Tuesday, September 26, 2017

I Chose Service: Theresa Kennedy, Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain

After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Theresa Kennedy
Location: Aston, PA
Hometown: Albany, NY
College: Princeton University '14, Political Science major

How did you first learn about post-graduate service? I learned about my particular service program through Catholic Volunteer Network’s website. I saw an immediate posting for the Franciscan Volunteers program in Aston, PA, and I happened to be looking for a faith-based opportunity for the near future. Additionally, I was already living in Philadelphia, so it wasn’t a huge move for me. When I found out I could serve on a farm, I became very interested in applying to the program, and I contacted our program director, Sara Marks.

What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? This fall, I was deciding between a couple of service programs as well as a few full-time jobs. I had just finished a summer position working with the Free Library of Philadelphia on a children’s literacy program, and was interested in continuing some form of direct service, but this time, in a faith-based environment. I applied to different full-time positions in the areas of youth ministry, social justice advocacy, and faith-based education, but I didn’t have much luck. 

I decided to look on the Catholic Volunteer Network website, and there I found postings for two different service opportunities that appealed to me. After visiting both programs, and comparing the direct service versus indirect nature of each program, I decided to pursue the Franciscan Volunteers program in Aston. Here I would be within a smaller community and working on an organic farm. The opportunity to be outside and working with food and nutrition really interested me, and so for a number of reasons, this is the program I chose. I feel confident that I would have greatly enjoyed and grown from the other program I visited, but felt called to pursue the Franciscan Volunteers program, and have been very grateful for what I have learned and how I have grown this year.

Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. As a long-term volunteer on Red Hill Farm, I perform farmhand duties to keep the farm running daily and from season to season. In addition, I co-teach “farm-to-school” nutrition classes and cooking classes three times a month to the third and sixth grades at an urban Catholic school nearby. Red Hill Farm is a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm in a rural Philadelphia suburb. It is owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, and has been functioning on an organic produce-only farm-share model for over 17 years (though the farm has existed for many years, and even had cows at points!). My work on the farm includes seeding, planting, weeding, tilling, irrigating, washing, harvesting—you name it! I am humbled by the experience, and have become so much more aware of and grateful for the workers who put the food on our table each day, as it is hard work! It has been a blessing to be outside each day (in all types of weather!) functioning as one with the earth.

My experience with community has been extremely fruitful. It is the first time since high school that I really have functioned in a family-type setting, as I am accountable for what I do (or don’t do), where I go, and how I act. It was, at first, a more challenging transition perhaps than I had expected, but it has proven to be so rewarding. I have met two wonderful women with whom I pray, cook, talk, laugh, do yoga, and cry. By living with others, you certainly get to know them well. Though we have had our struggles with communication and responsibilities of duties, we have had to work through them, and as a result, our skills in these fields have developed greatly. These skills are absolutely necessary for life, and I am so thankful to have grown and shared with my community in the process. 

What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? My spiritual growth has been exponential this service year. My faith life has developed so much in terms of prayer, theology, and personal practice. I have learned about the Franciscan charism, theology, and all about St. Francis’ life. I have participated in new worship styles, including Taize, contemplative prayer, and meditation. I have developed a more intensive daily personal practice of prayer, reading, and meditation. I have met regularly with a spiritual director, formed deep relationships with the sisters, and shared my faith daily with my community members. Spiritual development has been probably the greatest aspect in which I have grown this year, and I am so thankful for this. Franciscan Volunteers has been true to its mission of faith formation.

Though faith formation has been the greatest space of growth for me personally, I have also grown personally and professionally. My personal development has been through my community life. I have become a more accountable, responsible person, and a much better communicator. In terms of professional development, I have become more confident in my skills and talents, and have been willing to share my ideas more easily. I have also come to value my co-workers more than ever before, as fellow brothers and sisters who need and deserve love and respect just as I do. I feel very prepared for whatever the next step in my life will bring.

What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? I would say to do it! Take the chance (As Mother Bachmann said, “No risk, no gain,” which is where the name of our program comes from). There is so much that we can learn about ourselves and others, and the relation between ourselves and others, which is so necessary for finding ourselves and figuring out who we want to be. In the early years out of college, we begin to solidify the person we hope to be for the rest of our lives, and it is for this reason that a year of service can truly have a lifelong impact. So, take the chance! No risk, no gain. Challenge yourself to be vulnerable, learn by doing, and find your God-given purpose.

