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Service in Secret

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 3:00pm
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
    Reflection by Caitlin Wolford, Urban Catholic Teacher Corps of  Boston College    
    Praise can be a wonderful—or difficult—expression to accept. It feels nice to be appreciated, noticed, and needed…but it can feel even better to give and not receive. When it’s your faith that drives your actions, your works will be authentic and you will find the intrinsic motivation to dig deeper and to serve more secretly. When your actions are controlled by righteous deeds that beg for attention, you will soon lose sight of how (and who) you are being called serve.

    I’m sure my community members can attest: While living in an intentional community with 17 others, it is difficult to do anything in private. Someone is in the family room while you’re making a phone call; somebody else is in the bathroom while you’re trying to take a shower…the only time during the day that you’re not surrounded by the community is when you are in your classroom—and even then, you are encircled by your students! Although it is nice to be surrounded by loving individuals, you may feel that your actions (and inactions) never go unnoticed.

    In the midst of busy, demanding schedules and community expectations, it’s important to reflect on how you spend your time—and how you can restructure your time to make more room for humble service and heartfelt prayer. It may be as simple as waking up a few minutes early to sneak into the kitchen and make the morning coffee, or cleaning the snow off of your neighbor’s windshield. It may involve putting down your phone before bed and saying an extra prayer for those who are experiencing difficulty in their lives. There’s something about making God’s love felt and not seeking the praise for your own gain that makes such endeavors warm and worthwhile.
PrayerHeavenly Father, 

Guide me as I walk by faith and not by sight. Allow me to trust in You in moments when I step out of my comfort zone to faithfully serve You and live in solidarity with Your people. For in this moment, I know no reward that could ever compare to the everlasting reward that is your kingdom in heaven. Help me to hear Your call and do Your will. 


Focus on: Social Justice
    As part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, what better opportunity to intentionally show others the mercy of God than during the Lenten season? Even more so, challenge yourself to live out a message of mercy in secret.  Delve deeper into these works at USCCB Jubilee year of Mercy.
Service Suggestion:
    Humble thyself to secretly serve. Complete random acts of kindness in your intentional or greater community. Become involved in at least one Spiritual and Corporal Work of Mercy and truly dedicate yourself to it—while no one is watching.

This reflection is part of our Lenten Series - Download the Lenten Guide Here

Threads of Prayer and Justice

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:00am
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Reflection by Dannis Matteson, Sisters of St Joseph of Rochester Volunteer Corps Alumni
Reflection                Prayer and justice go together. This is the theme that we find Jesus teaching in our Ash Wednesday scripture. It stems from a long tradition of the liberating God of the Exodus who calls people to lives of both prayer and justice. This prominent thread weaves its way through Judeo-Christian history and emerges in the prophetic outcries of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Isaiah exemplifies this prophetic conviction about prayer and justice: Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself? ... Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh? (Is. 58:5-7)
If you look carefully, you might notice that the lectionary omits a section right in the middle of today’s Gospel reading. What do you find between verses 6 and 16? That’s right, the Lord’s Prayer! The Our Father! Jesus is teaching his followers to pray about very specific acts similar to Isaiah: Daily bread: making sure all have enough to eat! Debts: unbinding the enslaved! Temptation: refusing the temptation to use violent tactics to bring about the Kingdom of God, rather, committing to nonviolence!*  In essence, the Our Father is a call to justice wrapped up in prayer. I believe that is the call of Ash Wednesday. That, as both the prophets and Jesus taught, our attempts at prayer be wrapped up in justice and that our just acts may be wrapped up in prayer.

PrayerGod of Justice, 

Help me to follow Your call in prayer, through listening to Your still, small voicein life, through listening to the needs of the worldin silence, through listening to my own heart’s desiresLead me to the joy of answering your callover and over again.

Focus on: Spirituality

      Responding to God's call to us is key to cultivating a lifestyle of prayer and justice. Remember that the passion and desire that emerge within you often indicate the direction in which God is calling you. The call of prayer and justice often leads to hardship and challenge. But ultimately, it leads to deep joy. Spend time this Lenten season journaling about ways that you feel called to embody a lifestyle of prayer and justice today, this year, and in the future. 

Service Suggestion:

      As a CVN Volunteer, you serve every day! Perhaps you might spend time this Lent contemplating how you will continue your lifestyle of service once your volunteering concludes. As an example, both my husband and I participated in CVN years ago. And, we have continued living out service by answering the call to help start an intentional community called the Hope House that serves Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood through The Port Ministries. Our Hope House community is committed to communal prayer, as well as practical justice in a variety of ways. As we have found, when you follow God’s call, anything is possible!
This reflection is part of our Lenten series - Download the Lenten Guide Here

Remaining Teachable

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 1:41pm
By Maureen Paley, serving with Mercy Volunteer Corps in Sacramento, CA

“Maureen, what living in community does,” she paused—a note of gentle, knowing laughter in her voice—“is unearth all of your personal demons.”

I was sitting in McKinley Park in Sacramento, about a mile from the house I share with three community mates and fellow volunteers, all 12 years younger than me, having an early morning call with my spiritual director. It was a sunny morning in mid-October, and I had been holding a dark, dense heaviness in my chest and stomach since arriving in Sacramento in August. I was transitioning from two years of living alone in the Bay Area to living with new roommates in a new city, at a new job, and with an entirely new lifestyle and life focus.

MVC member Maureen Paley harvests fruit from an orange tree
at her service site in Sacramento, CA I was hurting. It wasn’t physical pain, but it may as well have been. Deep inside, right in the center of my discomfort, my intuition was telling me exactly what I didn’t want to hear: I needed to change.

“Yep, it does,” I responded. The tears that had been brimming in my eyelids finally fell down my cheeks.

My spiritual director, a Sister of Mercy, was helping me take an honest look at the work I needed to do, the way she has done for years. She told me that living in community is, indeed, hard, and she suggested it may be an opportunity to learn everything I could about myself and the human condition.

After I hung up, I watched the wind ripple through the park’s palm trees. Fortunately, I didn’t have any doubts about the decision to commit to a year of service. I felt I was exactly where I should be and somehow everything would work out. I held onto this conviction as I got on my bike and rode home.

As I opened the backyard gate, a familiar commentary started churning in my head—the incessant itemizing of all the things my roommates were doing wrong mixed with the rehearsing of everything I wanted to get off my chest in our next community meeting.

