Friday, September 25, 2015

My New Sight: Mikaela

Mikaela Prego is a May 2015 graduate of the University of Notre Dame who is currently serving with ACE in Denver, Colorado. So far, she has had 4 full days of teaching school and describes herself as "slightly sane and fully crazy at the moment". She loves the mountains of Colorado and already has been to the top of Mt. Evans! 

What inspired you to serve?
This is a hard one to answer. I am not completely sure what convinced me to apply to my program and then accept it. I just kept finding myself being drawn to ACE and I just couldn’t say no, everything fit together so well. The desire to serve though was planted in me in high school. My school’s motto was “servium,” or “I will serve.” I felt like I did not give enough time to service during college and a guilt sort of built up and hung around me all through junior and senior year. I wanted to refocus myself. It was actually a youtube video of Stephen Colbert’s commencement speech at Northwestern University that reminded me how important it is to always be serving those around you and so I acted on that feeling.

Mikaela (bottom) and the Denver ACE community
What continues to inspire you, now that you've started?
My community, all the people in my program, all of the people who did this before me and all first year teachers inspire me every day. It is incredible what teachers do and that they are able to do it well. I am constantly inspired by the passion I see in my community, in my school and those who are invested in education. How can I not want to be a part of something that is working so hard to give children everything they need to succeed?

Of course my students inspire me daily. I want to help them. I can see how much they know that they don’t even realize and I would love to be someone to help them realize how much they actually know, and how much they are teaching me. They are truly incredible, even on days when they talk all through the hallways or forget how exactly to sit in their chairs or that glue sticks should not be glued to the desk. They are pretty cool humans.
Denver ACE Community after a hike to the top of Torreys Peak
What is it like living in community with other volunteers?
Right now living in community is the greatest thing I could have in my life. That sounds dramatic, but I look forward to coming home to a house full of friends and passionate people. There have been a couple days that I have been the first home after school and my heart drops. I just love coming home and being able to talk about the day. Of course there are challenges, but I have been so lucky to be placed with incredible people who share a wonderful and quirky sense of humor and share such a joy for serving, even on days when it brings you to tears. I think community is my saving grace as a first year teacher.

Has "simple living" been a struggle so far?
Yes. There have been some negative bank statements and cereal is now a staple of my diet, but to be honest I think the hardest thing for me is to define what simple living really means to me. I think the hardest thing is discovering what living simply means and how that is related to what keeps you mentally sane. Does living simply mean that we should limit how much we eat out together, or how much we drive to explore the city, or how often we take ice cream trips? What is necessary to live simply and what is necessary to keep myself mentally healthy? I find myself asking this question a great deal.

Any short stories about your work that you'd like to share?
Every day is definitely an adventure, so I’d say that my work offers a great deal of stories. One in particular stands out to me. In 4th grade we have "read aloud" every day after lunch. For the past two weeks we had been reading “Sideways Stories from Wayside School,” by Louis Sachar. It’s a fantastic book, one that I have not read since I was in fourth grade. But we were reading a chapter about Joe who has trouble counting and his teacher, Ms. Jewls, who tries to help him. When five objects are placed in front of him Joe will count “1, 4, 6, 3, 5.” Ms. Jewls struggles a great deal trying to explain to him that although he arrives at the correct number the way he is counting is not correct. For some reason this made my students crack up. They all started laughing all at once and so I started laughing and there was just so much joy. Just thinking about Joe counting makes me crack a smile. I am so looking forward to more surprisingly joyful moments as we continue through this year together! 

To learn more about serving with ACE, click here

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My New Sight: Sarah

Sarah Staten is a St. Louis native who loves Cardinals baseball, beating everyone at board games, and her many, many sisters and nieces. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in May, Sarah began her two years of service with the Billiken Teacher Corps in St. Louis, Missouri. 

What inspires you to do service?

