Saturday, December 20, 2014

A moment of compassion and peace

By Kelsi Holmes
On mission in India with Heart's Home

When we arrived at the room of Pathamma, she was in the same place and position that she had been in the day before. She had not moved in some time and was lying in days worth of her own waste. Near her head sat a bowl of untouched food. The hum of flies surrounding her unmoving form was audible. There were ants in her mouth.

We were seized with pity for this woman who had long since been abandoned by her family because of her illness. No one cared for her. No one loved her. This human being, this soul, this supreme creation of God was left alone to wallow in the degradation that had befallen her and not a single person cared. Filled with the compassion of Christ, we boldly proclaimed: “We will care for you. We will love you. And if you have no one else in the world... you have us.” Girded with the amour of prayer, we stormed the gates of this woman’s personal hell willing to do everything in our power to alleviate her misery, even if just a little bit for just a little while.

We had next to nothing in the way of supplies but made do with what was available to us. We asked her neighbors to lend a few things, a pot to heat the water, a wall to hang the saree to dry. None of them were very fond of her so it wasn’t easy but we managed to scrounge up what we needed and then got to work. We washed her saree, cleaned her room, and then came the hard part...bathing Pathamma. We were generally inexperienced which made the situation somewhat stressful and to see a human being in such awful conditions is no easy thing but we did best to put on a smile and to sing while we worked.

We suspect that she hadn’t been eating or drinking for a while and as a result, she was a little out of it. I think she didn’t have the energy or the presence of mind to speak to us. She said a few words of refusal when I tried to feed her but that was about it. But while we were bathing her, she reached up and began to wash her own face and at that moment, she gave us smile as bright as the sun. Then, just before we left, she clasped her hands in front of her face in a silent gesture of gratitude. Those two actions, as small as they may seem, meant more to me than a thousand thank you’s.

We told Pathamma that we would return and we told ourselves that, next time, we would be better prepared. That was the last time I saw her alive. She died just a few days later alone, and in the same state that we had found her. When we came to pray over her before the burial, we were dismayed to find that even in death, she was uncared for. Her family was notified but no one came so only the bare minimum was done for her and I can tell you that for a lonely leper lady, it isn’t much. There was nothing I could do to change it so I tried my best to accept it. Her funeral consisted of Father Oliver, Latha, Chrisanne, a few men who also had leprosy, and myself. It was very short and very simple.

After the funeral, one man approached us and thanked us for the work we had done for her. He said that after we helped her, other people took notice and started to do little things for her also. In saying this, he showed us something that we very rarely, if ever, get to see. He showed us the fruits of our mission. Not only had we brought compassion to this poor woman but it touched those around her also. I feel in some way that by providing me with the opportunity to see this grace, Pathamma gave me a much greater gift than I ever could have given her.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

God is with us – now!

By Jim Lindsay
Executive Director, Catholic Volunteer Network

Christian Appalachian Project summer camp counselors enjoy a weekend of reflection and rest
as they explore Eastern Kentucky.

Jesus informs us that the Son of Man is coming at a time when we least expect him. There are many ways to explain this saying. Let’s begin by posing the question, “When do we least expect him?” It seems to me that the time we least expect him is right now, today.

We have faith that Jesus came long ago as a babe in Bethlehem. We trust that he will appear someday on the clouds of the sky. But, we do not anticipate him to come today to our home, our job or even our church. Therefore, this must be the most probable time and place for us to find him, right here and right now.

Christ House volunteer Rita Lis served as
a Nursing Assistant in Washington, DC.
Let’s admit it; most of our life is ordinary. Only in films, novels or on television are people always experiencing some kind of crisis or excitement. For the most part, for you and me, the story is quite different. We work, eat, sleep and then we get up and start all over again. On weekends there might be a bit of variety - do the laundry, clean the garage, buy groceries and then, for a real change of pace, we might go out to dinner. On Sunday we go to church, and then on Monday morning we get up and start all over again.

This is the true stuff of which life is made. Someone has termed it “blessed monotony.”  I think that is a fitting description of most of our days. If Christ is to be a tangible part of our lives, this is where we must discover him. After all, this is where most people seem to have met him. In the New Testament, the only real spectacular encounter with Christ was the blinding vision that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. But, that was the exception, not the norm.