I took a breath and asked myself: Is this what you want to give to community? This?

The commentary twisted community life into “me” versus “them” and kept my community mates at a safe distance. I realized that I didn’t want to get to the end of the year and say: You didn’t even try. I didn’t want to keep my heart locked up. But I had no idea how to will my heart to open.

My service site is a permanent supportive housing community. Many residents manage mental illness and/or a history of drug and alcohol addiction, and many are in recovery. I am a Personal Development Coach there, supporting the residents’ wellness and independence. In working with people in recovery, a funny thing happens—they keep you honest. They talk about taking inventory, letting go of resentments, and making amends. And, in hearing their stories, I started taking an honest look at my story—how I put my will before God’s, how I hold on to resentments, how I fail to make amends.

A few weeks after the call with my spiritual director, one of the residents told me that she makes intentions every morning to keep herself on track in her recovery. She starts with: “I intend to remain teachable.” The next morning, I took out my journal and wrote: “I intend to remain teachable. I intend to learn everything I can about myself and others as I live in community.”

After a few weeks, I tiptoed a little deeper into this place of trust adding: “Dear Jesus, I intend to give your gifts of love, peace, compassion, mercy, and gentleness to myself, to my community mates, to my service site…” With a long history of having a tyrant for an inner critic, I knew I needed to give these gifts to myself first. Then, I might be able to offer them to others.  So, I made intentions every morning. And slowly, quietly, something in me started to open up.

I found myself looking my community mates in the eye more, asking them how their days were, sharing more about myself. I’d sit down while they were watching a show on TV. I’d join them cooking in the kitchen. They made me laugh. Gradually, I cared about them. When it came to having those uncomfortable community conversations about mutual respect, chores, and finances, I took some risks. Though painfully uncomfortable at times, I communicated as honestly and gently as I could.

To my surprise, they seemed to listen. And, that gift was greater than whether or not they changed their behaviors or met my expectations. My taking the risk and their listening were enough.

Admittedly, it’s strange. I’m 34 years old, and living in intentional community with women who have just graduated from college allowed me the opportunity to have the first real, vulnerable conversations of my life.

A part of me was set free with each talk. I no longer needed to be in control. I no longer needed to be liked. I just needed to be honest—with myself and with them.

Doing this work in community has helped me help the residents at my service site—having difficult conversations with them, meeting them where they are, and coaching them on their paths.  In this year of service, I’ve learned that community life, not to mention the overall service experience itself, is partly intentional but mostly mystery. God’s mystery. God takes over and does the work for you. I may never know how it happened—how the discomfort of community life unfolded into peace. I just know I am grateful for it.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
– Anaïs NinTo learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, click here

Dear Extraordinary You: A Letter to a Future Volunteer

Tue, 02/02/2016 - 2:38pm
By: Ari Alvarez, Current Loretto Volunteer

Realizing that I am halfway through my Loretto experience, I can’t believe how fast time has gone…and how slow it has gone. These past five or so months have come with great highs and great lows. But, the most freeing realization is the acceptance that this is to be expected. I am growing, and sometimes growing is painful. My time away from home has made me grow in a deep love and appreciation for my family and friends. I always knew I won the lottery with those I call family and friends, but now, my gratitude towards them is beyond me.Coping with these emotions has been a process. Yet, the most healing practice that has helped me feel appreciated and loved, all while challenging me to honestly communicate my appreciation towards others, is letter writing. Everything from picking the right stationary for each person, the decorating of the envelope, the emphasizing of words and sentences through the thickening strokes of your pen.  There is an intimate intention behind it all. There is such a thrill to realizing you’ve received an envelope in the mail with your name on it; a response to all the questions you had asked, all the emotions you had spilled out, all the stories you shared.

Letter writing requires more effort than a quick typing of words and clicking of a send button. It takes thought, time, effort, and patience. Letter writing is a detail of this experience that I will take with me everywhere I go. Therefore, because of how healing this has been for me, I thought it’d be appropriate to write a letter to a future volunteer;
Dear extraordinary you, 
I’ve been there before. Hitting the snooze button a couple of times before you finally roll out of bed and gear up for the day ahead of you. Your surroundings might still feel unfamiliar, but I promise you, a routine will develop. Very soon, the creaky wood at your feet will signal the familiarity of home. String up some holiday lights in your room; hang up pictures, motivational quotes, whatever you need. Just do it. This is your time to take care of yourself. You’re in for a wild ride where sometimes the only company you keep is yourself, the book in your hand, and the cup of coffee that cools as the minutes go by. And, trust me, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Allow yourself to indulge in that cup of Starbucks, even though you know how terrible capitalism is and that you should be supporting local producers. Drive to Target and just walk around, search for the treasures in the dollar section, and never feel bad about buying the overpriced candle for your room (you’ll appreciate it later). Take a break from Instagram, Facebook, and texting. Instead, go outside and simply go for a walk. Grow in comfort of your surroundings. Go the meeting that sounds really awesome, even though you’re going alone and won’t know anyone. Don’t feel pathetic for staying in on a Friday or Saturday night, indulging in Netflix or a good book…or just Netflix…is perfectly fine.
Write people letters, and request that letters be written to you. It’s a good day when you get home from work and see that there’s an envelope with your name written on it. Sleep in often- these may be the last years of being able to sleep in without any major consequences. Sad, I know. Cook with real, fresh food. And…it’s okay if you burn the rice or brownies the first time, you’ll get better with time. Listen to Adele, because, well…Adele just heals the heart. Look through old pictures every once in a while, it’ll make you smile and there’s nothing wrong with that! Also, genuinely challenge yourself to only spend your monthly stipend- it’s hard, but you’ll be surprised at how much you can simplify your life.
You are without a doubt an amazing person. You’ve probably travelled into intimate depths of your community and the world. You’re someone’s best friend, someone’s child, someone’s soul mate, and they’re most likely all missing you as much as you are missing them. Nonetheless, never forget how brave you are. You left all you knew and accepted to start over, for 11 months, committing yourself to simple and intentional living. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Trust that very soon, you’ll pack up the suitcase you put away months ago. That suitcase will travel back into familiarity with you. Your favorite café, your favorite restaurant, your family and friends will all be waiting for you. You’ll see how distance strengthens relationships, and most importantly, strengthens you.
This year could be one of the most exhilarating years of your life, or it could be one of the most frustrating years of your life. No matter where your heart and emotions settle, know this is all happening for a reason. You are exactly where you need to be. There’s a lovely little saying that says, “Bloom where you are planted.” Don’t take that as being complacent, but take that as a challenge. Actually aim to grow exactly where you are right now, even when it’s painful to begin a new day. You’ve got this.
Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Sit with yourself every day, discover your light. It will frighten you, but that’s okay. Unpack it, embrace it, and grow from it all. Lean on those who love you. Tomorrow is a new day. You are not alone.
But most importantly, you are capable and are fighting a fight for a better tomorrow. Keep your head up.
Love,Me, your fellow social justice warrior.
PS- Ordering a pizza when you don’t feel like cooking is always a good choice. Always.​

