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Stories of service from Catholic Volunteer Network volunteers.
Updated: 44 min 46 sec ago

Introducing our Serving with Sisters Ambassadors!

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 3:24pm
Many CVN programs offer volunteers the chance to live and work alongside men and women religious. This experience, whether one week or one year in length, is a unique opportunity to experience the rich charism of religious communities, grow in faith through prayer, lend a hand to their ministries in service to the poor, and develop long-lasting relationships. CVN's Serving with Sisters Ambassadors bring awareness to current volunteers’ journeys of spirituality, social justice, community, and simplicity in CVN member programs sponsored by Catholic sisters. Through creative reflection, conversation, and experience, Ambassadors share the joy, energy and fulfillment of serving alongside Catholic Sisters. 

Meet our 2017-2018 Ambassadors! 

Melissa FeitoHometown: Miami, FLCollege: Tufts UniversityVolunteer program: Loretto VolunteersPlacement site: Interfaith Voices- Washington, D.C.One word to describe your service year: Gumptious 

Ada LeeHometown: Queens, NYCollege: St. John's University (B.S.; M.B.A.)Volunteer program: Vincentian Service Corps WestPlacement site: Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep - San FranciscoOne word to describe your service year: Creative

Catherine NguyenHometown:  Annandale, VA College:  George Mason UniversityVolunteer program: St. Joseph Worker Program – Orange, CAPlacement site: Saint Anne Catholic SchoolOne Word to describe your service year:  Renewal 

Allison ReynoldsHometown: Penfield, NYCollege: Le Moyne CollegeVolunteer program: Good Shepherd Volunteers
Placement site: Sayariy Warmi - BoliviaOne word to describe your service year: Humbling

Jessica VozellaHometown: Boston, MACollege: College of the Holy CrossVolunteer program: St. Joseph Worker Program - Los Angeles, CAPlacement site: St. Joseph Center - Homeless Service CenterOne word to describe your year of service: Inviting

Stay tuned to hear from CVN Ambassadors over the course of their service year! 

To Give Fully of Oneself

Tue, 11/21/2017 - 1:39pm
By Ali Kenny, Amigos de Jesus

This particular experience took place five nights before my return from Amigos de Jesus to the United States, during my last night of turno (the term we used for the shift when the caretaking staff had to spend a night sleeping with the kids in their dorm).
“Ok ladies,” I started. “I want to make sure that you all know what these next few days are going to look like. Tonight is my last night of turno. On Saturday, the hogar (home) is having a going away party for us volunteers. Monday will be my last night here and then on Tuesday morning, I’ll be leaving…for a long time.” There was a titter of disapproval as a few girls began processing out loud.
“Girls, girls,” I called out, “we can talk more about this tomorrow morning. And remember what I said about crying? We can’t do it yet because we have so many fun things to do before I go.”
“When can we start crying Ali?” asked Savana.
I smiled and said, “On Monday Susie Q. We can all cry on Monday.”
I walked to each of the girls’ beds, handing out the gummy vitamins that I brought each time I had turno. “And because it’s my last turno,” I announced, “everyone gets two vitamins tonight!” A cheer of tiny voices rang out against the cement walls of the dorm.
Once everyone had their second gummy vitamin in hand or mouth, I proceeded to read a bedtime story. Girls started drifting off to sleep, with the sounds of whispers and giggles fading into the night. I began the second book only to see less and less heads peep out of the bunk beds to look at each page’s pictures. I finished reading, turned off the dorm lights, and laid down with a sigh. Within seconds, four girls approached the bed. Elena literally jumped on top of me, snuggling into my right side, Ariana slipped into the bed on my left, Francisca started stroking my hair, with Natasha next her, leaning into my face with a goofy smile. Four seconds flat.

My mind started racing. I just got rid of my last bout of lice…Elena and Ariana definitely have it. I don’t want lice again! I’m not going to get any sleep. Shoot. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day. Ariana could wet the bed, she hasn’t been doing very well with the pee chart lately. Oh Francisca, your hands are so dirty. I hope they all don’t make too much noise and wake the other girls. Then suddenly, all those thoughts simply stopped. I felt like God had given me the energy and the desire to take it all on; to let these girls have me in the way that they needed me in that moment. I did make Elena and Ariana scoot down so they wouldn’t be sleeping on my pillow, and I did ask Ariana to use the bathroom. But then after that, I just laid there, on my back with both arms around these two girls I had given my life to for the past year, crying as Francisca caressed my face and as Natasha rested her head on my shoulder.
I felt like a gaping chasm, so vulnerable in its openness, but so free in it too, as if I could swallow anything with my self and manage it just fine; thinking that the selfish ways by which I had guarded myself against these girls seemed so foolish. I wanted all of them in this moment, I wanted these girls to fall into me and land safely in the special place that I had been preparing for them all year.
Francisca left fairly quickly. I was surprised she had even shown me that much affection as we weren’t particularly close. Elena immediately fell asleep; she must have been even more tired than I was! Natasha darted around the bed every few minutes, only to spring up right next to my face again. At one point she circled the bed with her arm touching my body, outlining me with her little fingers. After a few minutes I beckoned Natasha close and told her that I love her. She told me that she loved me too, and then quietly climbed into her own bed.