Peter and Andrew met him while cleaning their nets beside the Sea of Galilee. For them, that was an ordinary thing, and it was something they did every day. Christ came to them, and they followed him; the rest is history. James and John met Jesus in the same place, on the same day. The woman of Samaria met him while she was at the well drawing water. It was something she did regularly. Matthew met him while working in his tax collecting office, something he did on a daily basis.

That is how people encountered Christ when he walked this earth, and that is where we will find him in our day. We must look for him in the mundane and learn to recognize him there. The challenge is that the Lord travels incognito with his true identity concealed. He is the master of many disguises.

Jonathan Tyler served at the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters' mission in the Dominican Republic
where he taught English to children and adults.
One day, he will show up as an old woman in a wheelchair at a nursing home. Another day, he will be a child wanting someone to read him a book or a patient in the hospital desiring a visit. Another day, he will be a teenager needing encouragement. Today, he might be a single mother wanting a babysitter and tomorrow, a wife craving a hug.

Yes, it is well and good for us to anticipate the coming of Christ at the end of the world or to look back longingly to his coming into this world as a baby. But, in the interim, we can expect him to appear behind some crafty masks. Most days, if we find him at all, it will be in the midst of ordinary living in the people we meet each day.

Amate House volunteer Jackie Fielding served at
Ravenswood Community Child Care Center in
Chicago, providing childcare and mentoring for
teen parents and local families.
For more than fifty years, lay volunteers serving with Catholic Volunteer Network, throughout the U.S. and around the globe, have sought to see Christ in the eyes and feet and hands of those they serve – the poor and oppressed and those on society’s margins. Last year, we helped place more than 22,000 women and men, young and old, single and married, with or without children, in a myriad of sites, where they provided healthcare, education, social services, pastoral ministry and a host of other good works.

As we remember the birth of Christ as a human person, and look forward to his coming again to fully save us, please help us at Catholic Volunteer Network to also see his presence in the everyday needs and wants, the joys and sorrows, of our sisters and brothers across the world. Your support will make a real difference in allowing volunteers to reach out to Christ hidden in the lives of the poor and neglected. This Christmas season, please consider a one-time or recurring gift to Catholic Volunteer Network by visiting our safe and secure site at:

May you experience the presence of Christ in this holy time! Please be in touch with us this new year with your ideas about faith, service, and Catholic Volunteer Network’s role in helping people to see the intersection between the two!


Jim Lindsay
Executive Director

Friday, December 5, 2014

{Vatican Radio} Pope Francis: voluntary workers are builders of peace and harmony

By Linda Bordoni
As posted on Vatican Radio

A Project FIAT volunteer works alongside a local villager to prepare food for the community in Salvador, El Salvador.

(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis thanked voluntary workers across the globe describing their work with men and women in difficulty as a living witness of the tenderness of Christ, who walks with humanity in every era.

Speaking to members of FOCSIV, an International Federation of Christian Voluntary Workers whom he received in audience on International Volunteer Day (December 5), the Pope says voluntary workers offer an image of a Church that rolls up its shirt sleeves and bows to serve its brothers and sisters in difficulty.  

Pointing out the fact that poverty must never be an occasion for someone else’s gain, the Pope invited voluntary workers to persevere on their unselfish path.

He notes the changing face of poverty in a world in which – the Pope said – the poor themselves want to become protagonists of their lives putting into practice solidarity amongst those who suffer. He told the volunteers that they are called to take notice of the signs of the times and to become instruments at the service of the activism of the poor. Solidarity, he said, is a way to make history together with the poor, turning away from alleged altruistic works that reduce the other to passivity.

The Pope points to an economic system that ransacks nature as one of the main causes of poverty. Mentioning deforestation, environmental catastrophes and the loss of biodiversity in particular, Pope Francis says it is necessary to remember that creation is not “property of which we can dispose of to our benefit, and less still is it the property of few”. Creation – he says – is “a wonderful gift that God has given us to take care of and utilize for the benefit of all, with respect”. And he encouraged volunteers to continue in their commitment “to safeguard creation so that we can hand it over to future generation in all of its beauty”. 