Ari Alvarez is from Clayton, CA and graduated from St. Mary's College in 2015 with a degree in Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies. Ari is currently serving with Loretto Volunteers, living in the St. Louis community and working as a campus minister at loretto-founded high school, Nerinx Hall.​ This reflection originally appeared on Loretto Volunteer's "Reflections."

$3,000 for your passion

Thu, 01/21/2016 - 2:07pm
By Nya Brooks, serving with Vincentian Mission Corps in St. Louis, MO

Prior to my year of service, I was aware that education inequities existed across the United States, mainly affecting low income communities of color. When I moved to inner city St. Louis, I quickly learned that this city has a polarized education system. Either you invest thousands of dollars into private, Catholic school, or your child can attend the free, yet low performing public schools. Public school is the reality that many low income families in St. Louis face because they cannot afford to send their children to private school. Fortunately, Marian Middle School is dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty by providing adolescent girls with holistic, faith based education.

I currently volunteer at Marian Middle School, an all-girls Catholic middle school on the south side of St. Louis, MO. Marian is significant to the St. Louis community because it offers quality and affordable education to girls from low income families. Not only does the curriculum prepare the students to be a grade level ahead, Marian incorporates educational activities, such as building robots and dissecting sharks, offers graduate support to help Alumnae throughout high school and college, and connects the students with professional women to serve as career mentors. Based on a conversation I had with a Marian Alumna a few months ago, “There are some things that you will only experience at Marian.”

One of the traditions at Marian is to share Wisdom Words each day during morning assembly. Wisdom Words are daily passages that are intended to motivate the students. With a background in Women’s & Gender Studies and a hidden feminist agenda, I volunteered to write the Wisdom Words for the month of March in honor of Women’s History Month. Often when learning about history in America, it is very male dominated. This is present throughout textbooks, media, and national holidays. I saw writing the Wisdom Words during March as an opportunity to educate the students about women in history.

One day, I wrote Wisdom Words about the importance of attending college. The historical figure I focused on was Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree and become a doctor. One of the sweetest and most adorable 5th graders asked if she could read the Wisdom Words during morning assembly. I graciously said yes. This 5th grader has a tendency to be shy when talking to people. I knew reading the Wisdom Words would be a great opportunity for her to practice her public speaking skills and a great confidence booster.

The 5th grade student did not have much time to practice. However, you could not tell! In front of an audience of 80 people, this 5th grade student read the Wisdom Words clearly and with confidence. Afterwards, everyone clapped and cheered for her. I was extremely proud, for many reasons. One, public speaking is a very common phobia and like any skill, requires practice. (I still get nervous and I have been public speaking for 8 years.) Two, she correctly pronounced, “La Flesche Picotte”. Three, having a reading level below her grade, I was amazed by how this 5th grade student did not display an ounce of nervousness or stumble over her words.

Later that day, the president of the school stopped me in the faculty work center to thank me. I was unaware of it at the time, but one of the many professional women who voluntarily mentors for the 8th grade students was present during morning assembly. According to the president, her grandfather was Native American. She was so touched by the Wisdom Words that she offered to donate $3,000 to sponsor a student for an entire year.

The theme of this story is to live out your passions because they can inspire others. When we live out our passions, not only do we nourish our souls, but we can transform the lives of others. My passions are feminism and public speaking. When writing the Wisdom Words, my only intentions were to educate the girls about women in history and to provide a student with a chance to practice her public speaking skills. I had no idea my writing would create an opportunity for another girl to attend Marian. My Wisdom Words empowered the Marian community beyond what I could imagine.
I am extremely thankful for the opportunity to write the Wisdom Words. Similar to the students, Marian has fostered a place for me to discover and practice my talents. After writing the Wisdom Words, I learned that I am talented when it comes to writing and that youth enjoy learning about history if you present it in an interesting way.

It is not by coincidence that groups of historically oppressed people are rarely included in our history books. Our history lessons, whether in school or mainstream society, reflect who is deemed worthy in America’s eyes. In this case, it is white, heterosexual, able bodied, cisgender, men. In the future, I want to continue to educate youth about untold histories, specifically the histories of African Americans and women. This will give opportunities for underrepresented groups to have their stories heard and youth will be aware that history has multiple facets. When we unveil new knowledge to our youth, we unveil a new world.

To learn more about the Vincentian Mission Corps, click here

What you need to know about international service

Thu, 01/14/2016 - 1:00pm
Do I have what it takes to do international service? Will I be safe? How do I choose the right program? Can I afford to serve overseas? How will I handle homesickness? If these questions sound familiar - please tune in to this webinar session focused on questions pertaining to international service.

What you need to know about international service from Catholic Volunteer Network on Vimeo.

Do you have questions that we did not address in this session? Just ask them in the comments section below and we will be sure to answer them!

What you need to know about faith-based service?

Mon, 01/11/2016 - 4:05pm
How do I choose the right volunteer program? Is community living for me? How will I repay my student loans on a volunteer stipend? Will I miss out on job opportunities if I do a year of service? If these questions sound familiar - please tune in to the recorded webinar "What you need to know about faith-based service."

What you need to know about faith-based service from Catholic Volunteer Network on Vimeo.

Did you have questions that we did not address during this session? Just type them in the comments section and we will be sure to answer them! Also - later this week we will post another webinar focused on international service - stay tuned!

