Friday, September 19, 2014

A Day in the Life with the Volunteer Missionary Movement USA: Kristin and Billy Byrnes

Enjoy this treat from the archives!

Kristin Byrnes is originally from Yakima, WA, and her husband, Billy Byrnes, from San Jose, CA. Prior to serving as volunteers with Volunteer Missionary Movement they worked as Associate Campus Ministers and Religion Teachers for seven years at rival Catholic high schools in San Jose, CA. Currently they teach English at the Instituto Publico Carolina Camas Araúz and support the work of the Catholic parish in rural San Nicolás, Nicaragua. Billy also works twice a week in the nearby community of La Garnacha, where they are famous for their organic garden, livestock, and Nicaragua’s best swiss cheese. Read more about their joys and struggles at

Our days begin early, and not just because our dog likes to pounce on our bed at 5:30am, challenging the strength of our mosquito net and pleading with us to help him welcome the new day. All arise early in the campo. We must get a start on the day and take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures to take care of daily chores.

Water only comes on for a few hours a day, in the morning, so we have to fill the appropriate buckets and water tank that has a prominent place in our backyard, to ensure that we have water throughout the day. We then take turns sweeping away the layer of dust, dirt, and dog hair that has inevitably accumulated overnight and blankets the floors. Often we wash clothes in the morning so that the blazing sun can beat down on them throughout the day, drying them easily by mid-afternoon. We take turns finishing other chores and when one of us has a free moment, we head across the street to chat with Doña Victoria and buy her fresh, right-off-the-grill tortillas. It’s a challenge not to sample this steamy treat as we walk back to our house, but they must last for lunch and dinner.

By 8am, we are at the school preparing for the classes ahead. Billy teaches the first and second year classes; Kristin the upper three grades. Resources are thin to non-existent, so we have been challenged to grow as teachers in both our flexibility and creativity. We compete for the students’ attention, but there are rare days in which a struggling student finally grasps a concept or another student shares what is really going on at home. These are the days we treasure. 

After the school day ends, we are back home around 1:30pm to make a quick lunch and launch into various afternoon activities. Twice a week, we hold English classes in the afternoon at school that open to anyone who is interested in coming. Our class is primarily current students, a few teachers, and alums. There is always a family to visit and numerous tasks to complete on our computer, such as preparing lessons. Most recently, we've been hunting down the “perfect” English song for each class to learn and compete with in the upcoming months at the department level. 

Word has spread through town that Kristin likes to cook, so numerous pizza and bread-baking parties have taken place in our tiny kitchen. 

Billy travels on Thursdays to La Garnacha to help prepare and then sell vegetables at the Farmer’s Market held in the neighboring “big” city of Estelí on Fridays.

Our weekends only differ in that we teach Theology instead of English, and it is done at the parish instead of the school. Sometimes we will make a trip out to a more rural community, walking over an hour to share in their Sunday prayer services with them. Mostly we worship with the community in San Nicolás on Sunday mornings at the church.

As the sun begins to set each day and the temperatures start to cool down, the town comes alive. We will walk through town, greeting neighbors, perhaps buying a few things to cook for dinner, and catching up with friends. Often we will pray after returning from our walk and then begin dinner preparations. Billy is usually the master-mind behind dinner and Kristin does a great job cleaning dishes afterwards. Catching up with family and friends at home, the most recent world news, or burying ourselves into our current book is usually how we spend the evenings. 

We eventually head to bed, knowing that the smiles of our students await us the following day. 

The Volunteer Missionary Movement USA is an international organization of lay Christians based in Milwaukee Wisconsin. VMM USA recruits volunteers from across the country in the Catholic social justice tradition to collaborate with partners in Central America working in a variety of occupations for peace, social justice, and human empowerment of the poor and marginalized to promote equality, empower sustainable human development and challenge unjust and oppressive social structures. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Living retirement in meaningful ways

By Kay Scott
Humility of Mary Volunteer Program

CVN AmeriCorps member, Kay Scott is 68 years old and serving with the Humility of Mary Volunteer Program in Cleveland, OH. In her role as AmeriCorps Literacy and Outreach Assistant at St. Colman Outreach, Kay provides emergency assistance to families in need, as well as adult literacy and GED preparation. 

After returning from the Peace Corps I was still interested in serving in a volunteer program.  I wanted a faith-based program that I could I share my values and experiences with a community. The Humility of Mary Volunteer Service (HMVS) provided an excellent opportunity to do this.  Also, I was happy to learn that through its partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, HMVS offered me a chance to participate in the AmeriCorps Educational Award Program, which was available to older adults as well as young people. 

I was familiar with the community of the Humility of Mary Sisters and knew of their dedication and commitment in service to the poor and disadvantaged.  They are women of strong faith and service, inspiring both young and old.  I liked the fact that I could serve in my own hometown and be near my grandchildren, too.

My experience at my site, St. Colman in Cleveland, has been invaluable.  I learn something every day.  The motto here is “We always answer the door.”  And this statement really rings true because you never know who you will meet at the door and how you will be able to help them.  I enjoy being part of giving aid, materially and emotionally.  As a retired teacher, I get pleasure tutoring the immigrants in the literacy classes and helping the other students get their GEDs.  Helping the people who have had so many disadvantages in their lives become self-sufficient is very rewarding.