That left me with Ariana, who was clearly still awake, as she was cooing and wriggling around next to me. I pulled her in close, this little girl who taught me the importance of sensitivity, affection, and patience; this little girl who showed me what kind of mother I wanted to be for my own children; this little girl who God made perfect.

“Usted es mi mami,” Ariana murmured as she fell into her own dreamland, as she fell into her own place within me. And for the first time, I felt like I could, perhaps, be worthy of the name.

To learn more about service opportunities through Amigos de Jesus, please click here.

Who knew cornflakes could make you cry?

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 9:26am
By Kimmie Fink, NPH USA International Volunteer Program
Who knew cornflakes could make you cry? Upon my return from my year as a volunteer teacher at El Rancho Santa Fe (Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos’ home for orphaned and abandoned children in Honduras), I remember visiting my hometown grocery store and feeling completely overwhelmed. The sheer number of choices on the shelf left me in tears. I gained more than I gave as a volunteer, becoming enriched in friendships I still hold dear and learning about myself, but what I value most is what volunteering taught me about humility and gratitude.

When I left for the Ranch, I’d been teaching for seven years. Already National Board Certified and Teacher of the Year, I was a bigshot teacher and figured I had this year in the bag. When my supervisor in the Montessori school shared that the previous coordinator had not wanted me to come because I was a “know-it-all,” I was horrified. In that moment, I decided that I couldn’t let my pride be an issue. I jumped in willingly to all my teaching duties, including sweeping and mopping the floor, distributing watermelon for snack, and checking heads for nits. When I got back to teaching in the U.S., I swore I would never again utter the words, “That’s not my job.”
The part of my role I enjoyed most was being a mentor to the teenage girls. I spend my evenings and every other weekend in hogar, getting my hair braided, helping with homework, and just listening. After spending the night there, I contracted lice. I was embarrassed, but I was soon overcome by the kindness my girls showed me. They washed my hair with special shampoo, dried it with their towels, and combed it with their brushes. It was an incredibly humbling experience, and it gave me a great deal of perspective about how other people live, and the dignity with which all people deserve to be treated.

Spending a year in Honduras certainly made me a better teacher, but perhaps more important, it’s made me a better parent. When you volunteer for NPH, you learn to live simply. I used one plate the entire year, and I could delight my girls with a new bar of soap for each of them. I worry that children in this country are over-stimulated and even entitled. As I raise my daughter, who turns 2 next month, I want her to appreciate what she has. I hope she’ll grow up to be like my friend’s 8-year-old, who on her birthday, asked for bags of cat and dog food to be donated to the local animal shelter. We’re a military family, and we hope that our travels take us abroad so that our daughter can learn from diverse experiences and perspectives.

Volunteering abroad also made me confront the privileges bestowed upon me as a citizen of the United States. I have a passport that can take me anywhere. A Honduran friend struggled to get a visa even though he’d been accepted to a college program here. I have reliable access to emergency services. The year I served, a young pequeña died on the way to the hospital in Tegucigalpa. I am relatively safe walking around the streets of my city. Friends of mine have been assaulted and mugged in the streets of the capital. There’s nothing quite like coming home to make you realize how good you have it.

I am thankful for the life with which I’ve been blessed, but I don’t think gratitude is enough. I would argue that it is with privilege (as well as power) that comes great responsibility. It’s why I’ve continued to be involved with NPH. I’ve helped at fundraisers and galas, organized a read-in at my school to benefit the kids of NPH, and now I serve on the Diversity Task Force, which seeks to recruit and support volunteers of color. I am in regular contact with my five godchildren. As a family, we have more than enough, and so we give.
If volunteering taught me anything, it’s how very lucky I am. I’m perhaps most fortunate in that I had the opportunity to be a volunteer. I held the hand of an injured child at the clinic. I made bread for 500 people. I sang Little Mermaid songs as I tucked a toddler in bed. Each moment was a gift, and I carry those gifts with me -- from the classroom to the nursery and yes, even to the grocery store. 
To learn more about service opportunities through NPH USA, please click here.

Mission is Forever.

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 5:00am
By Clare Pressimone, Salesian Lay Missioners
Mission has a way of getting under your skin. And it doesn’t go away when you return home. It sticks with you forever after.
I discovered that after I returned home from being in Cambodia for twenty months as a Salesian Lay Missioner. While I was in Cambodia I got very involved in the lives of the people I lived and worked with. It started out simple, such as joining daily mass with the Salesian Sisters with whom I lived or sharing a mango with my fellow teachers; but then it got more personal to where one of the sisters knew she could count on me to drink the other half of her soda, another relied on me to get her to mass and the teachers were inviting me to housewarming parties, weddings and funerals. My time in Cambodia was special. It became my home away from home. The people around me were my second family.

And then I moved back to the United States.
I am lucky to have a great family here, which made my transition back into American life much easier, as they were very supportive and understanding of the struggle. But transitioning back into old habits and American life-style doesn’t erase all of the life that you had lived elsewhere. I had developed a true life in Cambodia, and that is going to stay with me always. I still have my memories and the countless stories and photos that tell of the amazing time I had in my Cambodian life; and I can’t simply leave that behind.
When I returned I realized that I needed a way to continue my mission back at home. Even if I wasn’t with the same people who defined my Cambodian mission or in the same place that dictated my mission life-style, there had to be a way that I could continue living out the values I gained as a missioner. And thankfully I found two.
First, I realized that although I was no longer on mission, that didn’t mean I couldn’t use my experience to encourage others to do the same. A mission, or volunteer, experience changes you in more ways than one could ever guess. That is a daunting prospect for many, but if its value and importance can be shared in a meaningful way then many may be able to embrace the opportunity. Therefore, I have begun volunteering for my program, Salesian Lay Missioners, by recruiting at colleges and universities and participating in discernment weekends. I realized that my mission is a powerful, personal story that could inspire others to break out of their traditional life-style and go experience a different culture and way of life.