To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Poverty of Connection: Loneliness as a Social Justice Issue

By Maria Shibatsuji, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry  

“You’ll come back next month, right?” Alice, one of the residents of the Senior Buildings I visit suddenly asked me. The question took me by surprise. I had finished taking her blood pressure and a few moments earlier we had been discussing our current crocheting projects. As a Program Assistant for the Tele-Heart Program at Bon Secours Hospital, part of my service involves Community Outreach, visiting Senior Apartments in West Baltimore to conduct blood pressure screenings, teach nutrition classes, and help out with the monthly newsletter education. While my supervisor, a cardiac nurse, goes over our newsletter, I take the blood pressures of the senior residents who are present. Alice had been a regular participant in the newsletter education event we hold in her building. She had severe arthritis in her hands and because her disease had progressed, she could no longer use the controller on her motorized wheelchair. When I assured Alice I would of course be back in a month for another newsletter education and blood pressure screening, she replied, “Okay, because I’ll be waiting for you.” Her comment warmed and broke my heart simultaneously.

Social injustices are caused by an imbalance of power and resources, perpetuating feelings of powerlessness and isolation. I am discovering that loneliness is a social justice issue that impacts many of the people I serve. I see loneliness as a form of poverty; a poverty of connection. I would be naive to think that seniors come to my monthly nutrition classes and blood pressure screenings for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge and to monitor their blood pressure. I am realizing that they also come for the conversation, a chance to connect with another fellow human being, and the opportunity to share their wisdom through story-telling and conversation. Talking about loneliness feels taboo, but the truth is, we all have experienced moments of loneliness; of wishing someone, a good friend, a family member, would reach out to us via text or a phone call. While I work primarily with seniors, I know experiencing loneliness is not limited to the elderly. I know when I experience loneliness, I am accessing one of the most human parts of me; a part of me that connects me to the human race, the natural yearning for connection and belonging. We are not the only humans who have felt lonely before and we won’t be the last ones to feel this way.

I am realizing that one of the most important ways I am practicing justice this year is providing an antidote to loneliness; through cultivating connection and developing relationships with those living in poverty-stricken areas. If loneliness results in an individual not feeling heard, practicing justice creates a space where one is acknowledged and fully heard. I have chosen to be a constant companion to the seniors, even if it is only for a year; to be a voice that validates their experiences and encourages inclusiveness. It is in this way that we mutually experience justice.

Anticipating my year of service, I expected to encounter emotional walls that the people I were to serve had put up. I believed these walls would prevent me from fully connecting with them. I remember putting myself in the senior residents’ shoes and concluding that I would have a difficult time letting a stranger into my life. Little did I know, the walls that I imagined were of my own. Transcending cultural borders and age differences, the senior residents I have interacted with have welcomed me into their lives, sharing more deeply than I ever have when I first meet someone. I have had the privilege to learn about their social backgrounds, details about their family members, see their childhood pictures, and tour their apartments. From the sharing of their memories, I have a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of the people of Baltimore. While taking blood pressures and engaging in patient education is important, my actions are futile if not paired with what many seniors value most: the time I spend with them one-on-one. My favorite, and the most important aspects of my position are the same: being fully present to each individual I serve. I listen to and respond to their stories of finding hope amidst change and challenge. The gift of their presence, in turn, has broken down my walls and I hope they feel the same joy they bring to my heart.

To learn more about service opportunities through Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, please click here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

I'm Not Sure...

By Brian Bayer, Rostro de Cristo Volunteer 

Before I knew nothing, I knew everything. I had just graduated from John Carroll University and knew exactly where my next year would lead me – with a Bachelor’s degree in hand and two week-long immersion trips to El Salvador under the belt, this social justice warrior was ready to fix Ecuador. After all, a minor in Spanish and an open heart were all the tools needed to address the daunting poverty-scape of the developing world, right?

Confidently armed with these skills, I remember rolling through the disparate sprawl of urban Guayaquil towards our final destination in suburban Arbolito, thinking about how I could follow the famed Ignatian aphorism to “go forth and set the world on fire.” A free bike maintenance service was my first idea – how great would it be if I could use my knowledge of bike repair to offer people a free service? Or maybe repainting the dilapidated benches and pews of the parish would help! I was ready to sweat, and sweat I did; but not for any of the reasons I thought I would.

Over the course of the next year, I witnessed, experienced, and loved the true faces of those trapped in the whirring cycle of systemic poverty. But in order to do that, I had to first sacrifice the toxic notion that I could do for others and instead embrace the idea of being with others. This is the mission of the organization with which I volunteered– Rostro de Cristo, the Face of Christ. We call this form of service a ministry of presence, the idea that our actions are temporary but our presence, our being, in the lives of those around us, regardless of the socioeconomic barriers that distinguish our backgrounds, is the most essential aspect of modern service. 

During the day, I did the standard activity trademarked to so many programs: teaching English to kids who don’t have access to great education otherwise. It was definitely rewarding every time I saw that bulb light up over a student’s head when the First Conditional finally clicked, and it gave me a sense of mission and purpose. But this part-time job of playing teacher was merely the backdrop of a deeper experience. At the core of our program were the five pillars that made up the Way of Life – Spirituality, Simplicity, Service, Community, and Hospitality. Our jobs provided a lens through which to contextualize these values, but our time with neighbors and each other helped us to truly understand them.

