Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Holy Ground: A Volunteer and Graduate Student's Experiences of Unexpected Grace

By Laura Shrode, former Colorado Vincentian Volunteer

“As others allow you into the most tender places in their lives, you will know you are standing on holy ground, and you will find yourself touched, humbled, and gladdened by unexpected grace.” –Sharyl Peterson

On one particular busy afternoon at my service site, Denver Urban Ministries, I met Cynthia (not her real name). My job was to sit with her, ask her some standard questions, fill out paperwork and then assist her to our food pantry. That is the bare minimum. One of the best things about Denver Urban Ministries is their emphasis on quality over quantity. Though the lobby was bursting with people and we were short-staffed, the organizational leadership taught me to be present to the person in front of me. And so it was that I heard Cynthia’s story. Through tears and mumbles, she shared her struggles and fears.  I sat and listened.  I tried to acknowledge her struggles and let her vocalize the pain and the fear she had been feeling, but had been afraid to speak. It appeared as if this were the first time she had been able to mention these struggles aloud. 

Three years later, I do not remember the specifics of our conversation, but I have not forgotten what it felt like to be standing on Holy Ground. What a beautifully, powerful place to be! This conversation with Cynthia was one of the crucial moments that led me on my journey to Saint John’s School of Theology to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. My journey at Saint John’s has allowed me to travel many paths filled with unexpected grace. Many of these moments have come from my time as an intern and a chaplain at a local hospital.

My learning experience so far as a hospital chaplain has taught me to expect the unexpected.  When I enter a patient’s room or respond to a trauma, I have only the slightest idea of what I am getting myself into.  In some cases, the patient is alone sitting in his chair watching The Price is Right. Other times, several family members are present, with remnants of snacks and blankets from the one who stayed overnight with their loved one sprawled across the small space. At another moment, in a moment of trauma, I may enter a sea of organized chaos. The lights are bright, a few white coats are in the room and several other medical staff members dance around the patient in the hospital bed. I am always impressed by how the medical staff have mastered the dance of chaos. So many beeps from different machines, so many bodies trying to do chest compressions, trying to bring in the right medications, trying to do whatever they can to keep the patient alive and comfortable. Most times the dance is beautiful. Somehow the medical team knows their roles and where they need to be to not get in the way of one another. I try to stand near the head of the patient, to let her know that she is not alone. Or I will be directed to where the family is waiting. There we will sit and pray, pace, and share stories.

I am learning to appreciate the many surprises. Sometimes I am surprised by the medical situation - the biology degree in me is constantly fascinated with some of the crazy things I have witnessed. Sometimes I am surprised by the stories I hear - stories of pain, grief, loneliness, joy, hope and love. Many older patients have given me advice on how to live a good life, how to have a happy marriage, and how to keep the faith.

I value these stories because I recognize that in listening to them, I am standing (or sitting usually) on Holy Ground. The patients or family members are allowing me to enter into their lives, even if just for a few brief moments. I am able to share in the joys and blessings of a new birth or the sadness and confusion when someone hears difficult news. I find “unexpected grace” in seeing Christ in the hospital bed before me. How lucky am I that I get to encounter the many faces of Christ on a daily basis? I truly am humbled by these experiences.

My time at Saint John’s School of Theology has led me to other ministry work as well.  I am the new Recruitment Coordinator for the Benedictine Women Service Corps volunteer program. I now have the opportunity to encourage others to seek out ways to encounter that “unexpected grace.” This position allows me to connect with female college students interested in service and help them discern where their path is taking them.  I anticipate, with excitement, that they will have their own experiences of unexpected grace on holy ground.

Laura Shrode was a full-time volunteer with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers in Denver, Colorado 2012-2013. She now is a full-time graduate student at Saint John’s School of Theology (Collegeville, MN) working towards a Master of Divinity with plans for hospital chaplaincy. She also works as the Recruitment Coordinator for the Benedictine Women Service Corps.