Second, I acknowledged my passion for international development and took strides to get involved in that world. What I saw and experienced in Cambodia is a reality that all too few are aware of: children unable to attend school; students losing focus in class because they are hungry; families being forced out of their homes and being made to live in trash heaps. This is a sad but true reality, not just for many Cambodians, but for many around the world. It is a hard reality to understand if you don’t see it first-hand, so I had a unique experience of seeing what vulnerability and marginalization look like in other parts of the world and I wanted to put that to good use. A few months after my return I began working for a Catholic international NGO, which has allowed me to work directly in support of the needs of people in developing communities, like those which I witnessed first-hand in Cambodia. Furthermore, I have enrolled in Fordham University’s International Political Economy and Development (IPED) Master’s program. This will allow me to gain a deeper understanding of development from many different angles and allow me to implement what I experienced in Cambodia through my studies. I am looking forward to further studying the realities that are different from ours here in the United States and working to ensure that people around the world are afforded the human dignity they deserve.

Every day I miss being in Cambodia and I am counting down the minutes until I return and greet my family face-to-face once again (thank God for communication technology!). But for now, I am going to do everything I can to continue to live out my mission in my life here in the United States. I will forever be grateful for my mission experience, and I will continue to journey on this mission every day.
To learn more about service opportunities through Salesian Lay Missioners, please click here.

A Letter from San Antonio & Belarus

Tue, 10/10/2017 - 6:00am
By Gabrielle Prieto, Volunteers in Development, Education and Services (VIDES)
Dear Future Volunteer,
I hear you. The commitment is hard and there are a million reasons why you shouldn’t volunteer. The truth is if you want an excuse to avoid volunteer work, you will undoubtedly come up with one: I have no time; It’s too far; or in my case, I don’t speak the language. But I must be honest with you, you’re limiting yourself and depriving yourself and others of a gift so wide-reaching that the million reasons to postpone or never do it are not enough. It simply won’t add up. My time with Volunteers in Development, Education and Service (VIDES) was one of the most powerful experiences that has brought me closer to my faith, and closer to the person that I’m meant to be. Through the training service in San Antonio, to my service abroad in Belarus, each community taught me and gave me so much more than I could ever give them, and thank God, I will never be the same again.            Part of our training for VIDES was running a camp for a week for unaccompanied minors found crossing the border. These children are from Central America and sent to find a life away from the violence of the drug cartels. Some are found alone, and brought to a center like the one in San Antonio. I was anxious about my limited Spanish skills. However, when the goal is to simply be there for the kids, to have fun and just love them, language is the least important factor.

On the first day, a few of the boys zeroed in and, like teenage boys do, tried to intimidate and show-off. One had an eye that was damaged and a wild look about him. He approached me on the basketball court, grabbed the ball, and said that he was dangerous. If you’re a girl who is two inches shorter than the young man saying it, it wouldn’t be outrageous for you to act nervously. Fortunately, I confused the word for dangerous with the word for friendly. After a few comical moments of me saying, “Friendly? We’re friends?”, he chuckled, shook his head, and replied, “Si, somos amigos.” I played basketball everyday with him and the others, and at the end of camp he thanked us so profoundly for allowing them to forget, however briefly, of their troubles and fears. Every night, I repeat his name in my prayers along with the other 24 boys who taught me to laugh and find joy when all you might see is darkness. This was just the beginning of my mission, and once again, I would learn about service and joy, but this time thousands of miles away in a remote village in Belarus.

            Once you decide to serve, if you’re anything like me, you enter a period of arrogance. It’s the part where you believe that YOU will make their lives better. Yes, you’re a gift, but you are simply the hands for God to do his will. Flying to Smorgon, Belarus I pridefully imagined bringing my faith to a tired people. I pictured myself as a hero, a saint. It’s humbling to remember, and so embarrassing to admit. Once there, I found myself in a community so strong in faith and virtue, I wished that just an ounce of their unyielding strength could be brought home. Smorgon is a town historically situated on the battlefront of two world wars, earning the name “the dead city”.  After the treaties were signed, those that found their way home were publicly forced to renounce their God and families, all while secretly continuing a burning devotion and tradition that decades of Soviet oppression couldn't smother. The scars from the forced deportations, collectivization, famines and wars were etched on the weary faces of the babushkas and preserved in sepia printed photos of family members and friends that never returned home. Despite the hardships they sought joy in the peace that allows them to live their beautiful and faithful lives. The sisters worked tirelessly to provide friendship, faith, stability and virtue for the children and youth of the community, asking nothing in return. Every mass was packed, and every day after school, the community center echoed with the laughter of kids learning their faith and playing with the sisters, priests and brothers. Everyone worked together to better their community without complaint or competition to be a hero or martyr. Once again I felt myself grow as my ego fell to the wayside.

