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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Discernment story: 'Everything I was missing could be found in religious life'

By Annie Klapheke
Former Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest member
From Service to Sisterhood Vocation Story

I was nearing college graduation at the University of Dayton and was grappling with the question, ‘Where to next?’ I was unsure about my career path, but I had a desire to be engaged in direct service, to be living in intentional community, and to grow in my faith. A year of service seemed just the right fit for me. Having lived in southwest Ohio all of my life, I was ready for an adventure. So I was off to Anchorage, Alaska to serve with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest.

My JVC community departing from orientation on our way to Anchorage, Alaska.

My service placement with JVC was at Bean’s Café, a soup kitchen and day shelter for the homeless population of Anchorage. I worked in the Social Services office of Bean’s. My duties included distributing toiletries and vitamins, sorting and distributing mail, driving clients around town, assisting with housing applications, and simply being a listening ear and a friendly, welcoming face. I lived in intentional community with seven other Jesuit Volunteers. These seven strangers became my family for the year. We shared a house, money, meals, prayer, struggles, and joys. We supported each other in our quest to live a radically simple lifestyle, doing without some of our usual material possessions and comforts. This experience of direct service, community living, and a simple lifestyle began a slow transformation within me; a transformation that would continue to evolve in the coming years.

Posing with a client of Bean’s Café during my final week of service with JVC Northwest.

After my year as a Jesuit Volunteer, I returned to my home state of Ohio and went back to school full-time to pursue a graduate degree in nutrition. For the fist time, I was living by myself. Despite the fact that I was near friends and family, this was a very lonely time for me. I desperately missed the support and companionship of community living. But where could I find community living as a person in my mid twenties? I felt like all of my friends and peers were getting married and starting families. I was also unsatisfied by my daily routine as a graduate student. I felt like I was consumed by my own agenda and studies, and was not making an impact on the world or those around me. I looked for support in my faith community, and did find some nourishment there, but I was craving more. I could not help but question God, ‘Where have you brought me? And where is all this going? I need a change, God.’

After a couple years of questioning and waiting, God finally showed up one day in my mailbox. I received a letter from a college friend, Tracy. Tracy and I both did full-time service programs after college, and we kept in touch as pen pals to share about our experiences, supporting each others’ life and faith journeys. Tracy had been discerning religious life, and at the time she wrote her letter, she had just begun formation with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. I was envious of Tracy’s new life; she was living with an inspiring group of women, daily serving those on the margins, and was delving deeper into a relationship with God. Despite my admiration, it never dawned on me that I could have that life too, until Tracy flat out asked me in her letter, “Annie, have you ever considered religious life? I think it would bring you much joy.” The question hit me like a tons of bricks. It was like the fog suddenly lifted and I could see clearly the path in front of me. 
Everything that I was missing and craving – community living, direct service, simplicity, a faith-centered life – could be found in religious life.
So I began the search for the answer to this life-changing question, ‘Am I being called to become a Sister?’ As I began to explore the possibility, my image of a modern-day sister began to change. The Sisters I met were highly educated, working on the forefront of social justice issues, contemplative in prayer in the midst of an active ministerial life, and most importantly – joyful. I looked at these women and thought, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ As I opened myself up to this possibility, I was drawn by the idea of joining something so much larger than myself. I heard God say, ‘Annie, give me your life and I will magnify it.’

Teaching a nutrition workshop for the moms of Proyecto Santo Niño in Anapra, Mexico.

During my time of discernment, I did lots of looking back on my life to try to make sense of the experiences that had led me to this point. Although I was not intentionally discerning religious life during my service with JVC, I could clearly see how my time as a volunteer guided me toward religious life. My experiences of community living, direct service to the poor, and simplicity were seeds planted within me. However, it took a couple of years for these new sprouts to spring forth; I needed time for the experience to marinate, and for the slow transformation process to unfold on God’s time.

My community for my affiliate year at Casa de Caridad:  Sister Janet, myself, Sister Peggy, and Sister Carol.

As I write this, I am half way through my first year of formation with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. It has been a life-giving journey thus far, and each experience affirms that I am on the right path. As I look around, I am filled with hope to see that I am not alone. There are many other young women also beginning their pursuit of religious life. As we share our stories with one another, each path is unique, but all have common characteristics – we all crave community, long for a more just world, desire simplicity, and thirst for a deeper relationship with our God. Blessed are we who are called to this communion.

For more resources on discerning your vocation through service, click here.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Discernment Story: How one volunteer came to hear her life calling through service

By Kelly Schuster, former Salesian Home Missioner and current Aspirant with the Salesian Sisters

I believe that my two years of service had a 100% direct impact on my discernment process and decision to enter the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, more commonly known as the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco or just the Salesian Sisters.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that God sent me to volunteer at this particular High School to reveal my vocation.

I wanted to do a year of volunteer service right out of high school, but did not have the opportunity to do so.  I learned that I found great joy in serving others through my social outreach group in high school and had a strong desire to give more time, energy, and direct focus to volunteering. 

Kelly, along with two of her students, showing some Salesian pride!
Come April of my senior year in college, I found myself without a plan for the following year and the idea of doing a year of service re-entered my mind.  I visited the Catholic Volunteer Network website and found the online RESPONSE directory, which helped me to narrow down my search to the type of program I was interested in with the type of support that I needed. 

