A Different Kind of Service Year

Serving at Don Bosco Cristo Rey has been a unique year of service opportunity. Typically, when one thinks of a year of service, they envision direct contact with the poor and the homeless; working at a soup kitchen, working in a donations center, or another ministry akin to those. However, at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School and Corporate Work Study Program, there is not that same feel. I am working in an office setting, wearing a shirt and tie every day. One must look deeper than the surface to see the service being done here. The students with whom I have had the pleasure of working with this year are extraordinary. Don Bosco is a low income high school, but our students do not let financial setbacks define who they are, but instead use it as a catalyst to take advantage of the college preparatory education presented to them at Don Bosco.

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Cap Corps Volunteer, John Sorice, and Ana Chapa, Director of the Corporate Work Study Program, with the statue of school patron, St. John Bosco.

Don Bosco is a part of a 30 school nationwide Cristo Rey network. Being a low income high school, students must demonstrate a financial need to attend. To offset the cost of tuition, students participate in the work study program, through which they work a corporate job 5 days a month. After first learning about the mission of Don Bosco, I did not really understand how high school students could work in the corporate world, or at what types of companies they would be working. However, not long after being here, I quickly realized that our students contribute real work to real law firms, government agencies, accounting firms, and many other businesses across the Washington D.C. metro area. In my position as a Program Assistant in the Corporate Work Study Office, I am constantly able to engage with the students. Seeing them in school, at work, and during their afterschool activities has given me a deep appreciation for what it means to be a member of the Don Bosco family. At a placement like Don Bosco, it is easy to be content with the plethora of paperwork and excel spreadsheets that need to be completed. At times, it can be difficult to see the service. However, there are so many opportunities to engage in the service at Don Bosco if you are open to taking advantages of the opportunities presented. Throughout the course of the year, I volunteered to chaperone the homecoming dance and prom. I volunteered as a baseball coach, and played in the school futbal league. These opportunities to engage with the students outside of the classroom and work environment helped me to develop a relationship with the students built on trust and mutual respect, which truly reflect the Salesian approach to education.

When making the decision to participate in a service program, you expect to make a difference in the lives of those you serve. However, my experience here at Don Bosco has felt a bit backwards. It is difficult to appreciate the impact you are having on young lives while volunteering, I am confident this is something I will be able to reflect upon once my service year is complete. However, what I feel on a daily basis is the positive impact that each one of my students is having on me. Despite their financial circumstances, their home lives, or the obstacles they face each day to succeed, the students of Don Bosco Cristo Rey come to school and work with an incredibly positive outlook on life. Their ability to thrive when people have told them they cannot has pushed me to be a better person, and to appreciate the gifts and talents I have been blessed with. I cannot imagine my year of service anywhere other than Don Bosco, and am thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of a school tasked with a mission to change lives.

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John Sorice graduated from Villanova University and worked at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School as a Cap Corps Volunteer for the 2015-2016 Volunteer Year. He supported students directly in their roles at work, providing mentoring and guidance, as well as communication with supervisors. He was offered a position at the end of his service year and is currently on staff at the high school.

Moments of Epiphany

I love helping students understand things. That’s something I only discovered this fall, during my tenure volunteering at St Francis International School.

Elementary school kids aren’t too thrilled when you drill them on grammar. Nor arithmetic, multiplication tables, or spelling. Trust me, I know. I’ve been drilling these subjects into the kids at St Francis International School since August. They squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, stubbornly insisting that they get it, that no, they really don’t need my help, that wrong answer they just wrote down was a fluke. A former chair-squirmer myself, I override each student’s objections, plop myself down stubbornly in the nearest teeny-tiny chair, and drill grammar and multiplication until, seemingly magically, my students get it.

That’s the moment I live for- the one when something clunks into place, and suddenly my student understands something he or she didn’t two seconds earlier. It’s wonderfully clear when that epiphany moment happens. There’s this shy smile that overtakes the student’s formerly haughty expression.

I saw it when cool eighth grader Brian, already grumpy at being forced to spend his precious recess practicing for the Catholic high school admissions test, suddenly understood the mysterious pattern behind using commas to connect clauses. For a moment, the haughty expression masking his day dreams of throwing a football were replaced by a shy smile towards his desk.

I saw it when Veronica, a mathematically struggling fifth grader, suddenly understood subtracting mixed numbers. Ignoring her fluttery insistence that she needed no help, I sat beside her until she too wore a shy smile, emboldened by five correct answers in a row.

On days when I have those encounters, I leave St Francis School feeling no less exhilarated than my students. I helped someone understand something! I taught a child something that I myself didn’t understand when I was his or her age! That day, a child wouldn’t have to suffer a pain I’m still familiar with: the embarrassment and frustration of not understanding something that seemingly everybody else got easily.

Volunteering at St Francis reminds me of perhaps the most basic principal of ministry: Ministry begins in using your own experiences to make someone else’s life a bit better, even if your own experience was nothing more than confusion and self-doubt.