            It’s startling to have your life, blessings, and shortcomings laid out in front of you and you either change or ignore it. In San Antonio, I met children forced to grow-up years before they should have. They needed someone to treat them like the children that they are and love them unconditionally. In Belarus, I lived with people who kept their faith and families alive under the most painful and dark periods of human history. It was an opportunity to grow into a more complete Catholic, and I’m forever grateful. So, my dear friend, take the leap. Whether it’s service in your own hometown, or thousands of miles away, stretch beyond yourself. Say yes to God’s call for you to reach out to your fellow man. The cost will be the person you were before, but the reward is the person you are after.
Your friend and sister in Christ,
Gabrielle Prieto
To learn more about service opportunities through VIDES, please click here.

I Chose Service: Jenette Vogt, Christian Appalachian Project

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 8:42am
After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Jenette Vogt Volunteer Program: Christian Appalachian ProjectLocation: Jackson County, Kentucky Hometown: Sigel, ILCollege: Eastern Illinois University '15, Adult and Community Education major
How did you first learn about post-graduate service? For as long as I can remember, I have known about people going on mission trips. Most of these people were religious life or older adults who had retired. I didn’t find out about post-graduate service until my senior year of college. I was thinking about volunteering for a few months after I graduated and my campus minister told me about yearlong service programs that I should consider.   
What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? I started looking for programs in the Catholic Volunteer Network booklet and I was open to all the programs in there. I was fortunate enough to be supported by my parents, willing to move anywhere, and financially stable which opened the doors to many great programs. I heard about the Christian Appalachian Project through my Newman Center at EIU. My Newman community has been attending an Alternative Spring Break trip down in Kentucky for several years now. While I went on other Alternative Spring Break trips, I had heard great things about CAP. Because my friends had such meaningful experiences at CAP, I thought that I would check out their program first. I did a little research, filled out the application, and went down for a perspective interview. The perspective interview was my deciding factor to volunteer for a year with CAP. Spending a few days in Kentucky with other volunteers, getting to see where I would live, and meeting the people I would work with was a great experience. I knew the minute I left after those few short days that I would never regret deciding to serve with the Christian Appalachian Project for a year. 

Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. My service placement is at Camp Andrew Jackson. Throughout the year, I have been working with the youth of Jackson and Owsley County in their elementary schools. I work in the schools four days a week assisting teachers and trying to help the students learn. Most of my time is spent teaching math to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. Sometimes I go into the classroom and work in small groups with the students, while other times I may pull one or two students out for individualized help. I also have had the opportunity to teach Anti-Bullying and Consumerism to the fourth graders in Owsley County and Jackson County. My favorite part of this service placement has been the amount of time we get to spend in the schools. I am so grateful for the opportunity to get to work with these students multiple times a week and to have had the chance to see them grow over the past nine months.
Living in community this year was nothing like I expected. I grew up in a big family so I thought I knew what it was like to live with eight other people under the same roof. The thing about family is they have to love you no matter what. Living in an intentional community meant we would all have to communicate on what we expected out of each other. Community dinners, chores, and many other things were discussed at our first couple house meetings. It was great getting to know all of my housemates those first couple months. If you ever really want to get to know strangers, move into a house with them. You learn things very quickly about each other. Overall, I have met some of the most amazing people this year, and I know our friendships will continue long after my time here in Kentucky is finished. 
What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? I think my spiritual growth is the biggest thing I have gained this year. For the first time in my life, my faith was completely up to me. My parents and campus ministers were not here to guide me through my faith journey. I could either stop practicing my faith altogether or jump in even farther and push myself to grow. I decided to continue to learn and develop my faith. I really tried to push myself by attending daily mass when I get the chance and dedicating more time to daily prayer. 
What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? Do it! I promise you will not regret it. This year of service was the best decision I could have made. The student loans, careers, apartments, and everything else you worry about after college will all be there when you are finished serving. Whether you want to volunteer for a few weeks, a few months, or even a year, I encourage you to do take the plunge and do it.  Saint Teresa of Calcutta said it best “If we pray, we will believe; If we believe, we will love; If we love, we will serve.” Now is your chance to do it!