Why Teachers Teach On

Mon, 01/04/2016 - 1:49pm
By Kate Ulfers, Mery Volunteer Corps, serving in Detroit, Michigan

Teaching is hard. As a student, I took my teachers for granted; I complained about the tactless and un-passionate ones, and mildly sassed the effective but boring ones. As a student, I had zero appreciation for the time and energy my teachers spent on incorporating benchmarks into their lesson plans, on creating tests and assignments, or on the never-ending grading.  Now that I have served as a high school teacher for the last 7 months, I have a whole new sense of awe for what teachers and educators do. That being said, one aspect of teaching has still eluded me… why do teachers keep doing what they do? How do they continue the momentum of teaching for 35 years? Essentially, I am at a loss as to why veteran teachers continue to persevere in the classroom, long after the glamour and new-car smell has worn off. It’s not for the great pay or flexible hours. It’s not for the prestige or celebrity status. So why?

I gained a small insight into this recently on a particularly grey and dull Monday. It was a Monday after a long weekend, and I was anticipating untamed and uninterested students whose behavior would range from barely able to stay in their seat to barely able to stay awake. I told myself the night before to give up on trying to predict how horrible this Monday would be… how uncontrollable and talkative the kids would be, how unprepared and incomplete my lesson plan was, how over the long weekend I had probably lost my classroom confidence. On evenings when all of these insecurities are invading my mind, I chant to myself:

“KT, there is zero point spending a whole evening stressing over just two hours of classroom time. You need to prioritize your time and energy, and dreading the unknown is not a priority.”

I felt pretty good when I got to work that morning and classes (as always) were fine. Sure, some kids were a little bit chatty, some a little antsy, but after the first 15 minutes, everyone was relatively calm. My lesson plan was also fine. Considering the kids do most of the work, it landed on them to be productive. My confidence trickled back throughout the class. Good day, all in all.

I was content with this. I survived and now the next 3 hours were to be spent preparing for the next day.

At lunch time, I headed downstairs to carbo-load and I ran into one of my favorite students. He has the lowest grade in both of my classes, and is at risk of not being able to graduate if he doesn‘t pass my class. The thing is, his attitude in class (and out) is funny, sweet and genuine, and he really does try hard in my class. This year he was diagnosed with a learning disorder which might explain a large portion of his academic struggle, but unfortunately he is under the impression that the reason he is struggling is because he’s ‘stupid.’ This drives me CRAZY because intelligence cannot be reflected in a grade; some random letter or percentage does not dictate anyone’s IQ.  But in a system where grades are given such emphasis, it is very frustrating that all his hard work does not reflect in his grade… is it any wonder that he is discouraged?

Anyway, when I bumped into him I congratulated him on his last test. He looked confused because he hadn’t checked his test grade online yet. When I told him he scored a 72% (the highest grade he has received on a test or quiz so far) he looked shocked, and then he just BEAMED. He thanked me (I am not sure why) and I told him that I didn’t have anything to do with his grade, that the 72% was all him and his hard work. He beamed all over again.

That look on his face, oh man,  THAT is why teachers continue to do what they do. THAT is why they still work even though they are paid next to nothing and work hours and hours at home. THAT is why they go into so much debt in order to get a teaching degree. THAT is possibly one of the most rewarding reactions that a student can gift a teacher with. THAT made my day.

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, click here!

No Such Thing as a Silly Question

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 9:39am
By Nya Brooks, Catholic Volunteer Network Recruiter

One great aspect of being a recruiter for CVN is the interactions with students. Often service corps are not a common topic of discussion for career development on college campuses (at least for my undergraduate experience.) Unless you participated in a service immersion trip, know someone who has volunteered, or are involved with your campus ministry, it makes sense that you might be unfamiliar with faith-based service programs.

As a very inquisitive person, I feel very comfortable asking questions. I believe they are the avenues to knowledge and always encourage others to do the same. My former history professor once said, “Please ask questions during class. If you have a question, chances are that the person next to you has the same question.” So I have included 5 questions that I have been asked during my recruitment season. Hopefully this will show you, the reader, that you are not the only person who has questions about faith-based service. Perhaps these questions will spark new questions for you. And if nothing else, for anyone who is insecure about asking questions, my blog will show you that there is no such thing as a silly question.

1. Do I have to be Catholic? 

Student: “I am not Catholic.”

Me: “Me neither! Now that that’s out of the way...”

All of the programs within CVN are not Catholic. For the programs that are Catholic, many will not require you to be Catholic, but may ask that you attend some religious events, such as mass or having dinner with nuns and/or priests.  If religion is a concern, I would talk to the program director because each program has its own religious requirements.

In my program, we attended mass once or twice a month and had weekly spirituality nights that consisted of almost anything that related to nourishing the spirit. One spirituality night we finger painted. Also, because my service site was a Catholic middle school, I attended mass once a week.

2. Can I put my volunteer experience on a resume?

Of course! Just because you are paid a small amount for your service, does not mean you will be doing small work. During my year of service, I served as a teaching assistant at an all girls middle school. Outside of my classroom and tutoring responsibilities, I started a speech club and wrote daily motivational passages to educate the girls on Black and Women’s History month. From this, I have developed my writing skills and possess the ability to initiate and carry out projects. With a passion for gender empowerment and hopes of working in higher education administration, I can say that I have experience with empowering girls in a school setting and providing student activities.  

3. Does Catholic Volunteer Network offer education awards like AmeriCorps?

Some programs have partnerships with AmeriCorps that allows their volunteers to receive an Education Award, a monetary award given to volunteers after completing their service term. The Education Award can be used to pay back student loans or be applied to tuition if you decide to continue your education. Some programs even fundraise on their own and give their volunteers an end of the year bonus similar to an AmeriCorps education award.

4. How are you able to live on $100 a month? 

The reason we call our volunteers “volunteers” is because they are not paid with a salary, but are compensated with many benefits, including housing, utilities, transportation, money for food, a very small living stipend, and health insurance. So all of your basic needs are provided. If I wanted new clothing, I would shop at thrift store and I did not have to pay back my loans because I was not earning any income. I used my living stipend for personal hygiene products and eyebrow threading.

What helps save money is free entertainment. One of my highlights from my year of service was going salsa dancing at clubs on nights where there was no cover. My program directors also provided my community with money to go on roadtrips, eat at restaurants once a month, and explore St. Louis. By living with this small stipend, taught me how to prioritize my spending and improved my eating habits/health because I cooked at home to save money.  