Other causes of poverty the Pope singles out are tied to “the scandal of war”. He says that working for development, volunteers cooperate in the making of peace and the building of bridges between cultures and religions.

He says that even in the most difficult situations voluntary workers are sustained by their faith; he says their presence and their activities in refugees camps are a tangible sign of hope for so many people in the world who “fleeing from the horrors of war, or persecuted for their faith, are forced to abandon their homes, their places of prayer, their lands, their dear ones! How many broken lives! How much pain and destruction!” Before all of this – Pope Francis says – “the disciple of Christ does not turn the other way, but tries to take some of the burden from suffering people with his closeness and evangelical welcome”.  

Migrants and refugees
Finally the Pope turns his thoughts to migrants and refugees who attempt to leave harsh conditions of life and dangerous situations behind them. And pointing to the necessary collaboration of all: institutions, NGOs and ecclesial communities to promote new policies and measures for peaceful cohabitation, he calls on the commitment of States to effectively manage and regulate these phenomenona.

The Pope’s message comes on International Volunteer Day during which an annual Prize is awarded. This year the Award went to Maria Luisa Cortinovis: wife, mother, grandmother, teacher and missionary. She received the Prize during a ceremony held at Vatican Radio.

See the original piece and listen to the radio version here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Home is where the heart is at peace

By Molly Magri
St. Joseph Workers volunteer serving at St. Joseph Center

I’ve always had a difficult time trying to explain where my home is, or where I’m from when I’m asked those questions.

You see, unlike many people I know, I’ve moved around the country quite a bit. I started off in California, then made my way back and forth across the country for a grand total of seven moves. For those of you who struggle with math, that’s an average of 1 move every 3 years. Now you can see where the identity crisis comes into play.

Molly at her desk - or "office home"
I’ve never stayed in a place long enough to say “I’m from [blank]”. The best I can come up with at this point is “I’m from the Midwest”. I lived in Chicago 3 different times, went to school in Cincinnati and my parents recently moved to Cleveland.

Nowadays, when I tell my story to Californians, they always tell me that I’ve come home, since this is where I was born. I only lived in San Juan Capistrano for the first 2 years of my life, so that’s a little hard for me to justify. The fact of the matter is, I’ve been asked this question, “Where are you from?” for my entire life, and I have a feeling it’s not going to stop any time soon.

Once I came to this realization, I started thinking of “home” as less of a physical entity and as more of an abstract idea. 

Some of the first images that pop into my head when I think of home are my friends at Xavier. I had the time of my life those four years in Cincinnati, and one of the most significant reasons for that is because of the family I made there. I loved every minute of it, the good and bad, because of the people who were with me along the way.

House blessing by Fr. Greg Boyle
Another thing I think of when I hear the word home are my parents and dog, Max. Even though the place where they live changes frequently, they are always my family, and they will always be my home. Ironically, I’m writing this as I sit on an airplane enroute to my “home” in Cleveland.

And finally, I’ve recently started to discover my home here in Los Angeles, amongst the palm trees and the Pacific. I’ve found a home at Visitation parish. It’s a church right up the street from my house and from the first time I stepped through the doors, I felt a sense of comfort; I felt like I belonged. As soon as I registered as a new member, the pastor Fr. Jim wanted to set up a meeting just so he could meet me. He was so impressed with my year of service with the St. Joseph Worker program and my willingness to move to a new city where I didn’t know anybody. He even asked for my parents’ phone number so he could call them and tell them how impressed he was with me! So that is one place I now call my home.

Molly gives diapers to a client
Another home I have been adopted into is at my placement site, St. Joseph Center. From the day I started working there in the food pantry, I felt welcomed into the family. We had our annual staff retreat recently, and as I participated throughout the day, I got to observe this loving family in action. People from completely different programs and departments come together to form this family where everyone cares about each other. I never could have imagined working at a place like this amazing, but now that I’m here, I never want to leave.