To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

I Chose Service: Theresa Kennedy, Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 9:52am
After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Theresa KennedyVolunteer Program: Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No GainLocation: Aston, PAHometown: Albany, NYCollege: Princeton University '14, Political Science major
How did you first learn about post-graduate service? I learned about my particular service program through Catholic Volunteer Network’s website. I saw an immediate posting for the Franciscan Volunteers program in Aston, PA, and I happened to be looking for a faith-based opportunity for the near future. Additionally, I was already living in Philadelphia, so it wasn’t a huge move for me. When I found out I could serve on a farm, I became very interested in applying to the program, and I contacted our program director, Sara Marks.
What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? This fall, I was deciding between a couple of service programs as well as a few full-time jobs. I had just finished a summer position working with the Free Library of Philadelphia on a children’s literacy program, and was interested in continuing some form of direct service, but this time, in a faith-based environment. I applied to different full-time positions in the areas of youth ministry, social justice advocacy, and faith-based education, but I didn’t have much luck. 
I decided to look on the Catholic Volunteer Network website, and there I found postings for two different service opportunities that appealed to me. After visiting both programs, and comparing the direct service versus indirect nature of each program, I decided to pursue the Franciscan Volunteers program in Aston. Here I would be within a smaller community and working on an organic farm. The opportunity to be outside and working with food and nutrition really interested me, and so for a number of reasons, this is the program I chose. I feel confident that I would have greatly enjoyed and grown from the other program I visited, but felt called to pursue the Franciscan Volunteers program, and have been very grateful for what I have learned and how I have grown this year.
Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. As a long-term volunteer on Red Hill Farm, I perform farmhand duties to keep the farm running daily and from season to season. In addition, I co-teach “farm-to-school” nutrition classes and cooking classes three times a month to the third and sixth grades at an urban Catholic school nearby. Red Hill Farm is a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm in a rural Philadelphia suburb. It is owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, and has been functioning on an organic produce-only farm-share model for over 17 years (though the farm has existed for many years, and even had cows at points!). My work on the farm includes seeding, planting, weeding, tilling, irrigating, washing, harvesting—you name it! I am humbled by the experience, and have become so much more aware of and grateful for the workers who put the food on our table each day, as it is hard work! It has been a blessing to be outside each day (in all types of weather!) functioning as one with the earth.
My experience with community has been extremely fruitful. It is the first time since high school that I really have functioned in a family-type setting, as I am accountable for what I do (or don’t do), where I go, and how I act. It was, at first, a more challenging transition perhaps than I had expected, but it has proven to be so rewarding. I have met two wonderful women with whom I pray, cook, talk, laugh, do yoga, and cry. By living with others, you certainly get to know them well. Though we have had our struggles with communication and responsibilities of duties, we have had to work through them, and as a result, our skills in these fields have developed greatly. These skills are absolutely necessary for life, and I am so thankful to have grown and shared with my community in the process. 
What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? My spiritual growth has been exponential this service year. My faith life has developed so much in terms of prayer, theology, and personal practice. I have learned about the Franciscan charism, theology, and all about St. Francis’ life. I have participated in new worship styles, including Taize, contemplative prayer, and meditation. I have developed a more intensive daily personal practice of prayer, reading, and meditation. I have met regularly with a spiritual director, formed deep relationships with the sisters, and shared my faith daily with my community members. Spiritual development has been probably the greatest aspect in which I have grown this year, and I am so thankful for this. Franciscan Volunteers has been true to its mission of faith formation.
Though faith formation has been the greatest space of growth for me personally, I have also grown personally and professionally. My personal development has been through my community life. I have become a more accountable, responsible person, and a much better communicator. In terms of professional development, I have become more confident in my skills and talents, and have been willing to share my ideas more easily. I have also come to value my co-workers more than ever before, as fellow brothers and sisters who need and deserve love and respect just as I do. I feel very prepared for whatever the next step in my life will bring.
What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? I would say to do it! Take the chance (As Mother Bachmann said, “No risk, no gain,” which is where the name of our program comes from). There is so much that we can learn about ourselves and others, and the relation between ourselves and others, which is so necessary for finding ourselves and figuring out who we want to be. In the early years out of college, we begin to solidify the person we hope to be for the rest of our lives, and it is for this reason that a year of service can truly have a lifelong impact. So, take the chance! No risk, no gain. Challenge yourself to be vulnerable, learn by doing, and find your God-given purpose.

To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

A Poverty of Connection: Loneliness as a Social Justice Issue

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 6:00am
By Maria Shibatsuji, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry  
“You’ll come back next month, right?” Alice, one of the residents of the Senior Buildings I visit suddenly asked me. The question took me by surprise. I had finished taking her blood pressure and a few moments earlier we had been discussing our current crocheting projects. As a Program Assistant for the Tele-Heart Program at Bon Secours Hospital, part of my service involves Community Outreach, visiting Senior Apartments in West Baltimore to conduct blood pressure screenings, teach nutrition classes, and help out with the monthly newsletter education. While my supervisor, a cardiac nurse, goes over our newsletter, I take the blood pressures of the senior residents who are present. Alice had been a regular participant in the newsletter education event we hold in her building. She had severe arthritis in her hands and because her disease had progressed, she could no longer use the controller on her motorized wheelchair. When I assured Alice I would of course be back in a month for another newsletter education and blood pressure screening, she replied, “Okay, because I’ll be waiting for you.” Her comment warmed and broke my heart simultaneously.

Social injustices are caused by an imbalance of power and resources, perpetuating feelings of powerlessness and isolation. I am discovering that loneliness is a social justice issue that impacts many of the people I serve. I see loneliness as a form of poverty; a poverty of connection. I would be naive to think that seniors come to my monthly nutrition classes and blood pressure screenings for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge and to monitor their blood pressure. I am realizing that they also come for the conversation, a chance to connect with another fellow human being, and the opportunity to share their wisdom through story-telling and conversation. Talking about loneliness feels taboo, but the truth is, we all have experienced moments of loneliness; of wishing someone, a good friend, a family member, would reach out to us via text or a phone call. While I work primarily with seniors, I know experiencing loneliness is not limited to the elderly. I know when I experience loneliness, I am accessing one of the most human parts of me; a part of me that connects me to the human race, the natural yearning for connection and belonging. We are not the only humans who have felt lonely before and we won’t be the last ones to feel this way.