This is where I learned about the Cristo Rey Network of schools and truly the next chapter of my life began.

The Cristo Rey Network is a high school model that offers low income families the opportunity to send their students to Catholic college prep high schools.  How is this possible when most Catholic high schools are quite expensive, you might ask.  The school partners with local corporate businesses, organizations, universities, hospitals, law firms etc where the students will work five days out of the month to offset their tuition cost.  (Click here to learn more and see me in my classroom at minute 4:37.) 

It took a leap of faith to go to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School (DBCR) in Washington, D.C. because I would be joining the Salesian Domestic Volunteers (now called Salesian Home Missioners) in their first year as a volunteer program and I would also be the only volunteer placed at DBCR.  I was going to be a pioneer both in my volunteer program and placement in the school.  DBCR was also only in its fourth year of existence and still responding to the challenges of being in the “start up” period.  It would be two years of learning and growing for all of us. 

Kelly and Fr. Abe facilitate a senior retreat.
During my first year of service at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School I worked in the Youth Ministry and Faith Formation Department while also teaching two sections of junior theology.  In my second year I taught a full course load, five sections, split between freshmen and junior theology as well as assisting the youth ministry team. 

Within those classrooms and the small youth ministry office God called me to be a Salesian Sister.  I learned a lot from working side by side with Fr. Abraham Feliciano, SDB (Salesians of Don Bosco).  In him, I witnessed the everyday charism of the Salesians and joyful service to the young who are most in need.  Fr. Abe loved those students with his whole heart and they knew it.  They knew that they could rely on him to crack a joke and brighten their day or that they could come to him with serious problems and he would lead them to Jesus.  

I learned that the heart of the Salesian charism is a daily encounter with Christ in and through our students and hopefully reciprocated as we open ourselves to be an image of Christ for them.  I spent countless afternoons in that youth ministry office, surrounded by young people, laughing so hard I thought I would burst! I also learned how to be with them in and through the struggles they encountered in their daily lives.  (Click here to see the class of 2014 reading excepts from MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.  These are some of the many students who have overcome great challenges in their live and that I had the privilege to see Christ in everyday. )

Kelly celebrates Halloween with her community members.
While working with these students, I lived in community with volunteers from several different programs.  We were a mixed bag of Franciscans, Salesians (that’s me!), Columbans, and volunteers from the Catholic Volunteer Network.  Over the course of my two years there we ranged from a community as small as four to as large as nine. 

The Franciscan style of living in community is simplicity.  On an economic level, we made do with all second hand furniture and shopped frugally for our needs.  We usually did not buy Ziploc bags, for instance, because we could reuse Tupperware containers instead. As a part of my volunteer program, I did not have a car but I received a stipend each month for food and transportation.  

On the community level, simplicity meant that we relied on each other.  Sometimes that took the form of practical matters, such as grocery shopping or mopping up a flood in the basement.  Other times it took a more personal form as we relied on one another for support and friendship.  Now that I am living in community with the Salesian Sisters, I look back on my time in community as a formative period.  In learning how to live with different people of various personalities, I learned how to recognize the gifts that all members can bring to community and I was able to learn more about myself as well. 

As my two years of volunteering came to a close, I decided to stay and accepted a full time paid teaching position at DBCR.  But I had an inclination, even then, that God was calling me to something more, something deeper.  God had gifted me with two wonderful and difficult years at the service of a school and students truly in need.  But His ultimate goal was not for me to stay at one school and with one group of students, He wanted to expand my horizons of service and the dimensions of my heart.  I had the opportunity, while Fr. Abe was at DBCR, to attend daily Mass in our school chapel.  This daily encounter with Christ in the Eucharist helped me to see Christ every day in the young people and opened my heart for the possibility of deeper relationship with Him. 

When the Salesian Sisters came for our vocations assembly I heard God’s voice speaking directly to me saying, “This is it!”  I must be honest, my first reaction was irritation.  “Oh very funny God!  Here I am sitting through the same vocation talk presented to all five of my Theology classes.  Aren’t you supposed to be speaking to the students right now?!  Leave me alone!”  But because our God is good and patient, He didn’t leave me alone.  After three years in Washington, D.C., He called me to move to New Jersey where the formation house of the Salesian Sisters is located.  

Kelly's visit to DBCR after joining the Salesian Sisters.
It took some convincing on God’s part to show me that it was not just DBCR where He wanted me to serve, but anywhere the Salesians are and with all young people tho whom He might send to me.  The Salesian Sisters dedicate their whole selves to God in the service of young people through education, parish catechism, youth centers, and anywhere young people may be found.  St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello (our founders) shared the joy of Christ with every young person they met providing for them a home to feel welcome, a school to prepare them for life, a Church to evangelize, and a playground for them to make friends and have fun!  

 For me, what started as just a year of service post college opened the doors of my heart for Christ to call me to my life’s vocation. I am now half way through my first year of formation and if I had to identify one overriding emotion, it would be deep a sense of peace.

You can learn more about Kelly, and her life as an aspirant on her blog, Nunsensical
And for more resources on discerning your vocation through service, click here.