To learn more about St. John's School of Theology and their scholarships for volunteers, please click here

Friday, April 15, 2016

Don't Forget About the Soil

By Carley Knapp, Bethlehem Farm Volunteer


One of my favorite aspects of being on the volunteer staff of Bethlehem Farm in Pence Springs, West Virginia, is the opportunity to lead crews of high school and college students in our gardens.  We have two large gardens and several smaller ones where we cultivate many of the vegetables and herbs that we serve year-round during our service retreats.  We host volunteers from schools, parishes, and universities around the Northeast, Midwest, and Central United States, and most of the young adults have not spent much time growing any of their own food.  A transformation happens frequently that fills me with hope and joy: Students who at the beginning of the week seem tentative and uncomfortable with garden work by the end of the week are outside with wheelbarrows and pitchforks, big grins and dirty gloves, weeding, seeding, or layering on compost like they’ve been farming their whole lives. 
I know when I get my hands dirty in the garden, it’s happy work that makes me feel a sense of connectedness.  After all, I am connected to the soil if my food is growing there, not in an abstract kind of way but as a micro-biological reality.  The adage, “You are what you eat,” links us through plants to the soil.  We can only be as healthy as the food that we eat, and the plants that become our food can only be as healthy as the soil that feeds them.  Just as humans enjoy a variety of foods and have individual culinary preferences, plants thrive in environments with a variety of bacteria and fungi and have unique nutritional needs.  The problem is that most of the world’s soil today is eroded and degraded.  A 2006 study in the Journal of the Environment, Development and Sustainability found that soil is being washed and swept away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished. Our industrial society has not found a way to replace what it takes from the soil.
Pope Francis sums up this issue in Laudato Si when he writes,
It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.  But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and byproducts.  We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations. (Paragraph 22)
Nourishing our soils is one way to correct the wasteful patterns we have inherited in our society.  If you have a garden, give it love in the form of lots of mulch and compost.  If you don’t have a garden, give your food waste to someone who composts and gardens.  Or start a garden!  Worm bins are a great way to get quick compost from small amounts of food waste. At Bethlehem Farm, we even have a “humanure” system where we use sawdust and buckets to compost our own – you guessed it. Do what makes sense for you, just don’t forget about the soil.


Carley Knapp earned her Bachelor's degree from Indiana University, and a Master's in Theology from St. Meinrad Archabby. She now serves as a volunteer caretaker at Bethlehem Farm, located in Pence Springs, West Virginia. 


This post is part of our new Justice Matters series, in which volunteers reflect on the social justice issues that have become an important part of their service experience. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Where Are They Now? Former Volunteers in Engineering

Here is another exciting installment of our popular feature, “Where Are They Now?” This series highlights volunteer alumni who carry out the spirit of service in different professions and ministries. In this edition we are getting to know some alumni who have chosen professions in engineering.


Hello! I'm Angela Medlock, and I served with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers (CVV) in Denver, CO from 2010-2011. I studied civil engineering, and am now a Bridge Inspection Engineer with AECOM.
What inspired you to serve?  
After attending both the career fair and the volunteer fair at my college, I knew volunteering was what I wanted to do. Spending a year living in community with a group of strangers, working to help those in poverty, and learning the importance of simple living seemed like the perfect way to kick off adulthood.

What is one memory from your time of service that has stuck with you, and why?  
I worked at a homeless day-shelter, and many days I was part of the staff that opened the doors in the morning at 6am. As the guests entered, we would greet and check them in. These short interactions were always my favorite part of the day. It amazed me how cheerful so many of the people were despite having slept on the streets or in shelters the night before. It reminded me that having a positive attitude will help get you through a lot in life. I have never enjoyed going to work as much as I did those days I was opening the shelter.

Has your service experience impacted your career path? If so, how?
A large component of our service year was focused on reflection and discussion. Taking the time to reflect on how I’m serving my clients and co-workers has made me a stronger leader and manager. Another piece of our service year was learning to live in community with others, even people we didn’t see eye to eye with. We would always be encouraged to face problems directly, and have the difficult conversations that we often want to shy away from. This skill set has come in handy both in my personal and professional life after CVV.

Why did you choose to work in engineering?
Growing up, I was always enthralled by bridges. This passion, along with a very engaging Physics teacher in high school, led me to pursue a career in civil engineering.

