Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Letter from San Antonio & Belarus

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.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I Chose Service: Jenette Vogt, Christian Appalachian Project

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 Project
Location: Jackson County, Kentucky 
Hometown: Sigel, IL
College: 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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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

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 Kennedy
Location: Aston, PA
Hometown: Albany, NY
College: 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.