At the end of the day, it’s all about intentionality. How are my decisions affecting the world? Where do I fit into the bigger picture? And is that bigger picture a portrait of justice for all or justice’s evil twin brother– privilege?

Our seven-person community of volunteers worked in different parts of the city in different jobs – education, after school programs, healthcare, and community outreach programs, to name a few. But each night, after an exhausting day of being present to the Ecuadorian community, we broke bread together and eagerly shared the highlights of our days.

For as many days as our stories were uplifting, there were a proportionate number that were heartbreaking. What do you do when a friend tells you that they won’t have water to bathe until the next day at some point (maybe)? What do you say when a mother of three tells you in confidence that her husband hits her?

The answer is: Nothing. There is nothing you can do or say to change this reality. You listen. You cry. You try unsuccessfully to wrap your head around why it’s like this. And you pray that they will be able to find comfort in the solace of God and each other.

As we digested our food each night, so we digested our days. We had community and spirituality nights each week where we sat down in the candle-lit corner of the house that we designated as our chapel and worked through the glorious and devastating mysteries that we were experiencing. I found that I was uncharacteristically silent during most of these nights – I yearned to share my feelings about what I had witnessed and gone through each day; but in the soft glow of the candles in the company of my volunteer family, I could rarely find the words to even begin to express my thoughts. I guess not much has changed.

The founder of our program, Father Jim Ronan, once told us that this one year of service was akin to filling up a cargo container to the brim, which we would then gradually unload for the rest of our lives at the unlikeliest of times.

So now it’s been three years, and I’m just starting to crack the combination lock on that cargo container, wading through the ocean of experiences and trying to figure out what it all means. I no longer live in the sweltering equatorial heat of a simple concrete house cooled only by grinding ceiling fans; I no longer cook for six other people on a strict poverty budget; I no longer feign simplicity to strive towards solidarity; I no longer dizzy myself spinning dust-covered five-year-olds out of their arm sockets to offer them a moment of the much-needed attention they might not otherwise get. So what does it all mean? I don’t know. In fact, I know less now than I ever have. But maybe that’s the whole point – it’s not about knowing, or doing; it’s about being and loving, and beyond that everything else will fall into place.

To learn more about service opportunities through Rostro de Cristo, please click here. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

More Than Just a Volunteer

2017 Volunteer Story Contest Winner

By Andrea Haller, Mercy Volunteer Corps

Dear Future Volunteer,

This soon-to-be title of yours makes you so much more than you now know. Yes, you will be volunteering as a nurse, or teacher, or social worker, or care provider. These are all important roles – but as your service progresses, you will realize you have taken on many more roles than you first intended. 

Last August, I joined Mercy Volunteer Corps, and set off for Georgetown, Guyana in South America, where I began my year of service as Intervention Specialist for a primary school at a boys’ orphanage. I was thrilled to bring my knowledge and skills to a place that had never had special education services before. I would be able to help children who felt stuck. Within the first month, I realized that I was needed for many more reasons. 

When the boys cut their feet while running barefoot in the field, they needed someone to clean and bandage their wounds. I became a nurse, even though I hate the sight of blood. When they got into rough fights with other boys, they needed hugs and consolation, so I became a comforting mother to boys who couldn’t be with their families. My boys also needed a girl’s advice as they developed crushes, so I became a friend with whom they could share gossip and laugh about their flirting slip-ups. They craved attention, so I became their biggest fan and cheerleader. My favorite role of all came when the boys needed someone to lovingly pick on – so I became their sister. I started the year with three brothers and now I am proud to have 55.

My heart overflows with love when I realize these new roles I have been granted through service. I did not intend for this to happen – however, I'm so glad it did, because it is the most rewarding part of my volunteer experience. The additional roles you take on will be the most meaningful and fulfilling piece of your service. You will realize your strength, your purpose, and how deeply you can love. Your service has no limits, so let go of expectations for your work and dive in. Of course, it is far from easy, but I promise it is worth it.

Over time, I realized that I also had to make time for self-care. I couldn't always fill every role when I neglected myself. I learned that self-care was necessary to be healthy and to fulfill my many roles successfully. So as you dive in, don't lose yourself. Your first  role is to take good care of yourself. When you fulfill that role successfully you will become a volunteer, and more. 

Let yourself go beyond your title of nurse, teacher, social worker, care provider, and so forth. You are a volunteer now. Take that title and be everything you can be for the people you serve. You will be fulfilled and transformed. Amazing roles and experiences are ahead, Future Volunteer, I assure you.

Andrea Haller
Intervention Specialist (Nurse, Mom, Friend, Cheerleader, Sister)

To learn more about service opportunities through Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here.