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'." --Erma Bombeck      

When I think about all that I have been given and blessed with, I cannot help but feel called to give back to those who need it most, in whatever capacity that God allows me to.  We all have different gifts and talents, and I want nothing more than to use what God has given me to love and serve others.  In doing so, I know I am giving glory to God by putting to use the gifts He has given me. My parents have also played a huge role in encouraging me to give back.  "To whom much is given, much is expected," (Luke 12:48), as my parents continually remind me. 

What is it like adjusting to living in community?
Overall, I love living in community, it is one of the best parts of the Billiken Teacher Corps. (BTC) through St. Louis University.  At first it was a big adjustment to get used to the different personalities in the group.  None of us were friends before, and jumping into a program like this, it was like living with strangers at first!  It was awkward to get used to everyone's quirks and pet peeves (like putting the toilet paper roll on a certain way...who knew that was a thing!).  And adjusting to group responsibilities was hard, too.  Everything you do now affects five other people, and not just yourself.  But the more we talked, and had community nights, and bonded over summer classes, the more we grew to know, understand, and love each other.  Initially, I struggled with accepting the different personalities, perspectives, and viewpoints of my other community members.  How could we all be so different and still want to do the same program?  Why couldn't they agree with me?  However, once I let go of that desire for control, the more easily I was able to come to love and appreciate each member of my community.  Now I know each person’s quirks and mannerisms, when they are aggravated or when they are happy, but I am still continually learning more about each person.  Relationships take time and effort, and patience is crucial when getting to know new people.

Another aspect of community life that is incredible is the support.  It is so comforting to know that on a night when I am up late grading, someone else in the room next to me is doing the same thing.  The solidarity in that makes the late nights, overbearing parents, failing students, and never-ending grading all the more bearable.  Having people who know and understand what you are going through and what you are feeling is incredibly helpful.  I also love coming home after a long day and having a community to share my stories with and to hear their stories as well.   

What does "simple living" mean, and how is it different from what you are used to?
"Simple living", in the context of the BTC, means living in a renovated convent with an 8x8 bedroom, sharing your living space with other outside service groups, living off of a teacher stipend, participating in weekly community chores, doing dishes without a dishwasher, finding (and sometimes killing) bugs throughout the convent, and walking up three flights of stairs to get to your bedroom, to name a few.  While these are not terrible or initially shocking things, they are little things that I took for granted and did not realized make such a big difference.  It is in these little challenges that I learn to be patient and tolerant.  I have to remind myself of my blessings and remember not to complain.  This simple living helps us as a community to appreciate what we do have and focus our time and energy on serving other and being present to one another.    
Sarah and the Billiken Teacher Corps community

To learn more about serving with the Billiken Teacher Corps, click here and here!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

What does Laudato si' say about faith-based service?

By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff
Community, simple living, social justice, spirituality…for so many volunteer programs, these four values serve as the foundation – guiding their mission, enriching their impact, and shaping their programming. Here at Catholic Volunteer Network, we refer to them as our “Four Pillars.” I recently read through Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si’ and was surprised to see these very familiar themes running throughout the entire document. It was almost as if the Pope was speaking directly to us faith-based volunteers!
I began reading the, excited to hear what Pope Francis had to say about care for creation, but I did not expect to be so challenged to deepen my commitment to community, simple living, social justice, and spirituality, which were so integral to my own mission experience over ten years ago. The encyclical affirmed the lessons that service taught me about relationships, the dignity of each person, and our interconnectedness, but it did not stop there. As I prayerfully read through the document, I felt called to repentance for the many times that I have not extended these values to my relationship with the earth. Over and over I have neglected my responsibility to care for all creation. The encyclical encourages all of us to do more, saying “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” (19)
If you haven’t gotten the chance to read through Laudato si’, I highly recommend it. Although long, it is easy to read – and serves as great material to guide prayer and meditation. Here are a few passages that make reference to our four pillars:
Social Justice:
“Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus discover what each of us can do about it.” (19)
“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (49)
“We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.” (52)
“Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God, and with the earth.” (70)
“Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” (84)
Simple Living:
“Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption… A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment.” (222)
“Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.” (223)
“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain train, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.” (233)
“Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different place. Water, oil, fire, and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise.” (235)
I hope that Laudato si’ encourages you to see God’s presence in all living creatures, and in this beautiful earth that we all call home. Whether you are a current volunteer, former volunteer, or someone who is looking into the possibility of becoming a volunteer - I think this encyclical will be a great resource for your faith journey. And, if you've already read Laudato si' comment below to share how it has impacted your commitment to service