Programs that HMVS, CVN and AmeriCorps offer to older adults help them live out their retirement in meaningful and fulfilling ways.  I am very happy to be a part of this volunteer service and I enrolled for another year.  One year was just enough to get my feet wet, and with the experience of this first year, I am confident that I will be able to assist others in a more knowledgeable and helpful way.
Kay (front right) and her fellow HMVS AmeriCorps members.

The impact on the community is seen through varied lenses.  Many are grateful that we are here offering financial assistance and that tutors really care about them learning English or achieving their goal of GED. Many find comfort that the stress of providing for their basic needs is met. Many are relieved that we can help them finally get their ID status resolved.  But, mainly, many in the community have found that others genuinely do care about them and will go to any length to ease their suffering.  And what I hear mostly from them is “God bless you and have a blessed day.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

I gained a family through community living

By Ashley Cole Siferd
Former Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos volunteer
A day in the life

One of the first things I tell people about Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) is that it is not just an organization that cares for orphaned, abandoned and at-risk children. It is a family. For me, this unique quality makes the volunteer experience more cherished. The people I came to know are not just children and employees in an organization but instead are family members with a permanent place in my heart.

Though we encompass nine Latin American and Caribbean countries, I have happily called NPH El Salvador as my family since 2008, when I made my first trip to the home. Ever since then, I knew that I belonged here. I felt that God was pulling me back.

One of my first pictures taken as a
volunteer and it couldn't have been any
more representative of real life: three
toddlers on my lap on a hot, sunny day.
When I began my volunteer position in the summer of 2013, I arrived to the home with a fair idea of what things were probably going to be like based on prior experiences. The only concrete unknown to me was how life would be like living in this community. I had only ever been a visitor, not a resident. There are no volunteer quarters, so I stay in the volunteer/visitor room in the girls’ home. In the morning, I wake up to the cacophony of life that is a house full of more than 100 girls ranging in age from eight years old to early twenties. In the late afternoon as I leave work, I often run into the high school youth who are returning or the babies and toddlers scurrying about on the playground. In the evenings after dinner, I occasionally go to the clinic to spend time with my friend who is a nurse, and then afterward I am sometimes asked to help the older girls with their English homework when I get back to our house.

Because of safety concerns, my weekends and free time are spent at the home. Weekends are simultaneously full of routine elements but also surprises. There’s washing clothes by hand, choir and dance practice, time to do big chores but also to lounge around. We may take a short walk down the road to cut mangos, climb the large hill nearby, or swim in the river that cuts through the property. There is never a dull moment. Life thrives here in this special community.

There is essentially no established volunteer program here, and for 11 months I was the only one. I became the first volunteer in years. There are other NPH homes with thriving volunteer programs. In those situations, the volunteer community can often be its own microcosm within the NPH home, and there is an established support system, a place to go when you have questions and others who are experiencing the same newness as you are. In my case, instead of relying on veteran volunteers or having a coordinator to help, I relied on the children and the staff members for guidance when I arrived. My community was solely composed of the children and the staff of NPH, and I absolutely loved that. My identity has been shaped by living there in this unique way because I was a part of the family, not just someone who works there.

We called each other gallina, which means "hen" in Spanish.
One evening these two girls were teaching me words and I
misunderstood the word for flip-flop (gina) and thought they
said hen. Somewhere, that became our nickname for one another.

Within weeks of my arrival, the girls had taught me how to wash clothes by hand. There were times when I struggled, and they would nonchalantly shoo me away and grab my clothes and wash them while I watched and learned. I once pushed the same two toddlers on the swings for almost two hours. For the first few months, the youngest girls and I would play soccer every Sunday afternoon. They tried in vain to teach me, but months later everyone amusingly accepted (myself included) that I will never be a soccer player. Before three of the older boys left for our university house in the city, every day like clockwork when I got off work we would sit under the big tree and treat ourselves to chips and soda. We call ourselves the “4 Musketeers.” 

The 4 Musketeers' favored pastime was enjoying chips and soda
under the big tree on the property. Though I was sad to see them
go, I couldn't have been happier or prouder when they all moved
to our university house in the city to start their studies.

What will never cease to surprise and amaze me is the depth and reach of unconditional love that I witnessed on a daily basis. It is a community where the individuals aren’t just awesome neighbors who lend you a cup of sugar. It is a family full of pasts filled with hurt, anger, abuse, and sadness, but it is also a family that heals and mends itself with time and unconditional love. It is a family where in their vulnerable state, big tough teenage boys let you hug them and walk off the field arm in arm with you after losing an important soccer match. It is a family full of adolescent and teenage girls who grab your hands while you walk to dinner each night and tell you about their day. It is a family full of babies and toddlers who smother you with hugs and kisses when you walk into their house at playtime.

My volunteer experience was been enhanced to an infinite level because the “community” I lived in is a humongous family in which I was able to laugh, cry, be embarrassed by and equally embarrass, be annoyed by and also annoy, and ultimately be loved by and love my more than 300 brothers and sisters. Living with and amongst these children, I was witness to a tangible piece of the Kingdom here on earth.