I am realizing that one of the most important ways I am practicing justice this year is providing an antidote to loneliness; through cultivating connection and developing relationships with those living in poverty-stricken areas. If loneliness results in an individual not feeling heard, practicing justice creates a space where one is acknowledged and fully heard. I have chosen to be a constant companion to the seniors, even if it is only for a year; to be a voice that validates their experiences and encourages inclusiveness. It is in this way that we mutually experience justice.

Anticipating my year of service, I expected to encounter emotional walls that the people I were to serve had put up. I believed these walls would prevent me from fully connecting with them. I remember putting myself in the senior residents’ shoes and concluding that I would have a difficult time letting a stranger into my life. Little did I know, the walls that I imagined were of my own. Transcending cultural borders and age differences, the senior residents I have interacted with have welcomed me into their lives, sharing more deeply than I ever have when I first meet someone. I have had the privilege to learn about their social backgrounds, details about their family members, see their childhood pictures, and tour their apartments. From the sharing of their memories, I have a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of the people of Baltimore. While taking blood pressures and engaging in patient education is important, my actions are futile if not paired with what many seniors value most: the time I spend with them one-on-one. My favorite, and the most important aspects of my position are the same: being fully present to each individual I serve. I listen to and respond to their stories of finding hope amidst change and challenge. The gift of their presence, in turn, has broken down my walls and I hope they feel the same joy they bring to my heart.

To learn more about service opportunities through Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, please click here.

I'm Not Sure...

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:00am
By Brian Bayer, Rostro de Cristo Volunteer 
Before I knew nothing, I knew everything. I had just graduated from John Carroll University and knew exactly where my next year would lead me – with a Bachelor’s degree in hand and two week-long immersion trips to El Salvador under the belt, this social justice warrior was ready to fix Ecuador. After all, a minor in Spanish and an open heart were all the tools needed to address the daunting poverty-scape of the developing world, right?
Confidently armed with these skills, I remember rolling through the disparate sprawl of urban Guayaquil towards our final destination in suburban Arbolito, thinking about how I could follow the famed Ignatian aphorism to “go forth and set the world on fire.” A free bike maintenance service was my first idea – how great would it be if I could use my knowledge of bike repair to offer people a free service? Or maybe repainting the dilapidated benches and pews of the parish would help! I was ready to sweat, and sweat I did; but not for any of the reasons I thought I would.

Over the course of the next year, I witnessed, experienced, and loved the true faces of those trapped in the whirring cycle of systemic poverty. But in order to do that, I had to first sacrifice the toxic notion that I could do for others and instead embrace the idea of being with others. This is the mission of the organization with which I volunteered– Rostro de Cristo, the Face of Christ. We call this form of service a ministry of presence, the idea that our actions are temporary but our presence, our being, in the lives of those around us, regardless of the socioeconomic barriers that distinguish our backgrounds, is the most essential aspect of modern service. 
During the day, I did the standard activity trademarked to so many programs: teaching English to kids who don’t have access to great education otherwise. It was definitely rewarding every time I saw that bulb light up over a student’s head when the First Conditional finally clicked, and it gave me a sense of mission and purpose. But this part-time job of playing teacher was merely the backdrop of a deeper experience. At the core of our program were the five pillars that made up the Way of Life – Spirituality, Simplicity, Service, Community, and Hospitality. Our jobs provided a lens through which to contextualize these values, but our time with neighbors and each other helped us to truly understand them.
At the end of the day, it’s all about intentionality. How are my decisions affecting the world? Where do I fit into the bigger picture? And is that bigger picture a portrait of justice for all or justice’s evil twin brother– privilege?

Our seven-person community of volunteers worked in different parts of the city in different jobs – education, after school programs, healthcare, and community outreach programs, to name a few. But each night, after an exhausting day of being present to the Ecuadorian community, we broke bread together and eagerly shared the highlights of our days.
For as many days as our stories were uplifting, there were a proportionate number that were heartbreaking. What do you do when a friend tells you that they won’t have water to bathe until the next day at some point (maybe)? What do you say when a mother of three tells you in confidence that her husband hits her?
The answer is: Nothing. There is nothing you can do or say to change this reality. You listen. You cry. You try unsuccessfully to wrap your head around why it’s like this. And you pray that they will be able to find comfort in the solace of God and each other.
As we digested our food each night, so we digested our days. We had community and spirituality nights each week where we sat down in the candle-lit corner of the house that we designated as our chapel and worked through the glorious and devastating mysteries that we were experiencing. I found that I was uncharacteristically silent during most of these nights – I yearned to share my feelings about what I had witnessed and gone through each day; but in the soft glow of the candles in the company of my volunteer family, I could rarely find the words to even begin to express my thoughts. I guess not much has changed.

The founder of our program, Father Jim Ronan, once told us that this one year of service was akin to filling up a cargo container to the brim, which we would then gradually unload for the rest of our lives at the unlikeliest of times.
So now it’s been three years, and I’m just starting to crack the combination lock on that cargo container, wading through the ocean of experiences and trying to figure out what it all means. I no longer live in the sweltering equatorial heat of a simple concrete house cooled only by grinding ceiling fans; I no longer cook for six other people on a strict poverty budget; I no longer feign simplicity to strive towards solidarity; I no longer dizzy myself spinning dust-covered five-year-olds out of their arm sockets to offer them a moment of the much-needed attention they might not otherwise get. So what does it all mean? I don’t know. In fact, I know less now than I ever have. But maybe that’s the whole point – it’s not about knowing, or doing; it’s about being and loving, and beyond that everything else will fall into place.