5. What has been a challenge and a reward from your year of service?

A challenge for me was living in intentional community. Unlike having a roommate(s), you do not just live with your community members, but are expected to share meals and do activities together in order to build relationships. It’s like a family. As someone who identifies as a bit of a loner, it was not easy for me to spend time with my community members because I enjoy doing things by myself. Living in intentional community challenged me to improve my relationship building skills and understand that people build bonds by doing things together.

A reward was the amount of love that I received from the people I encountered during my year of service. Being over a decade old, my former volunteer program, Vincentian Mission Corps, is well-respected amongst Catholic churches and social service agencies in St. Louis, MO. Because there is always a new set of volunteers each year, it felt as though my community members and I were newborn babies coming home for the first time. People were always excited to meet us; we were always praised for devoting a year to help others and often times given free food because they knew we were making little money.

What other questions do you have about full-time service? Type them in the comments section and we will be sure to answer them!

Want to hear more from Nya? Check out her recent webinar "What you need to know about faith-based service." 

Merry Christmas!

Fri, 12/25/2015 - 8:52am

Who is this pink baby?

Thu, 12/24/2015 - 3:20pm
A reflection by Connor Bergeron, serving with Salesian Lay Missionary in Bolivia

When I first arrived at my mission site, Yapacaní, Bolivia there were many things to grow accustomed to, some things which I never will get used to: non-stop sweating, attending morning prayer at 6:15am, eating rice for every meal, speaking in Spanish, not using seat belts, praying fervently until I leave any vehicle, carrying toilet paper with me everywhere, and so on. Now my eyes have grown familiar to the faces I work with and the scenery around me.

There is an image that has struck me more than others recently.  It follows me in taxis; in churches; it’s even on my own calendar.  Divino Niño Jesús, The Divine Child Jesus.  Seeing baby Jesus outside of Christmas, is well, foreign.  To see our Lord in pink, is well, different!
Child with Divino Niño JesúsTwo friends visited me recently and during dinner they asked me, “So like, what do you do?”.  I paused to think because there is so much.  Unlike jobs before, my work here requires me to bring my life into it. So I guess, a better question to ask me is not “what do you do?” but “how do you live?”

Days after I arrived, my fellow missionaries and I celebrated Thanksgiving.  It was a pleasure to catch up and speak English. Yet I couldn’t relate to my friends because they had been working for two months in orphanages.  Soon I learned I’d be working in a radio/tv station (because of my previous experience) and translating for a Canadian charity. Yet where were the children?

I have a weekly schedule, which rarely follows my plan: I update the Ichilo Radio/ TV station’s  website and maybe edit a commercial, then for lunch I serve the elderly in El Comedor (the soup kitchen), and in the afternoon translate as many letters I can from Spanish to English.  Sundays I go to Mass multiple times, where I play the local songs.  Life can become hard, removed from friends and family, and especially when you’re sick and believe that the medicine is actually making your bowel movements worse.  When I share my troubles with my site partner, Adam he gives me solid advice.  “You should reread your mission statement,” he suggested. When I did a gentle breeze passed through my mind and soul.  “To be molded into the man God longs for me to be through his children in Bolivia.”  But where were the children?

Two Bebés of San CarlosMondays are Adam and my día libre (free day).  On those days we go to the children’s hospital.  It’s a beautiful place for mothers to learn how to care for their newborns, as they care for other babies.  Every time we go the children grow a little more. And every time, Cynthia cries the entire time. Maybe it’s us.  Yet there are others whose bright smiles entice us to return.  We talk about another baby, the pink Divino Niño Jesús.  We couldn’t understand where it originated—maybe it’s a Bolivian apparition?  We concluded that it is supposed to open our hearts more to Christ since it’s easy to love a baby.

Saturdays there’s oratory.  In the past I’ve been unable to go due to work in the TV station.  Yet one afternoon I realized there was nothing to keep me away. I just didn’t want to go because it was different.

I had just left the station. “Hola!” I heard a tiny voice.  I turned and saw a familiar face.  It was a boy of 5 years old who plays with the keyboard that I use for Mass.   “Are you coming to oratory?” he asked me in Spanish.  I tried to give him an excuse.  But I couldn’t.  “Sí,” I said, thinking I would buy some toiletries first then return. “Okay!” he shouted with a grin.  Before I could leave to buy more toilet paper Padre waved me over. While he was explaining the essence of the Salesian charism – the youth - I suddenly felt something grab my hand.  I looked and saw that little boy.

“¿Vamos?” he asked me.  I laughed.  “Sí, vamos,” I said and let him lead me into oratory.  My little angel.  I was silly to be afraid. He guided me through and quickly I found myself surrounded by children.  Their faces grew, crowding me with laughter and smiles. I turned to look for my guide.  He was gone and I was fine.  Ever since that Saturday I have returned to oratory; readying myself to open my heart a little more.  Since then more opportunities to interact with the children of Yapacaní have appeared.  Tuesday nights I teach a confirmation class and more recently Fridays morning I teach a religion class.

One year.  It’s a small amount of service.  To answer the question “how do I live?” it’s simple. Trust.  I fail at it consistently, but from what it was before, it’s significant. God puts people, sometimes a baby in pink, in our lives to aid us in this sojourn toward Him.  I pray that whatever little service I do here will aid these children in their path toward Him.

Kids of Okinawa
To learn more about Salseian Lay Missioners, click here!  

