Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Staying "On": Spotlight on Jeanette Gonzalez and Yanil Rojas

Image from
By Kate Flannery, CVN Communications Department

San Diego, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Los Angeles, Haiti, Peru—the conglomeration of places former Augustinian Volunteer Jeanette Gonzalez has visited and served within since her undergrad days at Loyola Marymount University. Gonzalez has done a lot in a short time. Four immersion trips in four years to post-civil war El Salvador, visits to Haiti after the earthquake that left foundations in shambles even when she arrived seven months later, teaching in San Diego balanced out with triweekly border crossings into Tijuana to serve as a caretaker in an orphanage. She’s now getting her second master’s at the University of San Diego in Peace and Justice Studies after receiving her M.A. in Pastoral Care and Counseling. She’s also interning for Survivors of Torture International, where she loves being able to connect refugees, the marginalized and the poor with the services they need. Working for Catholic Relief Services is one of her dreams, as is doing public policy. But for now, her capstone project will have to take precedence.  

On the other side of the country, rewinding back several years, Yanil Rojas just knew. She watched the migrant workers handle the horses in Delaware and forgot she was at an interview being observed. “At some point, I forgot myself. It felt natural,” she remembers. “It was the place I needed to be.” 

That place ended up being Wilmington, Delaware, where Rojas served with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry. She attended a Catholic Volunteer Network-sponsored post-grad service retreat where she met members of the CVN team. “Nikki (CVN Associate Director) explained then, a year of service is ‘not a year off; it’s a year on.’ I didn’t waste my time at all,” Rojas says. Under her program, she shifted between teaching ESL to Latino youth and young adults in a local church and teaching Spanish to women in prison. She remembers casually telling the team at the prison that she could speak Spanish fluently, thinking it would not be of any use there. 

“That was really what attracted people the most to me,” she laughs. “They all wanted to learn Spanish.” 

Teaching her native language soon became a staple of her service, in addition to tutoring, helping with Bible Study, coordinating Catholic mass and helping in culinary and life skills classes. Within the diocese, Rojas found that ministering to Hispanics in their language was very special, enabling her to connect with the community right away. “It got me to people’s houses and helped me earn people’s trust,” she explains. 

Gonzalez has had similar experiences with her native language. “A pro to not having a language barrier was that I was able to connect with people more easily,” she explains. Throughout her extensive travels throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Gonzalez remembers walking with the people in solidarity. While serving, she saw how people who had gone through so much oppression or hardship were able to get back on their feet. “It was a transformative experience walking together,” she remembers. Because of this, her current capstone project involves studying how people can use their faith and spirituality to move beyond conflict. 

The United States has recognized National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 since 1988. But Rojas and Gonzalez clearly don’t need a special month to give back, stand up for or show their passion for their Hispanic sisters and brothers—or anyone for that matter. Growing up in the projects in Los Angeles, Gonzalez remembers a neighborhood of violence, shootings and teen pregnancy. “I have a really strong family, but I was raised in a broken community where people were marginalized. I wanted to do better for myself,” she explains.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx and then in Lawrence, Mass., Rojas witnessed first-hand some of the struggles the Latino community faced in U.S. society. As a Latina herself, she felt blessed to have been able to receive an education and live independently—having privileges many others go without. But Rojas does more than just observe and be grateful for her blessings, she gives back.
Rojas and Gonzalez work and live on completely different coasts and time zones. Their families are from different countries (the Dominican Republic and Mexico). And they have never met. But some things unite them more than they know: their work in programs under the Catholic Volunteer Network, their first language, their impressive resumes and their passion for Hispanic Ministry and serving the underprivileged nationally and abroad. Both can also thank their Campus Ministry offices for introducing them to the idea of post-grad service under one of Catholic Volunteer Network’s programs. 

 “I’m called to service and to minister to those that have the potential to be great, but haven’t been able to because of things like financial resources or cultural prejudices,” Rojas explains. “That’s a need that I want to meet. I want to be able to do that within a religious context and share my faith,” she continues. With this in mind, Rojas is currently a first year graduate student at Boston College studying to attain a dual master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling and Pastoral Ministry.
Gonzalez, on the other hand, is open to refugee work  or development work. After writing her capstone that will investigate the role of spirituality in peace building in Latin America and the Caribbean, she hopes to pursue public policy or work with a grassroots organization post-graduation in December.