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Christiana Gellert is a graduate of Catholic University. Her placement is at St. Francis International School in Washington, DC. 

 

Prayer & Ministry by Amber Johnson

Tuesday is my prayer night in our community in the Cleveland house. I work as a Patient Advocate/Health Care Coordinator at Migration and Refugee Services, and a couple weeks ago I decided to mention the refugee crisis and incorporate the struggles of these modern-day individuals and compare their plight to those found in various passages of the Bible.

The first verse I mentioned was Exodus 14:1-14.  In this passage, God convinces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. Soon after Pharaoh sends them on their way, he changes his mind and sends waves of men on chariots to chase after the Israelites, which are swept away by the sea during their pursuit.  This is many ways is very similar to what is going on in our world today.  People are being driven out of their home countries or are forced to flee due to persecution and oppression.  There are hundreds of thousands being killed and tortured for simply being different or for their beliefs. With such evil and hate surrounding so many, it seems impossible that there is any good in the world.

Most of the refugees I come in contact with acknowledge that even before they had the slightest hope of coming to the United States, it seemed highly unlikely that there was a plethora of “do-gooders” in the world willing to help them. Although they appreciate what we do, because of where they have come from and what they have endured, it seems utterly bizarre that there are so many (in the U.S. or other countries) willing to help people that they don’t know or who may be very different and seemingly unrelatable. Just as Moses reassures the Israelites, the compassion and care on behalf of those fighting for justice reassure the refugees that, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Those who have suffered greatly will eventually be rewarded greatly, they need only to have faith and patience.

The second passage reflected upon on was Psalm 34.  Highlighting how those who fight for justice will be protected, praised, and uplifted by God, I used this verse as a continuation of the verse in Exodus.  While those who are living in fear are “being still,” and putting their faith in God, God inspires millions to fight for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the downtrodden.  My favorite line of Psalm 34 reads, “Learn to savor how good the Lord is; happy are those who take refuge in Him. This means that those who truly believe in the wonders of the Lord will be at home with Him and will be rewarded for their faith. I believe that anyone seeking change and fair treatment for the lowly are looked upon in favor by God, and He will always have a special place in His heart for the brave.

I closed my reflection with the verse Romans 8:28-39.  Perhaps the most powerful of the three passages, this verse solidifies that no matter who, what, where we are, how we feel, or what we have done will ever keep us from being loved and guarded by the Lord.  Putting this into context with today’s issues; fear of persecution, torture, death, despair, etc. cannot stand in the way of God leading us to salvation.  We will always have someone looking down upon us and fighting for us, if we continue to fight for His kingdom here on earth, regardless of our gender, our color, our religion, our language, or even our political ideals. These three verses challenge us to be patient and to trust in the Lord, and if we do, we are promised eternal love, guidance, and protection, no matter what evil we have faced. I call upon everyone to think about your relationship with God, and ask yourself if you have done the things these verses ask of us. If not, I leave you with my favorite line, and perhaps a reminder of how blessed we are and a call to do the same for others, like the refugees, who have not been as fortunate. Romans 8:31 “What then shall we fear? If God is for us; who can be against us?”

Amber Johnson is a graduate of John Carroll University. Her placement is at Catholic Charities: Migration and Refugee Services in Cleveland.
Amber Johnson is a graduate of John Carroll University. Her placement is at Catholic Charities: Migration and Refugee Services in Cleveland.