If you are looking for more information about this encyclical, check out these resources:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My New Sight: Interviews with Brand New Volunteers!

Have you wondered what beginning a long-term service project would be like? What is hard, surprising, different, and inspiring about it? Follow the stories of Grace, Sarah, Mikaela, Ryan, Michelle, and more, in our “My New Sight” section of our blog this month.

My New Sight: Grace Carroll
Grace Carroll began serving with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) in Biloxi, Mississippi this August. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May 2015. In her free time she enjoys swimming, running, hiking, and, of course, Notre Dame football!

What inspired you to serve?
I have been interested in teaching since I was in elementary school. My commitment to Catholic education has only grown since high school, as a student at Notre Dame. With my desire to participate in post-grad service, as well as live in an intentional faith community, ACE was the perfect fit! As the time came to make decisions about life after graduation, I could not imagine doing anything else – I felt called by the Holy Spirit to teach with ACE in an under-resourced school somewhere in the US.

What continues to inspire you, now that you've started? 
Every single day has challenges, and every single day has small victories. However, it can be very hard to recognize those little blessings amidst the chaos, failed lesson plans, classroom management struggles, and homesickness. Prayer has sustained me, as has my ACE community and my family. I begin each day in prayer, asking God to help me see those blessings – whether that be a student mastering a concept, or witnessing students’ kindness to one another in the hallway, or an encouraging comment from a co-worker, or my students’ smiles when they see me in the stands at their volleyball game. God is everywhere. Learning to see Him in the hallways of my school in southern Mississippi is what sustains me. 

What is it like living in community with other volunteers?
I could not do it without them, especially being in a completely new community, city, state, and region. On bad days, they leave an encouraging post-it or give you a much-needed hug when you come home or send you a prayer that strikes a chord. On good days, they are your biggest cheerleaders. There's always someone to make late-night ice cream runs with, to bounce crazy classroom activity ideas off of, and to talk through struggles with. I know that community living will not be without challenges, but we strive as a house to assume good will of one another, to be honest in our communications, and to see Christ in each person. 
ACE Community in Biloxi after the first week of school

Has "simple living" been a struggle so far? 
Again, community is huge because none of us are buying new clothes or eating out multiple times per week. We love exploring the local area and trying new food places – we just are always on the lookout for economical ways to do this! I have had a more difficult time not spending money without hesitation on classroom resources and Spanish materials!

Any short stories about your work that you'd like to share?
Although I often doubt myself and my abilities as a high school teacher, I love my students. They are energetic, joyful, resilient, creative, forgiving, and kind, who never fail to make me laugh. On one of my first weekends down here, our Campus Ministry team of juniors and seniors was having their start-of-the-year retreat…at a student’s house. As one of the Campus Ministry faculty members, I found myself up at 2 AM eating s’mores with a dozen of my students at one of their houses. I couldn’t help but laugh! Welcome to Mississippi!