Every day I get to interact with clients from all walks of life: my clients come from Mexico, Russia, as well as the streets of Venice. I feel more and more at home at St. Joseph Center every day. There’s a pretty famous quote you’ve more than likely heard before, “home is where the heart is”. I agree with that, but I like to add a little to it. My heart can be anywhere in the world, but if I’m not at peace wherever I’m at, that’s not home in my opinion. “Home is where the heart is at peace” is a little closer to reality. I’ve found peace in many corners of the world, and I’m happy to say one of those corners is Los Angeles.
Molly prepares food with Chef Dereck

Monday, November 24, 2014

Loving with an Open Hand

By Ariana Rangel
AmeriCorps Member at Maggie's Place

There is a beautiful image of Mary and Eve that I really love in which Mary is comforting Eve. The colors are vibrant and the message it conveys is a comfort to me. As Mary crushes the serpent that is wrapped around Eve’s leg, she holds Eve’s hand to her rounded belly, sharing with her the hope of redemption in Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, clothed in her own hair, Eve clutches a small, red apple to her chest.

Two months ago, I came to Maggie’s Place – a home for pregnant and parenting women in need – with a mission to be like Mary, bringing comfort to the women I’d be serving along with a simple yet resounding message of love and hope. I thought I could be the Mary and they could be the Eve. I thought I would be the strong one, the one that rides in and casts the darkness from their lives with a sweep of my hand. I thought I could crush their serpents with my little foot.

But when I’ve looked in the mirror these past two months, it is I who am consistently clutching that little red apple to my chest. In this story, the real story, our moms are the heroes, God is their strength, and I’m just along for the ride.

My first contact mom at Maggie’s Place was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met. At 38, she was the oldest mom in the house and the grooves in her face told the story of a hard and sorrowful life. On that same face, her smile beamed joy at her newborn son whenever she held him. She was the living image of my definition of Maggie’s Place: a place where joy and sorrow go hand in hand. She was so motivated to leave her old destructive life behind and start fresh with her son, and I was going to do everything I could to help her. Together, we would change her life!

In my head it was inevitable; it was basically a done deal. She would be a classic Maggie’s Place success story and her picture would flash across the Maggie’s Place website for years to come.

 Then one evening, just as things were looking promising for her, she didn’t come home. I waited and waited past curfew, staring down the front door, praying that she would walk in. Any minute now. Any minute. But she didn’t. And she never came home the next day, or the next. And she never answered her phone.

I was angry and hurt for her. How could she do that? How could she just disappear from our lives without even a memo or a goodbye? It didn’t seem fair. I may never know the reason why she never came home that night and I could stay upset about it forever, or, I could let go of that apple that I was holding onto so tightly and trust that God was in control of the situation. I wanted so badly to love her the way I knew how, the way I thought was best, but God was asking me to love in a greater way. God was asking me to love with an open hand.

 In his book “Community and Growth,” Jean Vanier explains that, “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets.”

Here at Maggie’s Place we get the chance to witness moments of great wonder and beauty, moments of deep sorrow and hurt, joy and cheer, fear and confusion, and we thank God for all of it. For whatever our sorrows, whatever our joys, whatever our current situation, we must trust that God is giving us our greatest chance for holiness. He is carrying every mother and her child down a winding, unique, and sometimes bumpy path and all we can do is walk alongside each other and live in that wonderment each day. God is asking us to let go of the apple and simply love with an open hand because it is then that we can truly witness the way he is giving us our greatest chance for holiness.

Like the first time a mother invited me to feel her child kicking inside of her, Mary invites Eve to feel her Son. I can only extend my hand to that invitation if I have nothing clutched within it. I can only be a witness to God’s wonderful work in her life if I’m not clinging to my own agenda. He calls us to love with an open hand because no matter what our situation may look like, He is there to give us our greatest chance at holiness.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Discernment story: Be a human being, not a human doing

By Mallorie Gerwitz
Former Colorado Vincentian Volunteers member
From Service to Sisterhood Vocation Story

My senior year of high school was when I first felt that I heard the call to professed life. 

I spoke to Sister Jean, FSSJ at my high school but I wasn’t ready to truly make that kind of life decision. It was difficult enough choosing a college and program of study for the following year. So I started my freshman year of college at Niagara University. I was overly involved in many activities that first year, trying to do it all, when it came to me that life is not about quantity but quality of work. I realized I needed to step back and really look at what I wanted to do with my time and how I wanted to make an impact on the world. 

