteers?Right now living in community is the greatest thing I could have in my life. That sounds dramatic, but I look forward to coming home to a house full of friends and passionate people. There have been a couple days that I have been the first home after school and my heart drops. I just love coming home and being able to talk about the day. Of course there are challenges, but I have been so lucky to be placed with incredible people who share a wonderful and quirky sense of humor and share such a joy for serving, even on days when it brings you to tears. I think community is my saving grace as a first year teacher.
Has "simple living" been a struggle so far?Yes. There have been some negative bank statements and cereal is now a staple of my diet, but to be honest I think the hardest thing for me is to define what simple living really means to me. I think the hardest thing is discovering what living simply means and how that is related to what keeps you mentally sane. Does living simply mean that we should limit how much we eat out together, or how much we drive to explore the city, or how often we take ice cream trips? What is necessary to live simply and what is necessary to keep myself mentally healthy? I find myself asking this question a great deal.
Any short stories about your work that you'd like to share?Every day is definitely an adventure, so I’d say that my work offers a great deal of stories. One in particular stands out to me. In 4th grade we have "read aloud" every day after lunch. For the past two weeks we had been reading “Sideways Stories from Wayside School,” by Louis Sachar. It’s a fantastic book, one that I have not read since I was in fourth grade. But we were reading a chapter about Joe who has trouble counting and his teacher, Ms. Jewls, who tries to help him. When five objects are placed in front of him Joe will count “1, 4, 6, 3, 5.” Ms. Jewls struggles a great deal trying to explain to him that although he arrives at the correct number the way he is counting is not correct. For some reason this made my students crack up. They all started laughing all at once and so I started laughing and there was just so much joy. Just thinking about Joe counting makes me crack a smile. I am so looking forward to more surprisingly joyful moments as we continue through this year together! 
To learn more about serving with ACE, click here

My New Sight: Sarah

Wed, 09/23/2015 - 8:56am
Sarah Staten is a St. Louis native who loves Cardinals baseball, beating everyone at board games, and her many, many sisters and nieces. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in May, Sarah began her two years of service with the Billiken Teacher Corps in St. Louis, Missouri. 

What inspires you to do service?

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'." --Erma Bombeck      
When I think about all that I have been given and blessed with, I cannot help but feel called to give back to those who need it most, in whatever capacity that God allows me to.  We all have different gifts and talents, and I want nothing more than to use what God has given me to love and serve others.  In doing so, I know I am giving glory to God by putting to use the gifts He has given me. My parents have also played a huge role in encouraging me to give back.  "To whom much is given, much is expected," (Luke 12:48), as my parents continually remind me. 
What is it like adjusting to living in community?Overall, I love living in community, it is one of the best parts of the Billiken Teacher Corps. (BTC) through St. Louis University.  At first it was a big adjustment to get used to the different personalities in the group.  None of us were friends before, and jumping into a program like this, it was like living with strangers at first!  It was awkward to get used to everyone's quirks and pet peeves (like putting the toilet paper roll on a certain way...who knew that was a thing!).  And adjusting to group responsibilities was hard, too.  Everything you do now affects five other people, and not just yourself.  But the more we talked, and had community nights, and bonded over summer classes, the more we grew to know, understand, and love each other.  Initially, I struggled with accepting the different personalities, perspectives, and viewpoints of my other community members.  How could we all be so different and still want to do the same program?  Why couldn't they agree with me?  However, once I let go of that desire for control, the more easily I was able to come to love and appreciate each member of my community.  Now I know each person’s quirks and mannerisms, when they are aggravated or when they are happy, but I am still continually learning more about each person.  Relationships take time and effort, and patience is crucial when getting to know new people.
Another aspect of community life that is incredible is the support.  It is so comforting to know that on a night when I am up late grading, someone else in the room next to me is doing the same thing.  The solidarity in that makes the late nights, overbearing parents, failing students, and never-ending grading all the more bearable.  Having people who know and understand what you are going through and what you are feeling is incredibly helpful.  I also love coming home after a long day and having a community to share my stories with and to hear their stories as well.   
What does "simple living" mean, and how is it different from what you are used to?"Simple living", in the context of the BTC, means living in a renovated convent with an 8x8 bedroom, sharing your living space with other outside service groups, living off of a teacher stipend, participating in weekly community chores, doing dishes without a dishwasher, finding (and sometimes killing) bugs throughout the convent, and walking up three flights of stairs to get to your bedroom, to name a few.  While these are not terrible or initially shocking things, they are little things that I took for granted and did not realized make such a big difference.  It is in these little challenges that I learn to be patient and tolerant.  I have to remind myself of my blessings and remember not to complain.  This simple living helps us as a community to appreciate what we do have and focus our time and energy on serving other and being present to one another.    Sarah and the Billiken Teacher Corps community

To learn more about serving with the Billiken Teacher Corps, click here and here!