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, we take time to celebrate those whose ancestors came from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Spain—acknowledging their contributions to our country and celebrating its richness as a result. These women’s lives attest to this richness, one that has been cultivated throughout our history and that will continue to flourish because of examples such as these. 

Established in 1963, Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN) is the leading non-profit association for domestic and international volunteer programs. Currently, more than 14,000 volunteers serve in its member programs throughout the U.S. and in over 100 other countries worldwide. Its annual directory, RESPONSE, lists faith-based volunteer opportunities both domestically and overseas. To receive a copy or learn more, please visit

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fresh Faces: AmeriCorps Orientations 2012

By Caitlin Baummer, CVN AmeriCorps Program Assistant

It's that time of year again! All around the country, new CVN AmeriCorps Members are joining with their communities, Program Directors and Site Supervisors to learn the in's and out's of National Service and kick off their AmeriCorps year. Here's what we found out about a few of our programs' orientations...

Border Servant Corps hosted 18 incoming AmeriCorps Members during their orientation in El Paso, Texas. They visited many social service organizations in the region as part of their border immersion experience. Border Servant Corps AmericCorps Members live and serve in Las Creces,
New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

YSOP AmeriCorps Members Laura
and Rich
The Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP) is delighted to welcome full-time AmeriCorps Members and YSOP Fellows Rich Henderson in Washington DC and Laura Tierney in New York City. Laura and Rich took the AmeriCorps Pledge together on Friday, September 7th, 2012. They spent the day in YSOP's New York office learning about AmeriCorps and Catholic Volunteer Network They also heard about the history and principles of YSOP's 29-year-old service learning program, enjoyed lunch with YSOP's senior staff and had an introduction to Quakerism over an afternoon coffee pastry. YSOP feels lucky to have such energetic, intelligent and caring AmeriCorps Members on their team!

In August, AmeriCorps Assistant Coordinator, Barbara Wheeler, joined Lutheran Volunteer Corps for their 2012-2013 Americorps orientation in St. Paul, Minnesota. LVC began in 1979, and has been a CVN AmeriCorps Member since 1998. LVC places about one hundred CVN AmeriCorps Members in cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Seattle and Washington, DC.

Project SERVE AmeriCorps Members
taking the AmeriCorps Pledge
Five new Project SERVE AmeriCorps Members began orientation
with Catholic Charities of Baltimore on August 24th. They enthusiastically embraced the week learning about Catholic Charities, intentional community, social justice, simplicity and sustainability. Their week included a trip to the Baltimore Farmer's Market to learn about local food sourcing, a tour of the bus system in Baltimore and a special trip to each Catholic Charities program where the Member will be serving.

If you're interested in becoming an AmeriCorps Member, learn more here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Defining Community

By: Catherine Scallen, CVN Recruitment Associate

 "Community happened once we stopped trying to force it to happen"

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I had my first phone interview with Jon and Pete at Good Shepherd Volunteers (GSV), but I obviously wasn’t expecting to chat for over two hours. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had that venti coffee and that huge bottle of water right before jumping on the call. When I finally hung up the phone, I was sold. In a matter of hours, we had touched on relationship issues, theological musings, the pros and cons of a roommate who blares Shania Twain at 6 am, family history, following your passions, and my deep love for Justin Bieber, among other things. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this conversation was a small example of what was to come in my year of service with GSV in New York City.

Throughout the year, it wasn’t unusual for me and other GSVs to meet up and switch rapidly from lamenting the subway at rush hour to musing about our personal faith journeys, supporting one another through relationship struggles, praising Katy Perry’s new single or analyzing the underlying structural inequities of the foster care system--ultimately rounding out the night with a communal interpretive dance to Robyn’s musical genius. In fact, it would have been weird if all of these and more weren’t touched upon at some point on your average Friday night out in Manhattan. We called this community.

At closing retreat this past July, we all roared with laughter looking back on our preconceived notions and expectations of what "community" would look like in our year of service. From cooking daily organic meals together, to all-nighters on the fire escape discussing feminism and God, to morning Justin Bieber dance parties, every single one of us had come in with our own personal concept of the ideal community intent on making that vision a reality. What we found instead varied from community to community, but was both more and less than what we imagined.

Cooking organic meals was virtually impossible with peppers running at roughly $6 a piece in New York, but scavenging leftover bagels from the neighborhood bakery became a regular occurrence. Our fire escape was too small for the whole community to sit on at once, but became instead a beloved spot for solo journaling and reflection sessions. Not everyone’s idea of a good time involved Justin Bieber on repeat, but we met in the middle at Carly Rae Jepsen.