I stepped down from positions and out of clubs to really take time to analyze what direction to take. After my first year of college ended, I was hired at The Preschool Learning Center in Springville, NY, as an aide for the summer.  This preschool works with kids with varying levels of disability. I was placed in a classroom of children with severe autism who were all non-verbal. I remember seeing the Speech Pathologist work with the kids and thought "This is what I want to do!"

I transferred to Nazareth College of Rochester in the Communication Sciences Disorders Program. I studied so hard to earn the grades that I felt were necessary, all in an effort to get to the future, always with that graduate program in mind, never focused on the present.

I did volunteer which helped to keep me grounded. I volunteered with a program on campus called Learn and Serve and I also lived my Junior year on the Service Learning Floor, a community of individuals committed to volunteering 30 hours per month of community outreach and service. 

 The one thing that stayed with me was a thread of Catholic Social teaching: respect for the dignity of every person, especially those who are poor. I realized many of the individuals I was reaching out to were on the margins and I was learning more while serving others than what I was actually giving to them.

 During my last semester of college I lost a few close relatives. My mom’s cousin, my great grandmother, a great uncle and a great aunt, all within three months time. I also was filling out graduate application forms and doing my final student teaching placement to earn the last part of my long awaited Bachelors of Science with Initial Teachers Certification Degree. I felt like even with the deaths and all of this that I was for sure going to be accepted into graduate school and all would be well. 

God works in mysterious ways. I was wait-listed and told that 350 applicants had applied for 35 graduate positions. I knew that this was not working the way I had planned.

Jamie, Catholic Chaplin at Nazareth College of Rochester, helped me see that I had other options. He handed me Thomas Merton's book Seeds. I read that so quickly! In our next encounter, Jamie gave me a copy of the RESPONSE book and told me to check out doing a year of service. I found a few programs that spoke to me, applied to a few and ultimately felt I was being directed to Denver, Colorado, to do a year of service with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers.

The Colorado Vincentian Volunteer program changed my life.  I started to think of service in terms of a life choice, a vocation/ministry and not just a week service trip or a year service trip.

I met the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth at my Volunteer site, Mount Saint Vincent Home of Denver, CO, a  residential and therapeutic facility for children who have experienced neglect or abuse. I remember walking into my volunteer site and seeing this quote from Mother Xavier: “Look forward to the Good that is yet to be” (Mother Xavier is the foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth).

 When I think of my life stretched out in a line I think of what I have done, who I am, and what I hope to be and I ponder St. Vincent and St. Louise’ life. I think of the root word for Compassion, which means to suffer with. I would like to say that the threads of my life have offered me many moments of compassion.

As Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves...” At this time in my life I feel that I do not have all the answers but I am willing to take that next step in inviting the questions. I find I am at a depth of acceptance and peace in moving on to at least being able to ponder God’s call. I think a lot of that work came about when I started accepting my true self, as Thomas Merton talks about at length, and placing emphasis on myself as a Human being, Not a Human Doing.

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Discernment story: “You could be happy like that”

By Sr. Meg Kymes
Former Vincentian Service Corps volunteer in St. Louis, MO
From Service to Sisterhood Vocation Story

From the moment I met them I felt drawn to their joyful spirit. I heard this little voice inside of me say, “You could be happy like that.” At first I was shocked and a little scared. I tried to push the little voice away and say NO! But, the voice got more and more insistent and I had to at least see what was drawing me to the Daughters of Charity.

That was almost 8 years ago, and today I still feel as called as I was then. Now, I am ministering as teacher’s assistant at Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg, MD. Looking back, it was not just the Daughters' joyful spirit that kept me coming back to them during my discernment, but other aspects as well.

There is a saying in the community that says, “If you’ve seen one Daughter of Charity you have seen one Daughter of Charity.” I have found this to be true. Among us you will find we dress the same and many do similar works, but underneath the works and blue and white habits you will find many different personalities, interests, and backgrounds which makes life much more interesting! There is truly room for everyone at the table of Vincent, Louise, and Elizabeth Ann!