Recruitment Wrap-Up: Common Questions About Service

Mon, 12/21/2015 - 9:00am
By Rosa Segura, Catholic Volunteer Network Recruiter
The past few months have gone by so fast! It seems like just yesterday that I walked into the CVN office, excited about the bagels at our welcome party, worried about how sweaty I was after walking to the office. It has been such a rewarding experience to be a part of the CVN team as a recruiter. I have loved every minute of it. I am sad to be leaving, but am thrilled to embark on a new adventure.
Along the road, I’ve received a number of questions about post-graduate service. I’d like to impart some of my knowledge and answer some of the most common questions. I would also like to take a moment to emphasize a point: service is for everybody. We focus our recruiting efforts largely on universities, but that doesn’t mean we’re only looking for students. Our programs have a variety of needs that can be met by a variety of people. Married couples, single parents with children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities. All are welcome to serve for a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years. So without further ado, here are the top five questions I’ve been asked as a CVN recruiter.
1. How much does it cost?We have 198 different programs and they each raise funds differently. Many will ask volunteers to fundraise a certain amount of money to help offset the cost of running a volunteer program. (And many programs will let you fundraise while you are doing your year of service!) I have not heard of a program that has turned away an applicant for lack of financial resources, so don’t let that hold you back!
2. Where can I volunteer?Our programs operate all over the United States and all over the world. There are placements in 47 of the United States and in 114 countries abroad. We’ve got options on every continent except Antarctica. (But there’s not really a population that needs to be served there…)
3. Where did you do your year of service?I served at Amigos de Jesus Home for Children in rural Honduras. It was one of the most challenging and amazing years of my life.
4. How do I apply to a program?The application process varies from program to program. It can be similar to applying for a job or graduate school. It usually involves a written application, letters of recommendation, a background check, and a series of interviews.
5. Can I still volunteer if I have student loans?Absolutely! Our programs often have an option for loan deferment, but even if they don’t, you can sign up for an income-based payment plan. (You’ll be making $0 so you’ll pay $0!)

What other questions do you have about full-time service? Type them in the comments below and we will be sure to answer them.

Would you like to hear Rosa speak more about service opportunities? Tune in to her recent webinar "What you should know about international service."

Advent, A Season of Service: Focus on Spirituality

Sun, 12/20/2015 - 10:15am
This is the fourth blog post of our Advent series. Every Sunday we will feature a reflection by one of our current or former volunteers. You can download the entire reflection guide here

Fourth Sunday of Advent“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Luke 1:39-45

Reflection by Elisa Raubach, current Maggie’s Place Volunteer

At the Annunciation, Mary agreed to do the will of God. Her Fiat brought about our salvation when the God of the universe was knit together in her womb. Soon after Mary begins to ponder this mystery in her heart, she goes in haste to her cousin Elizabeth. The two women did not expect or plan to be pregnant at this time—one after many long years of barrenness and the other at a mere fourteen years old and without a husband. Mary is young, poor, and afraid, yet she goes to her cousin to console, be consoled, serve, and celebrate. She is met with the embrace of Elizabeth who sees Mary’s pregnancy as a source of joy and exultation. Before Mary even explains what has happened, Elizabeth knows in her heart and in her womb Who is present. The mother of her Lord has come, He is hidden as an unborn child. 

So often Christ is hidden in our lives: in the poor, the elderly, the sick, the immigrant, the imprisoned, the unborn child. Just as Mary and Elizabeth embraced in order to encounter the hidden Christ, we too must embrace and serve others to encounter Jesus. He is hidden beneath disguises of poverty, fear, and loneliness. At Maggie’s Place, we strive each day to recognize the hidden Christ in the pregnant women and babies we serve—it’s not always easy to do, but there is much joy, hope, and love. Like Elizabeth, we seek to welcome moms who have given their own Fiat to life and love. 

Focus on Spirituality“In the mystery of the Annunciation and Visitation, Mary is the very model of the life we should lead. First of all, she welcomed Jesus in her existence; then she shared what she had received. Every time we receive Holy Communion, Jesus the Word becomes flesh in our life…Thus, the first Eucharist was such: Mary’s offering of her Son in her, in whom he had set up the first altar. Mary, the only one who could affirm with absolute confidence, “this is my body,” from the first moment offered her own body, her strength, all her being to form the Body of Christ”—Mother Teresa
A Season of ServiceIt can be so easy to go about our day without ever pausing to recognize Christ hidden in the people around us. Where can you embrace Christ in the hidden and the ordinary? Maybe God is calling you to reach out and serve your roommate, your grandmother, or a total stranger at the grocery store. Offer words of consolation or an act of kindness to someone who may be in need. Today, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and be attentive to His promptings—be ready to welcome the hidden Christ with joy.
PrayerCome, Lord Jesus. Thank you for coming to us so vulnerable and needy, as an infant in the womb and arms of Mary. Grant us the grace needed to prepare more room in our hearts for You. May we seek after You hidden in others as we prepare for Christmas.  Help us to see You in the poor, know You in the lonely, and love You in the fearful. May our hearts always be open to encountering You in the unexpected. Amen.

How has your faith grown during this season of Advent? 

Advent: A Season of Service is a collaborative effort of Catholic Volunteer Network and theCatholic Apostolate Center

Interfaith Dialogue in Practice

Tue, 12/15/2015 - 2:28pm
By Jotti Aulakh, Lasallian Volunteers
Jotti is a second year volunteer serving with Lasallian Volunteers at the Brother David Darst Center in Chicago, IL. She is a graduate of Saint Mary's College of California.
Coming from a Sikh background and going into a Catholic volunteer program was a pretty tough decision to make. I knew that I wanted to do a year of volunteer work and I knew that I wanted it to be faith based because I had been struggling with my faith for a while. The problem was that there weren’t any Sikh volunteer programs. I went to a Catholic college, but it wasn’t until my last semester that I got involved in the service side of things at the mission and ministry center. From there, I thought why not do a Catholic program? There was an abundance of them after all, and at the end of the day I would be doing good work no matter what religious affiliation the organization had. Lasallian Volunteers was aimed at making a difference and I was too, and at that point, that was all that mattered to me. 
I think working and living with people of other faiths is one of the most important things someone can do to gain better understanding of a life and religion that is perceived to be completely different from their own. When it comes to interfaith interaction, I don’t think we need to necessarily talk about how similar one religion is compared to another and how they are all pretty much saying the same thing; which is to love one another and do good in the world. I think it is important to take note of the differences and embrace them. These differences are what make us unique, and learning about these differences helps us understand a culture and lifestyle from a different perspective.
This past year and a half has actually made me grow closer to my faith. Before joining the program, I went to the temple once in a while. I did the things I was supposed to do without giving them much thought and not much else. If anything, I was questioning whether religion was something that I wanted as a part of my life at all. All it seemed to do was bring a great deal of trouble to the world and pit one group against another. But by living in a Catholic community and working at a Catholic ministry, I was forced to learn more about myself and where I come from, what my history is and what it means to be a Sikh. Co-workers and community members were constantly asking me about my faith because it was one that they did not know much about, and I was someone they could ask directly. I was disappointed in myself when I didn’t know the answers right away.  Going to my parents and asking them the questions I was asked and doing my own research online helped me understand something that had evaded me before. The more I learned the more I wanted to know.