Reflection on Pope Francis’s Visit by Kyra Malamood

 Looking back on last week, I still cannot express my thoughts and feelings adequately.  Words simply fall short. Not only did I get the chance to join hoards of people at the Papal Parade on Wednesday, but by complete grace, I also found myself standing among the crowd at the Capitol on Thursday morning listening to his inspiring, wise, and truly life-giving address to Congress. All I can say is how lucky I am. God is Good! (All  the time). After sharing the tales of the two days of papal festivities, my dad simply said to me, “I wish I had you on video, so you could hear the excitement and joy the way I just heard it from you.”  My presence there made the Pope’s visit real for my family and friends who could not be there, and to think of all the people our Holy Father reached through that very same chain of thought and connection is so very powerful. Joyful, surreal, beautiful, holy, special, life-giving…the list of words goes on, none of which seem to capture the sentiment of those two days. I know that in months, and years from now, I will look back and still think, My God, I was so lucky. While the early mornings, the incessant standing, and the extremely high emotional arousals left me physically tired, my soul felt rejuvenated. And while I just may have been playing the naïve, idealistic, faithful 22 year old, I think DC as a whole felt a little different following the Papa’s departure.
            A special reflection from last week comes from the experience at the parade. The roommates, the Cleveland volunteers, Margaret and I were beyond blessed to have the opportunity to serve as volunteers with the Archdiocese of DC at the Papal Parade. Our main goal of the day consisted of being “Carriers of Joy,” to simply “Share the Joy,” promoting and living out the slogan “Walk with Francis.” And sharing in the JOY is exactly how that day felt. We woke up at 3:30 that morning to prepare to greet the many-and I repeat MANY-eager, Pope Francis-loving parade-goers. Some of these people, amazingly, arrived to stake out spots before we even found our volunteer locations. Adorned in bright yellow shirts-seemingly symbolic of the light Pope Francis emits to the world- we handed out stickers and Pope Francis cards and allowed for photo-ops with a huge banner as people passed by. While we were expected to be greeting the people, I often felt as though I was greeted by them. Their joy and excitement became my joy and excitement. Through the faces of these diverse people, I witnessed how very easy it is to make a small but meaningful impact. In those long hours of the morning, I felt as though I was on the Papa’s team, working alongside him-I liked to joke that we served as his ‘away’ team. Clearly though, all a part of Team Joy.
            That day at the parade I received many gifts, but I wish to share two. First, the reminder that what fills us most in this life is communion with others. I will never forget the moment Pope Francis rode by on his Pope mobile, waving and beaming at all of us, because never have I felt such unity with complete strangers. All of us, if only for a moment, forgot ourselves as we focused on a true figure of love, compassion and wisdom. For now in my mind and heart, that moment will represent a glimpse of what shared eternal joy may be like someday.  Secondly, the reality that the act of giving ourselves to others is when and where joy is found.  Pope Francis knows this very well, and my fellow Cap Corps members and I have committed a year of our lives to seek this truth. However, many of us first saw volunteering merely as an opportunity to see the Pope, to get off work and join others in the frenzied hype of his arrival. That mindset quickly changed as we began encountering the people. Feeling blessed to not only be one of many coming to observe the Pope’s radiance, but to also have the privilege to actually help spread that joy put the whole day into perspective. Pope Francis calls us to encounter each other, selflessly and delightfully, and volunteering that crazy blissful day reminded me just how contagious and true that reality is for us all.
Cap Corps Volunteers work as "Carriers of Joy" for the Papal Parade by passing out Pope Francis prayer cards and stickers.
Cap Corps Volunteers work as “Carriers of Joy” for the Papal Parade by passing out Pope Francis prayer cards and stickers.
Pope Francis!
Pope Francis!
Pope Francis on the big screen praying at St. Matthew's Cathedral following the parade
Pope Francis on the big screen praying at St. Matthew’s Cathedral following the parade.

Kyra Malamood

Kyra Malamood is a graduate of Villanova University; her Cap Corps placement is at the Spanish Catholic Center.

The Little Things ARE the Big Things by Gabby LePore

The other day, I kept trying to think of something big that has happened so far that would be obviously recognized as a success, but had no luck. I went to work that day, and it was one crazy thing after another. I was needed in three different classrooms that day and was going crazy trying to track down kids and sneak them out of classes to have them contribute to their teachers’ surprise teacher appreciation gifts for Catholic Schools Week.

In the middle of the chaos of my day, one of my 7th graders, Arianna, asked me if I could stay after school with her for tutoring, which I have done on a handful of occasions. As we sat there after school, it turned out that she didn’t really need my help with her work. She and I usually work on her math but she didn’t have any math homework and is doing pretty well with their current material. What she really needed was supervision after school so that she could stay and use the computers. She told me she didn’t have internet at home and it was hard to get a lot of her work done there since many of their assignments are web based. So I sat with her, and we talked as she finished her project. Then she asked if I could help her with her religion homework and to study for her vocab test the next day. I found out that her mom doesn’t speak any English, so she isn’t able to help her with her homework. I made her some flashcards and quizzed her to show her how to use them.

In the middle of studying, one of my first graders name Gia, was walking down the hall to the bathroom. She is in our after care program since her mom works late. Earlier in the day, she was upset about the lunch her mom packed and refused to eat anything. I promised her that I would sit at her lunch table and let her draw something on my hand if she ate her lunch (I can’t remember for the life of me how that idea was even presented – it definitely wasn’t my idea!). As Gia passed the classroom where Arianna and I were working, she came in to remind me that she had yet to draw on my hand. I told her to come in and pulled a marker out of my pocket and handed it to her. She took it, wrote “I ❤ Gia”, and then skipped happily back to her classroom as I admired her handy work. Then I turned back to Arianna to apologize for the interruption in our studying and she said, “I can tell you really love kids.”

As I drove home at the end of my 10-hour day, I realized that that was my success. I was looking for something huge – a student whose grade jumped from a D to an A, a crisis that I managed, something extraordinary. But I realized that my successes are the little moments where the students feel loved and know that they are the reason I get up and come to work in the morning, that my goal is to ensure their happiness and success. The little moments that remind me why I put in 9-10 hours a day when I don’t have to or get paid to do so and why I love doing it.

Cap Corps Volunteer, Gabby LePore
Cap Corps Volunteer: Gabby LePore

Gabby LePore is a graduate of the University of Maryland; her Cap Corps placement is at St. Francis International School in Student Support Services. She’s always been interested in the field of education and her year at St. Francis is helping her figure out what role fits her best.