I also saw a great openness and flexibility in them; my vocation directress told me over and over, “A Daughter of Charity, if nothing else, is flexible.” Vincent would call this obedience; he told the first Daughters they would go where they don’t want to go and do what they don’t want to do not because of themselves but because of God’s will. While going where we don’t want to go and doing what we don’t want to do seems like a bad thing, it isn’t always. I used to visit a sister at our retirement home in Evansville, IN, who went from growing up on the streets of Chicago to spending 55 years in Japan. She told me she wanted to go to China, but God had other plans for her. She stayed in Japan all that time happy to follow God’s will for her. 

I to have found myself in places I never imagined doing things beyond my wildest dreams because of being open to God’s will. I’ve lived in Indiana and New Orleans and now in a small town in Maryland. Now, I was born in raised in St. Louis and until meeting the Daughters had no intentions of ever leaving St. Louis. However, I would have never found New Orleans which has become one of my favorite places on earth!  I fell in love with the city, the culture, and the people. If I was not flexible and open I would have never had that experience like the retired sister who had the opportunity to serve the poor in Japan for 55 years.

Most of all, I was continually drawn back to the Daughters of Charity because their love for the poor. Louise implored us in her Spiritual Testament, “…above all take good care of service of the poor.” Vincent told us, “Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arm and the sweat of our brow.” 

While a relationship with Jesus is central to a Daughter’s life, all of our prayers, daily Mass attendances, spiritual readings, and Rosaries are done to give us the spiritual energy to go out to those living in poverty. Most of the Daughters I have met say what makes a true Daughter of Charity is love for the poor. Their eyes light up when they speak about their current ministries or their past experiences of serving those living in poverty. 

So, why am I drawn to the Daughters of Charity? I fell in love with the poor and decided to follow Christ’s call to by being given to God, in community for, their service.

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Keepin’ It Real With 3 Recruitment Fair Best Practices

Recruiting for your program at volunteer or career fairs is an amazing way to connect with students looking for post-graduate opportunities. Here are some tips for making the most of these fairs! Many of these tips came from observation, experience and conversations with veteran recruiters.

It’s easy to feel like you could have said more during these conversations. I wonder what I did or didn’t say. I want to respect the discernment process while encouraging students toward volunteering. How can I find that balance without “sound biting” CVN programs? I remind myself that many students feel overwhelmed with fairs and further the prospective of exploring our 200+ programs.

Nevertheless, I have found three key tactics to engaging students in meaningful conversations at fairs:

  1. Tell them who you are, but don’t be afraid to get to the point. During a conversation with a program director at a recent fair, I learned that she struggled with attracting students to her program due to its geographic location. She later told me that over 50% of volunteers who participate in a year-long commitment are employed by the end of their service. I immediately thought, how do you not lead with this? It’s important to share your mission and vision, but things like job security or geographic location can shift a student’s perspective of post-grad service with your organization. They will listen more attentively to what you say to them.
  2. Students appreciate when you affirm them for feeling overwhelmed or confused. In some cases, I have met students who know exactly what they want to do and where they want to go. But many still have that look of “I have no idea!” You know, that girl who clenches her RESPONSE directory and all other program collateral a healthy distance from having to actually communicate with a recruiter. Part of this comes from a fear of being locked into a program. The other part comes from an overwhelming lack of direction and 20 tables in a room isn’t their ideal situation for exploring options. This makes recruiter affirmations that much more invaluable. A simple “it’s ok if you have no idea what you want to do” or “you don’t have to make your decision today” goes a long way and creates a comfortable space for students to ask questions.
  3. Read their non-verbal signs. Body language is my guide to starting a conversation with a student. There are some who walk right in, grab a directory and start talking to each and every recruiter or stand by your table even when you are talking with another student. There are others who slowly move from table to table grabbing information and observing conversations from a distance. These students won’t make eye contact or they will keep their body turned away as they prefer to independently explore options.

Every student is different with her or his goals when attending a career fair. Recruiters find the flow that works for them and their program’s needs. These three tips are sure to get you on the right track to finding your recruitment.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Living Simply So Others Can Simply Live

By Olivia Elswick
Salesian Lay Missioner
CVN 2014 story contest winner

This is the story of one girl living with 25 little men. No, it isn’t an account of Snow White and her dwarf friends; rather, it’s the tale of the time I spent in rural Davangere, India, working as a caregiver, English teacher and tutor at the Don Bosco Children’s Laborers Rehabilitation Center. Though this story isn’t a fairytale, it is a story that I hope will result in a happy ending for the children who have touched my life.