To learn more about serving with ACE, click here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Power of Compassionate Care

By Jessica Biser,  Mercy Volunteer Corps, serving in Savannah, Georgia

Mercy Volunteer Jessica Biser cares for a patient
at a clinic in Savannah, Georgia. 
You’re a 35 year old woman from a corrupted and poverty-stricken village in Mexico. You have three kids with hungry bellies but not enough food despite all your efforts. You’ve heard all about the “American Dream” and decide it is time for you to experience it for yourself in order to support your family. After a grueling trip, you arrive in the U.S., a place glowing with big buildings and fancy people who speak a language you don’t quite understand. Shortly after arriving, you become sick, most likely from traveling in close proximity to others. You arrive at your appointment to find a doctor who towers over you like a giant oak tree and an interpreter who speaks incomplete Spanish. After your general exam, you begin to mention dizzy spells you have been experiencing recently but the doctor looks annoyed. She doesn’t seem to care about your complaints as her attention moves to her phone. You’re unsure what an “anti-inflammatory” or “steroid injection” is and don’t exactly understand how to take your meds, but choose not to ask any more questions to this impatient doctor. You feel out of place, but remind yourself that you came here for your family you left behind in Mexico; they need your help, so you envision them and push forward.

Unfortunately, this is what immigrants experience and is more common than we wish to believe. I know because I have seen it while volunteering at a free clinic in Savannah, GA. As the interpreter, I notice the patient’s uneasiness when the doctor rolls her eyes after more than one complaint. I see the provider standing in a power stance as the patient cowers in the corner timidly. I hear the terminology used and witness the blank stares in response. But the patients have no other choice. Many Latinos flee their country out of fear, hunger, poverty or a combination of the three. Either way, they come to improve their lives, but when faced with healthcare, they have nowhere to go. Our system is imperfect and seems to create an uphill battle for undocumented Hispanic citizens with cultural barriers forming hurdles along the way. The two cultural barriers that were universal among patients I served were language and health literacy.

Language is an obvious issue. If you don’t speak the native language, how are you going to express your health concerns? Of course, you can use an interpreter but you’re placing a lot of trust and faith into a stranger to efficiently communicate and understand your problems. Unless you have family or friends who can speak English, you’re always relying on a stranger to be your voice about your own health. Language barriers are the first contributor in a patient’s removal from healthcare, literacy being the second. Doctors commonly use medical jargon that doesn’t make much sense to anyone but themselves. When you have language as an added obstacle to literacy, it’s like giving these patients braille and telling them to read it with their hands tied behind their back. It simply isn’t fair to send them on such an obstructed path for something as serious as their health. To make matters worse, they’re too intimidated to ask clarifying questions to the doctor directly so they remain in the dark about most of their care. At this point, after stumbling over two hurdles, the majority of the patients are now twice removed from their care, so distant from connecting with the physician that the whole visit feels almost useless to them. Without a bilingual physician who will take time to explain medical terminology to patients, these problems will persist.

This experience motivates me to provide compassionate care to patients in an open environment. It will remind me, as a physician, to be empathetic, understanding and to really find where the patient stands in all aspects of their life so I can meet them at their level. I cannot change our healthcare system, but I can change my interactions with these individuals and advocate for a higher quality of care for Latino immigrants. My hope as a future physician is to eliminate cultural barriers by providing care to Hispanic patients in a comfortable environment where the patients feel they can express their concerns freely without judgment. Not only has the Lord called me to do his service, but specifically to be his hand and heart in medicine for those who otherwise may not receive care. I would like to end with a poem representation of the immigrants I have been referring.

Will you accept my differences?
The Mercy Volunteer Corp. teaches the support staff the art of yoga. 
The ones you see so clearly
Of language, ethnicity, and education
Contrasting those of your own
Shift your perspective and you’ll see we’re the same
Experiencing pain, love, loss and joy

My knees wear bruises of forgiveness
My skin dressed in stains of suffering
For I have left my country, my home
Seeking your support and guidance
But instead I’m seen as rotten fruit
Unpleasant and useless

My hands reach for approval
My ears listen for hope
My heart screams for love
My eyes seek justice
My mouth remains shut
Because nobody can hear me

I’m willing to give you my hands scarred with labor
To give my mind etched with experience
To give my heart overflowing with gratitude
The question is,
Are you willing to move past your stigmas?
Are you willing to accept?