What does Laudato si' say about faith-based service?

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 11:27am
By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network StaffCommunity, simple living, social justice, spirituality…for so many volunteer programs, these four values serve as the foundation – guiding their mission, enriching their impact, and shaping their programming. Here at Catholic Volunteer Network, we refer to them as our “Four Pillars.” I recently read through Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si’ and was surprised to see these very familiar themes running throughout the entire document. It was almost as if the Pope was speaking directly to us faith-based volunteers!I began reading the, excited to hear what Pope Francis had to say about care for creation, but I did not expect to be so challenged to deepen my commitment to community, simple living, social justice, and spirituality, which were so integral to my own mission experience over ten years ago. The encyclical affirmed the lessons that service taught me about relationships, the dignity of each person, and our interconnectedness, but it did not stop there. As I prayerfully read through the document, I felt called to repentance for the many times that I have not extended these values to my relationship with the earth. Over and over I have neglected my responsibility to care for all creation. The encyclical encourages all of us to do more, saying “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (19)If you haven’t gotten the chance to read through Laudato si’, I highly recommend it. Although long, it is easy to read – and serves as great material to guide prayer and meditation. Here are a few passages that make reference to our four pillars:Social Justice:“Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus discover what each of us can do about it.” (19)“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (49)Community“We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.” (52)“Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God, and with the earth.” (70)“Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” (84)Simple Living:“Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption… A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment.” (222)“Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.” (223)Spirituality:“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain train, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (233)“Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different place. Water, oil, fire, and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise.” (235)I hope that Laudato si’ encourages you to see God’s presence in all living creatures, and in this beautiful earth that we all call home. Whether you are a current volunteer, former volunteer, or someone who is looking into the possibility of becoming a volunteer - I think this encyclical will be a great resource for your faith journey. And, if you've already read Laudato si' comment below to share how it has impacted your commitment to service
If you are looking for more information about this encyclical, check out these resources:

My New Sight: Interviews with Brand New Volunteers!

Wed, 09/16/2015 - 11:04am
Have you wondered what beginning a long-term service project would be like? What is hard, surprising, different, and inspiring about it? Follow the stories of Grace, Sarah, Mikaela, Ryan, Michelle, and more, in our “My New Sight” section of our blog this month.
My New Sight: Grace CarrollGrace Carroll began serving with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) in Biloxi, Mississippi this August. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May 2015. In her free time she enjoys swimming, running, hiking, and, of course, Notre Dame football!
What inspired you to serve?I have been interested in teaching since I was in elementary school. My commitment to Catholic education has only grown since high school, as a student at Notre Dame. With my desire to participate in post-grad service, as well as live in an intentional faith community, ACE was the perfect fit! As the time came to make decisions about life after graduation, I could not imagine doing anything else – I felt called by the Holy Spirit to teach with ACE in an under-resourced school somewhere in the US.
What continues to inspire you, now that you've started? Every single day has challenges, and every single day has small victories. However, it can be very hard to recognize those little blessings amidst the chaos, failed lesson plans, classroom management struggles, and homesickness. Prayer has sustained me, as has my ACE community and my family. I begin each day in prayer, asking God to help me seethose blessings – whether that be a student mastering a concept, or witnessing students’ kindness to one another in the hallway, or an encouraging comment from a co-worker, or my students’ smiles when they see me in the stands at their volleyball game. God is everywhere. Learning to see Him in the hallways of my school in southern Mississippi is what sustains me. 
What is it like living in community with other volunteers?I could not do it without them, especially being in a completely new community, city, state, and region. On bad days, they leave an encouraging post-it or give you a much-needed hug when you come home or send you a prayer that strikes a chord. On good days, they are your biggest cheerleaders. There's always someone to make late-night ice cream runs with, to bounce crazy classroom activity ideas off of, and to talk through struggles with. I know that community living will not be without challenges, but we strive as a house to assume good will of one another, to be honest in our communications, and to see Christ in each person. ACE Community in Biloxi after the first week of school
Has "simple living" been a struggle so far? Again, community is huge because none of us are buying new clothes or eating out multiple times per week. We love exploring the local area and trying new food places – we just are always on the lookout for economical ways to do this! I have had a more difficult time not spending money without hesitation on classroom resources and Spanish materials!
Any short stories about your work that you'd like to share?Although I often doubt myself and my abilities as a high school teacher, I love my students. They are energetic, joyful, resilient, creative, forgiving, and kind, who never fail to make me laugh. On one of my first weekends down here, our Campus Ministry team of juniors and seniors was having their start-of-the-year retreat…at a student’s house. As one of the Campus Ministry faculty members, I found myself up at 2 AM eating s’mores with a dozen of my students at one of their houses. I couldn’t help but laugh! Welcome to Mississippi!
To learn more about serving with ACE, click here.