Which is all to say—community happened once we stopped trying to force it to happen. Community was formed in the early morning when our fire alarm went off and we did what we had always been trained to do, and only after a solid 10 minutes of standing outside freezing on the sidewalk did we realize we were no longer in college, this was not a drill, and we had to figure out how to shut the alarm off ourselves. (Low battery, in case you were worried). It was formed during aimless wanderings around the West Village, with no particular purpose and no particular plan. It was formed over impromptu yoga outings, train delays, misread directions, picnics in the park, and spontaneous parades.

People keep asking me if I’m frightened or nervous to be traveling the U.S. on my own this fall, recruiting for CVN. I can now truthfully tell them that I’m not. I’m not sure what my new on-the-go recruiter community will look like, but I’m excited to find out. If the experience Erica and I had at our first fair is any indication, I imagine it will involve even more misreading of directions, wandering different college campuses carrying awkwardly large banners, and making friends with neighboring recruiters who are willing to share their candy. The beauty in community is that it is not permanent or strictly defined. 

Stay tuned to find out how I define community throughout recruitment season as moving on the road challenges my definition once more!

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Will, Your Will, Our Will: Kate Joins Catholic Volunteer Network

By: Kate Flannery, CVN Communications Intern

I stepped off the metro surprised at how quickly it was all happening. Only two stops away? I had only been on the screeching metal contraption for less than ten minutes. It happened again on the walk over. Only two blocks away? But there it stood, the single “skyscraper” of Takoma Park that would house my new office and become a very familiar sight over the days. An elevator ride up. A quick walk down the hall. Suite #820. Home of Catholic Volunteer Network.

To say I always planned on being here would be a lie. To say I even had my eye on the east coast would only delude you further. Unlike my many pencil skirted, cardigan and cute flat wearing new comrades here, I did not grow up thinking, planning or knowing that I wanted to live in Washington, D.C. 

Throughout senior year in college, everyone seems preoccupied with getting a job and sounding calm and collected when asked “what are you doing after graduation?” We envision taking a sip of a mature adult beverage, looking back at the questioner with confidence and then unveiling our world-changing or money-making plans and leaving them speechless with awe. Yet by early May I was still “unemployed.” 

I was surprisingly calm, having decided early on not to be overwhelmed by “societal pressure” or by the “what are you doing after graduation?” question. I would not be another chicken running around with her head cut off. I would not have a meltdown. I was not worried about the “perfect” job and piles of cash. But I was interested in doing something honorable, fulfilling and nourishing. I still wanted to grow. If a job opportunity didn’t immediately present itself, I decided I wanted to give back to my community in a way in which my college education might not be directly applied: a year of service. 

Wheels began to turn. A conversation with Theresa Ladrigan-Whelpley at SCU’s Ignatian Center led me to Catholic Volunteer Network’s RESPONSE book. I remember sitting in Campus Ministry for over an hour as opportunity after opportunity flew past me with every turn of the page. I sat quietly searching and then rushed off to class, my head buzzing from the swarm of new information.  Applications began to be filled, recommendations were requested and resumes sent. 

Around the same time, I landed a spring internship with Catholic News Service (CNS). I was a Communications major with an emphasis in journalism, touting an English minor, buried deep in a final feature story, in love with writing and with my Catholic faith. An internship in which I could combine the two seemed like a mirage in the desert of job opportunities…or lack thereof. I flew to the nation’s capital for an orientation weekend.

“What are your plans after graduation?” the CNS team asked me warmly. I took a deep breath. “I'll be traveling a lot this summer. But afterwards, I'm thinking about doing a year of service through the Catholic Volunteer Network,” I responded. “That’s great. You know the organization is looking for some help with Communications right now, right?” 

An e-mail. Another resume. An interview. A conversation. A job. 

And this is why if I were to say that this had all been part of plan, that I had known I wanted to be on the east coast, wearing my own take of the pencil skirt, cardigan and cute flat uniform, riding a screeching metal contraption and stepping “coolly” into the single “skyscraper” of Takoma would just be a lie. But I’ve found that it’s when we surrender to God, when we follow the example of Mary and say “let it be done according to your will,” and when we join Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and say “your will, not mine,” God has a funny way of taking His will and your will and making them one. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Miss Independent!