Did your service experience change your perspective as an engineer? How?
As a bridge inspector we deal with people who are homeless on a regular basis. They often take shelter beneath bridges, and when we come to do our inspection they will offer helpful information they have noticed about the bridge (i.e. leaking joints, heavy water flows, etc.). Some inspectors refer to these people as “vagrants” and “bums” in our reports. My volunteer year comes out at these moments, and I advocate for the people living under the bridge even if it just means changing the language we use to reference them in our reports.

My work brings me joy because … 
I am able to combine my love for bridges with my love for the outdoors while protecting the traveling public!

How do you stay connected to your program or service site?
Since my volunteer year, I have had the privilege to sit on the board for CVV and help start an alumni association for the volunteers who have gone through the year of service. My closest friends are still the people from my CVV community, and one of the program directors is my spiritual director!

Questions for fun:
What engineering class did you complain about most in college, and why?
Statistics. My professor, despite his engaging British accent, was extremely tough.

Will computers eventually outsmart humans?
Unless they can teach computers compassion, I don’t think so!


Hey! I'm Dan Frank, and I served with the Mercy Volunteer Corps at a Catholic middle school located on the heart of the Navajo Nation. I taught mathematics, coached soccer, and started an after school engineering club during the 2010-2011 school year. Now, I am a Ph.D student in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Florida.

What inspired you to serve? 
As an undergrad, I had a truly inspiring adviser. He was a former NASA astronaut that had a passion for engineering outreach. He encouraged me to engage with local inner-city students in engineering activities. Through these outreach efforts, I began to appreciate just how many opportunities that I’ve been given in life and recognized that I had a responsibility to do what I could to extend these opportunities to the next generation.

What is one memory from your time of service that has stuck with you, and why? 
One time I was giving a presentation on robotics to the first grade. I showed them a video of a robot that was trying to climb a jungle gym when it slipped, fell, and broke. When I asked the class, “What do you do when something breaks?” One of the students responded, “You cry!” I was completely caught by surprise. That was not the answer that I was expecting. So I gently responded, “You could cry, but wouldn’t it be even better if you fixed it instead?” The class cheered as I then showed them a video of the repaired robot, climbing once again. At the end of the presentation I asked the same question, “What do you do when something breaks?” The class shouted out, “You fix it!”

Has your service experience impacted your career path? If so, how?
Absolutely, because of my service experience, I realized just how important having opportunities to learn about engineering can be for students. It inspired me to go back to the Navajo Nation every year to run workshops on engineering topics as well as to start a couple Lego robotics teams. I even helped one of those teams to organize and host a STEM conference for the Navajo Nation where people traveled a combined total of over 12,000 miles to attend. As a graduate student, I was spending so much time on engineering outreach with the Navajo Nation and other sites around the country, that I finally recognized it as my true passion, causing me to shift the focus of my research from robotics to engineering education.

Why did you choose to work in engineering? 
For as long as I can remember, I loved building robots. I remember my first robot was an upside-down bucket strapped to an RC car that had a couple wrenches taped onto it for arms. Being able to make something is cool. Making something that moves is even better. Being able to make something that moves and can think for itself, well what’s cooler than that?

Did your service experience change your perspective as an engineer? How?
It was experiences like the one I had working with the first graders that helped me to learn that engineering is more than just a profession. It’s a perspective - a way of viewing the world, not as one full of obstacles, but as one filled with endless opportunities. Engineers use a number of skills to solve problems that can be used by anyone. For example, how do you approach a problem when there may be thousands of possible solutions? How do you take a large problem and break it down into a bunch of smaller ones? When I work with a class to help them to develop these engineering skills, I don’t do it because I think it is important that everyone becomes an engineer. I do it because I believe that these are skills that anyone can benefit from, regardless of the profession that they choose. Learning about engineering is empowering. It means that a lot less tears are going to be shed when something breaks in the first grade classroom.

My work brings me joy because … 
I am able to use my skills and talents to bring positive change to the communities that need it the most.

Questions for fun:
What engineering class did you complain about most in college, and why?
Probably thermodynamics, I just never warmed up to it.

Will computers eventually outsmart humans?
Are you sure that it hasn’t happened already?

In the next installment of "Where Are They Now?" we will feature former volunteers working in campus ministry! Do you know someone we should feature in this article? Send your submissions to Katie Mulembe at kmulembe@catholicvolunteernetwork.org.