The Power of Compassionate Care

Mon, 09/14/2015 - 3:01pm
By Jessica Biser,  Mercy Volunteer Corps, serving in Savannah, Georgia

Mercy Volunteer Jessica Biser cares for a patient
at a clinic in Savannah, Georgia. You’re a 35 year old woman from a corrupted and poverty-stricken village in Mexico. You have three kids with hungry bellies but not enough food despite all your efforts. You’ve heard all about the “American Dream” and decide it is time for you to experience it for yourself in order to support your family. After a grueling trip, you arrive in the U.S., a place glowing with big buildings and fancy people who speak a language you don’t quite understand. Shortly after arriving, you become sick, most likely from traveling in close proximity to others. You arrive at your appointment to find a doctor who towers over you like a giant oak tree and an interpreter who speaks incomplete Spanish. After your general exam, you begin to mention dizzy spells you have been experiencing recently but the doctor looks annoyed. She doesn’t seem to care about your complaints as her attention moves to her phone. You’re unsure what an “anti-inflammatory” or “steroid injection” is and don’t exactly understand how to take your meds, but choose not to ask any more questions to this impatient doctor. You feel out of place, but remind yourself that you came here for your family you left behind in Mexico; they need your help, so you envision them and push forward.

Unfortunately, this is what immigrants experience and is more common than we wish to believe. I know because I have seen it while volunteering at a free clinic in Savannah, GA. As the interpreter, I notice the patient’s uneasiness when the doctor rolls her eyes after more than one complaint. I see the provider standing in a power stance as the patient cowers in the corner timidly. I hear the terminology used and witness the blank stares in response. But the patients have no other choice. Many Latinos flee their country out of fear, hunger, poverty or a combination of the three. Either way, they come to improve their lives, but when faced with healthcare, they have nowhere to go. Our system is imperfect and seems to create an uphill battle for undocumented Hispanic citizens with cultural barriers forming hurdles along the way. The two cultural barriers that were universal among patients I served were language and health literacy.

Language is an obvious issue. If you don’t speak the native language, how are you going to express your health concerns? Of course, you can use an interpreter but you’re placing a lot of trust and faith into a stranger to efficiently communicate and understand your problems. Unless you have family or friends who can speak English, you’re always relying on a stranger to be your voice about your own health. Language barriers are the first contributor in a patient’s removal from healthcare, literacy being the second. Doctors commonly use medical jargon that doesn’t make much sense to anyone but themselves. When you have language as an added obstacle to literacy, it’s like giving these patients braille and telling them to read it with their hands tied behind their back. It simply isn’t fair to send them on such an obstructed path for something as serious as their health. To make matters worse, they’re too intimidated to ask clarifying questions to the doctor directly so they remain in the dark about most of their care. At this point, after stumbling over two hurdles, the majority of the patients are now twice removed from their care, so distant from connecting with the physician that the whole visit feels almost useless to them. Without a bilingual physician who will take time to explain medical terminology to patients, these problems will persist.

This experience motivates me to provide compassionate care to patients in an open environment. It will remind me, as a physician, to be empathetic, understanding and to really find where the patient stands in all aspects of their life so I can meet them at their level. I cannot change our healthcare system, but I can change my interactions with these individuals and advocate for a higher quality of care for Latino immigrants. My hope as a future physician is to eliminate cultural barriers by providing care to Hispanic patients in a comfortable environment where the patients feel they can express their concerns freely without judgment. Not only has the Lord called me to do his service, but specifically to be his hand and heart in medicine for those who otherwise may not receive care. I would like to end with a poem representation of the immigrants I have been referring.

Will you accept my differences?
The Mercy Volunteer Corp. teaches the support staff the art of yoga. The ones you see so clearly
Of language, ethnicity, and education
Contrasting those of your own
Shift your perspective and you’ll see we’re the same
Experiencing pain, love, loss and joy

My knees wear bruises of forgiveness
My skin dressed in stains of suffering
For I have left my country, my home
Seeking your support and guidance
But instead I’m seen as rotten fruit
Unpleasant and useless

My hands reach for approval
My ears listen for hope
My heart screams for love
My eyes seek justice
My mouth remains shut
Because nobody can hear me

I’m willing to give you my hands scarred with labor
To give my mind etched with experience
To give my heart overflowing with gratitude
The question is,
Are you willing to move past your stigmas?
Are you willing to accept?

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, click here!