To learn more about service opportunities through Rostro de Cristo, please click here. 

More Than Just a Volunteer

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 8:30am
2017 Volunteer Story Contest WinnerBy Andrea Haller, Mercy Volunteer Corps

Dear Future Volunteer,
This soon-to-be title of yours makes you so much more than you now know. Yes, you will be volunteering as a nurse, or teacher, or social worker, or care provider. These are all important roles – but as your service progresses, you will realize you have taken on many more roles than you first intended. 
Last August, I joined Mercy Volunteer Corps, and set off for Georgetown, Guyana in South America, where I began my year of service as Intervention Specialist for a primary school at a boys’ orphanage. I was thrilled to bring my knowledge and skills to a place that had never had special education services before. I would be able to help children who felt stuck. Within the first month, I realized that I was needed for many more reasons. 
When the boys cut their feet while running barefoot in the field, they needed someone to clean and bandage their wounds. I became a nurse, even though I hate the sight of blood. When they got into rough fights with other boys, they needed hugs and consolation, so I became a comforting mother to boys who couldn’t be with their families. My boys also needed a girl’s advice as they developed crushes, so I became a friend with whom they could share gossip and laugh about their flirting slip-ups. They craved attention, so I became their biggest fan and cheerleader. My favorite role of all came when the boys needed someone to lovingly pick on – so I became their sister. I started the year with three brothers and now I am proud to have 55.
My heart overflows with love when I realize these new roles I have been granted through service. I did not intend for this to happen – however, I'm so glad it did, because it is the most rewarding part of my volunteer experience. The additional roles you take on will be the most meaningful and fulfilling piece of your service. You will realize your strength, your purpose, and how deeply you can love. Your service has no limits, so let go of expectations for your work and dive in. Of course, it is far from easy, but I promise it is worth it.

Over time, I realized that I also had to make time for self-care. I couldn't always fill every role when I neglected myself. I learned that self-care was necessary to be healthy and to fulfill my many roles successfully. So as you dive in, don't lose yourself. Your first  role is to take good care of yourself. When you fulfill that role successfully you will become a volunteer, and more. 
Let yourself go beyond your title of nurse, teacher, social worker, care provider, and so forth. You are a volunteer now. Take that title and be everything you can be for the people you serve. You will be fulfilled and transformed. Amazing roles and experiences are ahead, Future Volunteer, I assure you.
Love, Andrea HallerIntervention Specialist (Nurse, Mom, Friend, Cheerleader, Sister)

To learn more about service opportunities through Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here.  

I Chose Service: Antoinette Moncrieff, Salesian Lay Missioners

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 5:17pm
My name is Antoinette Moncrieff, and I am from Ypsilanti, Michigan. I am 27 years old and I served September 2013 – August 2014 as a Salesian Lay Missioner at Hogar Sagrado Corazon, a girls’ orphanage in Montero, Bolivia. I suppose I am a bit of a rogue since I chose a year of service in the midst of college, rather than waiting until I graduated! At the time I went to Bolivia, I was sort of in between majors and both feeling disillusioned about higher education and burning to make a positive difference in the world. I considered the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as well as the Vincentian Volunteer Corps, but ultimately I went with the SLMs because of their special focus on children. I have always loved children! The calling I felt to international service work was itself rooted in children; I distinctly remember sitting in my physics class, wishing I could be doing something else with my life, and feeling a strong desire to go love the children who had no one to love them. My boyfriend at the time had done a year in the Amazon with the SLM’s, so I was somewhat familiar with the organization. 
My time in Bolivia was one of the rawest, most pivotal periods of my life. The girls I worked with were a special group of children. Bolivia does not have a foster system and so the children who live in orphanages are not only kids who are missing parents but also kids who are there for all the same reasons that kids might be in foster care in the United States; these included poverty as well as having been removed from the home by the Bolivian equivalent of Child Protective Services for all sorts of abuse, abandonment and neglect.  I learned nine months into my volunteer period that our Hogar was a sort of last – chance asylum for all the kids that other orphanages didn’t know how to handle. Some of the real challenges we faced included sexual abuse within the Hogar itself as young survivors attempted to process the abuse they had experienced through exploiting younger kids.  Stealing from staff and fellow children was a common occurrence; they definitely broke into my room several times before the lock was fixed!  While at the Hogar, I saw and experienced hunger and poverty firsthand. Breakfast and dinner were often a piece of bread; we tended to fare better at lunch, which was usually a mixture of meat scraps, vegetables and rice, but once went a whole week where all we had for lunch too was a bowl of soup apiece.   
Despite all these challenges, my time in Bolivia was still full of joy. I saw many small miracles, every day. I experienced firsthand on a daily basis how far a little bit of love and a safe place can go in the life of a child. I watched a very sick and depressed little girl, who had spent her early childhood years wandering the streets with her schizophrenic mother, blossom under my care into a joyful little person able to talk to her peers and name the colors of her crayons. I watched a frail little toddler whose back had been injured when her mentally ill parents threw her against the wall as an infant learn to walk and begin to thrive in my care. I helped nurse a sorry little street cat who was covered in scabies back to health and reaped the benefits when she gave birth to four delightful little kittens on top of me in my bed in the middle of the night!  I was present when two of my little ones were adopted by lovely Dutch families and am able to see Facebook pictures of one of them on a regular basis. I saw two more of my little ones go to loving Bolivian families. I received constant little acts of kindness from the most ordinary people: a moto taxi driver, a nurse, a father whose little one was also in the hospital, a little girl selling bread in the market. I was surrounded by beauty, both from the rich and vibrant colors of the trees, sky, flowers, buildings and animals and from the smiles I encountered every day in the little people I cared for. 
I ended up graduating a few years after I came home, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Studies with a concentration in Elementary Education, Spanish and Women’s and Gender Studies from Eastern Michigan University in 2016. I am now working in an early childhood center and pursuing a career in Direct Entry Midwifery. I can honestly say that my time in Bolivia had a profound impact on many areas of my life. On a humorous note, I am now an expert in identifying and removing lice, navigating long-distance relationships over patchy internet access, washing clothes by hand and changing diapers with toilet paper instead of wipes. I am known for my flexibility, resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability!  On a deeper note, Bolivia for me was the catalyst for many personal questions about life, the meaning of life, faith, poverty, Western colonialism, gender inequalities, sexuality and my own past. My faith was severely challenged by the heartbreaking conditions I was living and working in, yet strengthened by the resilience I found in both the children and myself. I witnessed firsthand a lot of hypocrisy and abuse at the hands of Church representatives and the questions I brought home with me both changed the way in which family and friends looked at me and changed the way in which I looked at the world.  But I think that the questions Bolivia raised for me were ultimately good ones which have opened the door for new life and personal growth, enabling me to serve the world around me in a unique way.  I am truly grateful for the time I spent there and for the brief opportunity I had to share the lives of so many beautiful children. Every morning when I wake up I see twenty of their little faces smiling back at me from a large frame on my bedroom wall and I know that I really did make a difference in their lives.