These boys, along with the 25 girls from the convent down the road have been rescued from child labor and are being rehabilitated for a year before going to school for the first time. These children have resumes longer than most people my age—construction worker, servant, brick maker, trash collector, factory worker—yet one would never know their past of abuse, addiction, slavery, and abandonment from spending time with them. Before beginning my time in India I kept in mind Mother Theresa’s words, “living simply so others can simply live.” When reflecting on my favorite moments at the Children’s Center, I’ve found that most of them stem from our simple moments together. 

 Armed with only a jumbo pack of crayons, I was asked to lead art class for the kids on weekends which took some invention. Instead of drawing on paper we colored the rocks and leaves we found in the school yard. These quickly were stowed away in their lockers with their prized possessions which included anything sparkling or glittery they found (usually this was bits of candy wrappers) and bottles of crusty nail polish that they loved to paint their nails with. Though the nail polish was in short supply the boys loved to give me manicures so we could all have matching turquoise fingers. The polish was short lived however, as our right hands served as our utensils. 

One day Lokesh, a quiet little boy with no family, who had once asked me if I would be his mother, handed me a scrap of paper and asked me to do a magic trick with it. I turned the scrap into a paper crane and from that moment on the kids begged and begged for cranes of their own—the solution was 50 cranes made of pages ripped from my India guidebook. 

 These children are the most devout, joyous and caring people I’ve ever been blessed to spend time with. In their short 7-13 years of life they’ve gone through more turmoil than most have in a lifetime. Their unwavering faith, despite all obstacles they’ve overcome, is truly inspiring. One day I gave the kids my camera to play with during their free time. They returned it to me an hour later, its memory card filled with hundreds and hundreds of photos of crucifixes, Don Bosco images and Mary statues that filled the compound. They fought over who would hold my hand, eagerly stuffed balls of rice from their dusty hands into my mouth and would pick flowers to adorn my hair.  What floored me most is the day a woman walked by with a basket of oranges to sell; each child has but a few cents to their name but they raced over to her goods and eagerly bought oranges to give to me.

The most remarkable thing I was struck by when spending time with these kids is how incredibly smart and hardworking they are. Each day at seven their beaming faces raced towards me to be first in line for English tutoring, shouting, “Hello sister!” or “Sister I-love-ya!” - since my name “Olivia” proved difficult to pronounce. The kids would forgo bedtime T.V. in favor of more studying; every moment of freedom they tried to fill to the brim with new information. Each meal I was bombarded with “Sister! English!” as they pointed to objects around them, asking me to translate for them. The difference between “eyes,” “ice” and “rice” was a difficult lesson to master.

 Though I was there to teach the children English and art, the kids ended up teaching me more than I could have imagined. They taught me how to wash my clothes on a massive rock and beat them on the ground to ensure their cleanliness. The boy who had been saved from a leper colony (where he was assigned the job of stealing coconuts) taught me how to select the best coconuts depending on what I was in the mood for—tender coconut to drink, dehydrated coconut to munch on, or the gooey coconut to use for hair oil and eating. The boys showed me how to chase down and capture pigs and chickens. The girls taught me how to properly fix my hair, make brooms out of palm fronds and how to crack coconuts. I learned more than just survival skills, however. They taught me perseverance, faith and love.

Little arms tattooed with names of past owners and return addresses (in the event they escaped) now lovingly embrace new brothers and sisters. Little feet once raw from working in the fields barefooted now race from class to class. Little bellies all too familiar with going without food are now filled with unending laughter.

My job duties in Davangere, joyfully singing and dancing throughout the day like Maria Von Trapp with the children, or walking the girls in two straight lines to and from their home at the convent a la Madeline and Miss Clavele have renewed my faith and strengthened my relationship with God. My favorite moments with these children came from living simply with them, and by living modestly I have been able to more fully appreciate the children’s presence and better see the handprints they have left on my heart. Living simply means enjoying the gifts God gives us, and these children, whom I now consider my brothers and sisters, have been the greatest gift of all.