By: Erica Stewart, CVN Recruitment Associate

Independence. If you asked me five years ago if I would describe myself as "Miss Independent," I would laugh in your face and say only when channeling Kelly Clarkson during a solo dance party. But now, thanks to amazing experiences through my college career at Stonehill College and my year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA, I can confidently say that it is now part of my personality.

I had always felt a pull towards service, beginning in high school and continuing into college. Like any nervous freshmen scared to plunge into a new group of people, it took me some time to join in with the campus ministry crowd. Once I attended the freshmen retreat in January of my freshman year, however, I was hooked. These people felt like family, sharing the same types of values, goals, and aspirations as me. I continued to stay involved with this family throughout my four years, embarking on two alternative spring break trips to New York City, acting as a liaison between campus ministry and residence life as a Crossings student minister, and attending retreats twice a year.

Along with a passion to serve also came a passion to travel. After watching my older sister travel to Florence, Italy for a year when she was in college, I knew that I wanted to study abroad there as well. During the fall semester of my junior year, I left the country and would learn the most influential lesson in independence thus far in my life.

When I look back on it now, I sometimes wonder how I journeyed there by myself: flying alone for the first time (with a layover in Germany, a country where I did not speak the language at all), finding a train from Rome to Florence, and then navigating through the crooked, narrow cobblestone streets with my huge heavy bags. Surprisingly enough, I ended up alive (but unfortunately very sweaty as it was about 95 degrees in Florence!) with all my baggage and money and even some bruises from my heavy bags to prove my strength. I had, for the first time, ventured into the unknown completely alone. The entire semester was not a complete Olympic high-dive into this unknown world because I shared my time with many Stonehill friends, but I did learn how to accurately read a map, order food without quite knowing the language, and take a deep breath when the Metro system was rerouted and we needed to find another way back to our hostel. For the first time, I learned to rely on myself more and not other people. This newly found independence left me feeling invincible.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Veteran Reflects on Service with Catholic Volunteer Network AmeriCorps Program

By: Kate Flannery, CVN Intern

Katie Kimsey, a former Navy officer, has learned that trading in her uniform does not have to correspond with giving up service to our nation. AmeriCorps programs like the one she participated in are providing for more than the neediest of our country—they are also easing veterans’ return to civilian life.

Kimsey, who served with the Navy for five years, explains that volunteering with the Episcopal Urban Internship Program (EUIP), an AmeriCorps program with the Catholic Volunteer Network, helped her “learn the civilian culture again, especially with regard to working.”

Describing EUIP as a program providing a “safe space to relearn the rules,” Kimsey also said that her placement enabled her to relearn working social norms she had missed out on while in the Navy—things like getting used to calling everyone by their first name, working eight hour days and incorporating the words “business casual” into her wardrobe. Living in community and learning to budget her modest stipend as a result of her placement also helped Kimsey adjust to the civilian world.

Kimsey, who joined the Navy to pay for college and give back to her country, learned about EUIP while taking a yearlong break after finishing her term year of military service. While on a mission trip to New Orleans, a conversation with the director of the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC) program sparked her interest in working with a program where she could use skills accumulated throughout her career to help nonprofits grow and flourish. After completing the ESC application process, she was accepted into the Episcopal Urban Internship Program.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Spotlight on Solidarity: One Body, One Spirit

Spotlight on Solidarity: One Body, One Spirit
By: Amy Sapalio, Intern

“Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one spirit, and we all share the same spirit.” 

1 Corinthians 12:13
Pia, Carmen, and Marian

I followed Pia and Marian up the dimly lit stairwell to apartment 3B, the sounds of children yelling and someone’s blaring TV behind us. The heavy, metal door swung open, “My babies! I am so glad you are here! Come in, hold my hand. Come on girls,” exclaimed Carmen.  The Heart’s Home USA volunteers were ushered inside in a flurry of excitement as Carmen settled in for an afternoon of story-telling and fellowship.

Heart’s Home USA’s mission is to be present, be a companion and often times, to be silent. Volunteers in 20 different countries dedicate their time to forming personal relationships with the suffering and isolated in deprived areas, orphanages, jails, and nursing homes. The strength to share the hardships of the community’s neediest is found through an intensive commitment to prayer.  Volunteers come together in the morning and evening, relying on God to support them through their mission and calling to mind each of their friends, including Carmen.