My advice for someone considering post-graduate service? Follow your heart! Listen to what your gut is telling you, even if it doesn’t always make sense to others.  And if your heart is telling you to go serve in the middle of your schooling? Go for it!  Don’t be afraid!  Embrace your calling to serve and open your heart. I can promise you it will be broken and mended a thousand times, and it will be worth it. The world will change you, but you will also change the world! Wherever you go, and whatever you do, if you follow your heart, you can’t go wrong! I wish you all the best!
To learn more about faith-based service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

I Chose Service - Amanda Scanameo, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 6:00am
After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Amanda ScanameoVolunteer Program: Bon Secours Volunteer MinistryLocation: Baltimore, MDHometown: Muncie, INCollege: Marian University, '16 - Biology major
How did you first learn about post-graduate service? My school organized a post-graduate service fair and a mentor invited me to it (thanks for the nudge, Jeanne!). I got to speak to recruiters from several different programs and I found that I was most intrigued by the faith-based healthcare ones.
What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? Throughout college, I had an internship at a nonprofit doing clinical research that I absolutely loved. When I was applying to service programs, my boss offered me a full-time position and I was deeply torn between the two options. I found my answer through prayer in Scripture: Mark 8:22-26. In this Gospel story, Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida.  Before Jesus laid hands on him it reads, “he took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.” It was then that I realized that I was the blind man and that Jesus was leading me outside of the comfort of my own “village” to Baltimore to grow in faith and further explore my love for social justice through service. I was attracted to BSVM in particular for several reasons: growing in faith with my awesome intentional community, living in the same neighborhood I work in, continuing the mission of the Sisters of Bon Secours as a lay person, and serving in a health care setting. 
Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. My intentional community is like a family to me. Meeting five strangers on the day you move in with them and instantly being friends is an amazing experience. We spend a lot of time together doing ordinary things like cooking and commuting, and we have lots of fun exploring the city and checking out all of the (free!) things it has to offer. It’s really nice to have friends to do life with, whether we are celebrating a medical school acceptance or feeling a little extra homesick. It also provides a great space for me to process everything I’m going through this year, from living in the inner city to the joys and challenges I face at work each day. 
What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? I have gained professional experience in the field of social work, which has been an incredible opportunity for someone like me, who did not study social work as an undergrad. That being said, it has also been a whirlwind of a learning experience! I’ve been able to live in the inner city, and trust me—it’s just as beautiful and messy as the suburbs I grew up in, and not nearly as exotic as I expected. Living in community has made me a better roommate, sister, and daughter; it has helped me get better at communication (passive-aggressive sticky notes don’t count!) and building relationships based on trust and vulnerability. Living simply has helped me to better discern my true needs and live more responsibly, in a way that respects others. I’ve relied more on my faith this year than ever before, which has deepened my relationship with God. I have also learned the great value of being present to others, and been able to practice doing so in my work with dialysis patients and also in my community. 
What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? If you’re thinking about it, DO IT! Sure, post-grad service isn’t the best fit for everyone, but if you’re even considering it, chances are it would be a good fit for you. It’s a great chance for personal and professional growth. It’s an amazing opportunity for human formation and a good way to be challenged and become a better person because of it. Pray, journal, and talk with a mentor on a regular basis to help make the decision. Contact organizations that interest you and ask to speak to a current volunteer to get some perspective. Be open to the possibility and eventually to the experience!To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.