Hopefully, this experience can be the same for others as well. Sometimes interfaith dialogue doesn’t have to take place in a formal setting. Simply going up to someone and asking a question can be enough. I know that I personally felt appreciative that people were even showing an interest and it’s through this simple back and forth dialogue that a relationship can be built to learn more about someone and their background and history. It’s easy to surround yourself with people who share your beliefs and think the same way you do. But life can present you with interesting opportunities and interesting people, and it is up to us to the make the most of that experience.

To learn more about Lasallian Volunteers, please click here

Advent, A Season of Service: Focus on Simple Living

Sun, 12/13/2015 - 10:15am
This is the third blog post of our Advent series. Every Sunday we will feature a reflection by one of our current or former volunteers. You can download the entire reflection guide here

Third Sunday of Advent“The crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’ He said to them in reply, ‘Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.’”

Luke 3:10-18

Reflection by Michael O’Neill, former Jesuit Volunteer Corps volunteer

“What then should we do?” After my time in Jesuit Volunteer Corps, this question has been seared onto my heart. As many FJVs might say, I have been “ruined for life” (the unofficial slogan of JVC). Being ruined is being aware of the injustices in the world both far and near (sometimes far too near). Knowing of these injustices I constantly find myself challenged with so many questions, “How should I be living my life?” “How do we conquer injustice and build up the Kingdom of God?” “How does my vocation play into this?” “How do I dialogue with others about these injustices?” “Am I doing enough?” “What does ‘enough’ look like?” All these questions always lead back to the question the crowds asked John the Baptist, “What then should we do?”

While I have no answers that bring a piece of mind I do find some solace in today’s Gospel. While the answers aren’t clear, the direction is. And sometimes that is what is needed and nothing more. Jesus simply said, “Follow me” not “Follow me with these specific details so you know exactly what the way will look like.” The direction I see John pointing us in is adorning a woven fabric of living a life that focuses on community, faith, social justice, and simplicity. These values are so tightly interwoven that one cannot help fully live one without the others. What John calls the crowds to do is live simply so that they may focus on one another as a community and work together for justice and ultimately, remove all distractions between themselves and an all-loving, merciful, and very mysterious God. So, “What then should we do?” I’d say let us pick up this cross together and head in the direction John is pointing. Reminding ourselves that we are merely workers building the Kingdom and to have faith in the God that leads us.

Focus on: Simple LivingIn today’s Gospel, where hear about John the Baptist responding to the question, “What then should we do?” John the Baptist’s response in short is two-fold. First, go forth doing what is just and honest. He calls the crowds to give away any excess to those who lack and being present to others rather than taking advantage of them. Being John the Baptist, this is a challenge to embrace simplicity. Simplicity helps when living a just and honest life but that is only the half of John’s message. The second part is preparation. Simplicity prepares our hearts to be open to God by re-aligning our focus on what is important in life by removing what distracts us and in the process lifting up others in authentic love.
A Season of ServiceEngage in simplicity! Unbound yourself from things that distract you from others and God. Do you tend to fill up your time? Untangle your schedule to pray and spend time with God. Then go out and serve (perhaps in a food pantry, or in your local parish, temple, mosque, etc). If you find yourself attached to some material possessions, try to practice distancing yourself from them by giving them away. Donate things you find yourself most attached to either to those you know are in need or to a thrift shop, parish clothing drive, etc.
PrayerMysterious God, you call us to be your humble workers. To simplify our lives and remove those things that distract us from our brothers and sisters; that distract us from You. Help us amidst the struggles of bringing about your Kingdom, to trust in you. To trust in the love you have for us and console us with some direction when we ask “What then should we do?” Amen.

In a season often filled with consumerism and excess, how are you living simply? 
Advent: A Season of Service is a collaborative effort of Catholic Volunteer Network and theCatholic Apostolate Center

Advent, A Season of Service: Focus on Social Justice

Sun, 12/06/2015 - 10:15am
This is the second blog post of our Advent series. Every Sunday we will feature a reflection by one of our current or former volunteers. You can download the entire reflection guide here

Second Sunday of Advent
“The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:1-6
Reflection by Paul Stage, Director of Campus Ministry at Saint Xavier University, and Former Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) Volunteer

“Why did they make that poor, unfortunate priest stumble his way through so many silly names in today’s reading? What does it matter whether Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene or playing Tetris with his sister Abbey? Let’s get to the good part of the story!”

Sometimes I find myself throwing accusations like the one above at the biblical writers. Accusations saying that the story would get along fine without telling us what the year was, or who was in charge, or where the particular location was, because it’s the happy ending and moral that I’m looking for. 

But it is in those exact moments of accusation that I most need to be reminded when and where these things happened, because we aren’t reading just another story today. We’re reading about John the Baptist, a particular man in a particular time, who laughed and ate and didn’t shower quite as often as his parents might have liked, just like me.

Because, like John the Baptist, I am a particular person in a particular time. And, like when “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (3:2), the word of God comes to me regularly in small movements within my life to ask for great things. If “the winding roads shall be made straight” (3:5), I had better get started; there is a lot of crookedness in the world around me!
Focus on: Social JusticeJohn went to the desert to lead a simple life. He didn’t want to change the world at first; he was, after all, a religious hermit for most of his young adulthood. I find myself in John’s shoes a lot; not so much his diet of bugs and honey, but his desire to leave behind the troubles of the world. Sounds great, doesn’t it? To give up distractions? To focus solely on God? What better way is there than to retreat! How wonderful would it be, except that the fruit of retreats is so often the Word of God calling us to action? Not a big, booming command, but a simple daily whisper: “proclaim; prepare; repent; forgive.” Just like John the Baptist heard his call in the desert, we must likewise follow God’s message when we are called, even if we are in the midst of our own desert.
A Season of ServiceWe prepare for the holidays in many ways: by decorating with festive greens and reds; buying gifts for family; getting plane tickets home. Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ as well - both a remembrance of his birth to a virgin, and a hopeful longing for his second coming in full glory and splendor. Have you spent as much time in spiritual preparation as you have in holiday preparation? Make the time this week and hear God’s particular calling to you: proclaim; prepare; repent; forgive.
PrayerLord, I am ordinary. Today is ordinary. This place is ordinary. It is on this ordinary day that you called me to do something extraordinary- to announce your coming and to make straight your path. Give me the words to share your presence in our midst. Give me the strength to make your way straight. St. Paul says that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Give me the ears to hear your calling: “Proclaim. Prepare. Repent. Forgive.”