To learn more about Mercy Volunteer Corps, click here!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Arizona Strong - A volunteer reflection

A reflection by Victoria Niedzielski, Mercy Volunteer Corps 2014-2015

The day was May 8, 2015. My community - Karen, Erin, Mary-Kate, Mariah, Kirsten - and I were on our way to Tusayan, Arizona, the town that sits right outside of Grand Canyon National Park. Way back in October, a time that now seems a hundred years ago, we had all signed up for the Grand Canyon Half Marathon. Out of the six of us, only two identified as runners. Even they had only run one other half marathon before. And that was in Page, Arizona, where the elevation is 2,000 feet lower than that of both Tusayan and our home of St. Michaels, Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation. This half marathon was going to be a challenge unlike anything we had ever faced before.

As we sat in the van in our usual seats, Mariah and Kirsten in front, Erin and Mary-Kate in the middle, Karen and I cozy in the back, driving as we had driven many times before, that’s when it finally hit me - the sharp realization that I am going to have to say goodbye to my community soon.

One of the reasons I chose to serve with Mercy Volunteer Corps was their emphasis on community living. Dedicating yourself to those in need is a big aspect of a year of service, but it’s important that you get something out of it as well. Community living gives you the opportunity to grow, empathize, live, and love with others.

As the year winds down, I am sure that my time of service would not have been the same if I did not have my community. Volunteering for a year can be hard for people to understand. I’ve gotten many confused questions and comments about choosing to live out a year of service. We live in a world where everything we do has to have a clear and definite purpose, usually one that will benefit us in the future. We go to high school and get good grades that will get us into a good college. In college, we pursue a responsible major that will get us a job right away. We make money to buy a car, a house, have a family, a dog, go on vacations, and eventually save enough to retire. To perform a year of service is to go against the current. There is something sacred about living with other people who also chose not to glide down the river, but to push against its waters, trying to make a splash in places where other people may turn a blind eye.

Two of us, Mariah and Mary-Kate, teach at St. Michael Indian School, a local Catholic school. The rest of us work at a special education school, St. Michaels Association for Special Education. Erin is a nurse, Kirsten is a teacher, Karen works in the therapy department, and I am in administration. Our community grew organically from the start. Each one of us brought something special to our home, whether it was a new way of thinking, a new dish for dinner, or simply a shoulder, or five, to lean on. There can be a lot of sadness on the reservation, which can be frustrating. We are making our own dents in the world through our service, but at the same time we know we can’t fix everything by ourselves.

I’ve learned how important human relationships are. I am an introvert, yet I am constantly being drawn out of my room and into our community space, even if that means just sitting at the kitchen table with a couple of my roommates. If more people were open to wanting to create mutually happy and kind relationships, the world would change so much. We are all human beings, after all, living in the community of Earth.

So, a day later, on May 9, 2015, my community and I were back in the van. This time we were a lot more tired, a lot more sore, and now each of us donned a medal: Grand Canyon Half Marathon Finisher. We did it. Together.

Saying goodbye to my community will perhaps be ever harder than running that half marathon. I’m sure we will keep in contact. We will text, we will email, and we will talk on the phone. We even have tentative plans to meet up once a year for a reunion. But nothing will ever be the same as living together as a community.

When I think of my year of volunteer service, I will think of the vast Arizona sky, the numerous stars that light up the night, free to shine far from from city lights. I will think of the Navajo people and their beautiful ways of looking at the world, about how they walk their sacred land with such reverence and respect, how their spirituality is firmly engrained in their everyday lives. How they have suffered but still rise. I will think of carefully budgeting our stipends each month, planning meals, looking for deals. And I will think of my community: how six strangers became sisters in a matter of months. I am on my way to accepting that, in a few weeks, I will no longer be able to walk up the fifty stairs to our apartment and be greeted with a wave of laughter and warmth, but I know that we will always have Arizona.