This Advent, how will you work for social justice?

Advent: A Season of Service is a collaborative effort of Catholic Volunteer Network and theCatholic Apostolate Center

Solidarity and Simple Living

Thu, 12/03/2015 - 12:39pm
By  Rebekah Miller, Covenant House Faith Community VolunteerCovenant House is the largest non-profit organization in the Americas that supports homeless youth. Faith Community is a program that offers a small stipend for spending  a year of service in one of four cities. We embrace three pillars: Service, Prayer, and Community. I am currently doing my year of service in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I am a Youth Advisor in the crisis shelter, meaning I am a resident advisor in the building and on the floors, and I do case management work with the youth.

How does your program support at-risk populations during the winter and holiday months? 
The first thing we do is meet immediate needs, through food, clothing, showers, and a bed. We allow former residents to come in and shower, grab a warm cup of tea, wash some laundry, and eat a warm meal. We take in new youth and returning youth sometimes for an emergency overnight or other times residential services.

Donors bring in zip lock bags full of toiletries, hats, gloves, clothing, anything new and essential to staying warm and clean. Covenant House International has also been doing a blanket drive to obtain blankets to give out for the winter months coming up. On November 19th there was a Candlelight Vigil and Sleep Out. Through the sharing of personal stories about the struggles of living on the streets, lighting candles in memoriam, and sleeping outside in the cold and the rain, people across the county raised money to keep Covenant House doors open.

For Thanksgiving, turkeys were cooked and prayers of thanksgiving said. This month, we will hold services for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas along side a variety of parties with lots of food and gifts from lots of donors. We try to keep the merriment going throughout the holiday season so we plan a full schedule with Santa, presents, staff vs youth football games, craft nights, and so much more! 
How do volunteers express solidarity? We are present. The best things that a person can do at a homeless youth shelter is show up. The second best thing is listen. During the holiday months especially, the youth just want to know that the staff are sticking around for the long haul; that we are there to share in laughter, joy, and life together through the cold and dark days. Sharing a meal together and laughing over corny jokes before stepping into an office to hear them cry about the stress and worry back home goes a long way for someone who was not supported, loved, or cared for while growing up. Then on some days we show up in crazy costumes and dance to the cha cha slide and give out candy until they are bouncing off the walls. 
Faith Community volunteers are far away from home; I'm about 2,973 miles from my parents house, but who's counting? So just like the youth, I find myself feeling lonely and isolated from the warmth and care of home. Luckily I found a home and a family at the shelter. That is why I chose to work a 16 hour shift on Thanksgiving, not for the glory of being deemed a hard worker, but to have a place to go, a place to belong. All the youth want are to be seen and to find their place in the world. During the holidays we open our doors and hearts to say that their temporary home is Covenant House and we can share in the struggles and joys together. 
What have you learned through living simply?We live simply in our house through buying things with lots of coupons and sales, bulk sections are one of my favorite things. We live with less “stuff”, we recycle, we share food and household items, we cut down on electricity use, and we walk a lot of places or try to utilize public transportation. Living simply is not just a way of living with less things though, it is a mindset. 
I have come to see that simple living is embracing the humble mindset that I am nothing without God. I find significance in the quality of moments over the quantity of stuff. God is in the simple and sweet moments of life. I often stop to remember the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-17. God was not in the fire, wind, or earthquake; rather He was in the still, soft, whisper. To me that means that God is in the small stuff like a kind smile, a high five, a shared meal, a brief conversation, or a silly dance. To live simply is to seek joy and follow passions through the daily routines and small things, remembering that God is ever present. When life gets chaotic or stressful, I take a walk on the boardwalk or I open my Bible, and I let the gentle whisper brush against my ears. 
For more information about becoming a member of the Covenant House Faith Community, please click here

Advent, A Season of Service: Focus on Community

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 9:00am
Note: This is the first blog post of our Advent series. Every Sunday we will feature a reflection by one of our current or former volunteers. You can download the entire reflection guide here

First Sunday of Advent“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Reflection by Anna Hester, current NPH USA volunteer and former Jesuit Volunteer Corps volunteer

Remember the good memories, learn from the bad ones, and laugh at the mistakes. My year as a JV was full of countless surprises. Living with just three other girls in a tiny apartment caused me to constantly ask the question - what have I gotten myself into?  I was in no way prepared for the difficult challenges that my community would experience nor did I anticipate that those same challenges would make us stronger, that it would solidify our friendship. My community, these former strangers, had suddenly became my friends. We grew together as JVs, still laughing today at our various silly memories. They helped me to focus on the good on the days that I was struggling. They loved me when I needed it the most. We were all outsiders, moving to a new city, a tiny apartment, and four very different jobs that we were all very nervous to begin.

As I look upon today’s reading I am reminded of hope, of the goodness of Christ’s return. The challenge is to focus upon that hope and to not let daily distractions get in the way of it. As a volunteer I felt that I was more susceptible to those distractions and without my community I would have fallen into that trap.  During this Advent season, let’s set aside the frenzy that comes along with holidays and take time to focus on the loved ones around you.

Focus On: CommunityToday’s reading relates to community in terms of accountability. While we are waiting together for the second coming of Christ, we need to utilize each other so that we are not distracted from missing out on this miraculous event. Take a moment out of your day to acknowledge how you are feeling - is your heart heavy? When was the last time you took a moment to reflect with your community? Chances are if you are struggling, they might be too.

A Season of ServiceChallenge yourself to join a new community, do something new. Volunteer for a local food bank, raise donations for newly arrived refugees, tutor at a local community center. Whatever service you choose, sit and be present with whomever you are serving. Just listen and serve. Step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes those new experiences are the most rewarding.

PrayerDear God, I pray for strength, patience, and balance for myself and those around me. Help me to not get lost in the trails and be my legs when they are weary. Open my eyes and my heart to the goodness around me. Help me remain steadfast and guide me back when I waver. Lord, thank you for being my light during the times when all I see is darkness. Thank you for loving me.  Amen.

How are you utilizing this season of Advent to draw closer to your community?

Advent: A Season of Service is a collaborative effort of Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center

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.

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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!

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