Marked for life
Former full-time volunteers confess that their experiences change them for good.
“This feels like a homecoming,” Beth Knobbe told a retreat group of both new and familiar faces—30 of her fellow alumni from Amate House, a Catholic lay volunteer program in Chicago. Knobbe actually lived with just a few of the retreatants when they were part of the program. Most of the alumni on the retreat were more recent Amate graduates, including eight who had just completed their service year in 2006, 10 years after Knobbe had finished hers. Still, Knobbe immediately felt connected to these young adults, who knew what the full-time volunteer experience was all about.
“All of us can admit that an experience like Amate changes us,” Knobbe said. “We use that wonderful phrase ‘ruined for life,’ which is to say, ‘you will never be the same.’”
For Knobbe, being “ruined for life” meant that after working for a corporation for seven years, she found herself “giving in to God’s deep desire for my life.” She earned her master of divinity degree at Catholic Theological Union and became a campus minister at Northwestern University. Being “ruined,” however, isn’t just about one’s career. “It’s a way of life, a way of being with others, and a way of being with God,” Knobbe said. “Service is more than something to cross off our to-do lists. It isn’t something we do; it’s who we are.”
The 30 Amate alumni at this retreat are just a few of tens of thousands of alumni from numerous Catholic service programs in the United States and abroad. These programs allow young adults, generally right out of college, to work with the poor without pay while living in a supportive faith-based community for a year or two. Though each program is unique, four common tenets often shape the volunteer experience: social justice, community, simple living, and faith. These tenets also become values former volunteers live by for the rest of their lives.
Working for justice
Nikki Rohling planned to pursue a career in public relations for chemical companies after graduating from the University of Dayton in Ohio. After a year teaching preschool through the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, she knew that neither public relations nor teaching were for her. Instead she took a job at the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services. “I never thought that volunteering would lead to a full-time job,” Rohling says. Now the associate director of CNVS, she helps 5,000 people a year have similar life-changing experiences.
“Volunteering is a really good professional stepping-stone,” Rohling says. “A lot of times people say it’s taking a year off, but as far as professional experience, you gain a lot.”
Half of her 12 roommates, Rohling says, stayed on at their volunteer jobs. According to a study of Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) alumni, 48 percent of former volunteers—compared to 28 percent of all college graduates—work for non-profits and the government (including education), and their top three professions are teaching, health care, and social services. Moreover, 72 percent of former Jesuit volunteers say that social justice is important to their career.
Interacting with the poor also affects how someone lives out his or her concern for social justice. Jennifer Griffin, who majored in Latin American and urban studies at Fordham University, for instance, thought she wanted to help people by planning neighborhoods. After two years of reflecting on her future and working with teenage mothers as a Good Shepherd volunteer in Lima, Peru, however, “I really realized that God gave me gifts to work directly with people rather than working with neighborhoods,” she says. “God was calling me to work with people emotionally and spiritually.” This fall she will start a master’s program in social work.
After direct service, volunteers tend to have a bias against business—a sense that “business is evil, [and] I can’t go into it,” notes Brendan Comito, who volunteered with JVC from 1989 to 1990 and is the third generation of his family to run Capital City Fruit in Des Moines, Iowa. “I think the business world would be better off if more volunteers would go into business.”
Comito’s JVC experience especially influences his work when he has to lay off underperforming employees. He’s seen how losing a job can affect someone’s life, but he also knows that he has to protect 100 other jobs. “I try to look at what we have to do for the common good of the business,” Comito says. “It’s an everyday struggle.”
Running a non-profit, Matthew Nespoli finds, allows him to “apply my love of business and economics to a social justice issue.” After visiting Waslala, Nicaragua while at Villanova University, he became an economics major to understand poverty. He wrote a business plan for Water for Waslala, which helps develop potable water systems in the region, and the Augustinian Volunteers allowed him to start his non-profit as a volunteer in 2004.
Direct service wouldn’t have attracted Nespoli to volunteering, he says, but since then he’s found that researching poverty at the Federal Reserve Board is too indirect for him. This summer he is moving to New York City to work for a consulting firm that helps manage infrastructure programs. He also runs Water for Waslala on the side with the help of current Augustinian volunteers.
At first Nespoli’s parents weren’t keen on his plans. His business-oriented parents wanted him to “get a high-paying job, have a big family, live in the suburbs, and be a good Italian Catholic,” he says.
Once they saw that he was adding a unique experience to his resume, however, they became the biggest supporters of Water for Waslala and of the volunteer experience. “It’s cool to see my parents’ transition. They’ve become much more socially conscious,” Nespoli says. “I’ve been able to convince them that a career for others is a good thing, but it’s been a very slow process.”
Volunteering means “not having a job, not having a career, not starting off a grad program right away. These are all expectations on [college students],” says Melissa Florer-Bixler, who lived and assisted people with disabilities in a L’Arche community before becoming the assistant director of Portland University’s volunteer services.
Florer-Bixler’s experience at L’Arche also “planted a seed” within her family—her sister lives in a L’Arche community and her father has done psychological evaluations for L’Arche. She even married a fellow L’Arche assistant and they plan to move back into their L’Arche community soon. Their relationship, she says, was “not so much focused on him and me that we lost perspective on the needs of our world around us.”
“It’s kind of a common story among volunteers,” says Effie Caldarola, who married a fellow Jesuit volunteer. Effie and her husband, Jim, volunteered in Yukon, Alaska from 1974 to 1977. “We were thrust into community,” Effie says. “You lived in an isolated space. There weren’t a lot of options for recreation.”
The Caldarolas have raised three children while working for the church in Anchorage, Alaska, where they live within walking distance of two other JVC families. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, says her childhood was different from her friends’. When she was young, it was just little things like not having cable television or video games, but as she got older, she realized they spent more time together as a family, volunteering and worshiping with the people they served. The family’s idea of church, Effie says, is a small faith-based community. “Our children really grew up hoping for a Vatican II church and a church where people worked for social justice,” Effie says. “Sometimes that’s been hard because I think our children expected more than the church was able to give in terms of change.”
Her children, Effie says, weren’t always grateful for their simple lifestyle. “Why don’t we have a bigger TV? Why don’t we have a bigger house?” she says they occasionally asked.
But the values did sink in for Elizabeth. She can’t remember making a conscious decision to follow in her parents’ footsteps, but in 2004 she volunteered with JVC in Philadelphia. “It was almost like an expectation—not that my parents were overtly placing on me—but I really appreciate the way that they brought us up. I naturally wanted that for myself,” she says.
Her own experience as a volunteer also convinced her “that what my parents did to us growing up is what I’m going to do to my kids,” Elizabeth says.
Comito brings his three kids, ages 8, 10, and 12, along to do service work in Des Moines. “I’m not going to push anybody this way, but I certainly would be very proud if they decide to do JVC at that age,” he says. His older son has started questioning certain social structures, but the service is just fun for the younger two.
While service-centered individuals can create service-centered families, the experience can be very isolating when families aren’t supportive.
“Talking about my experience with anyone who hasn’t been a missioner is really, really impossible,” says Griffin.
Griffin’s family strongly opposed her leaving the country. Having lost her uncle in the September 11 terrorist attacks, she says her family became scared of differences. “They didn’t understand that idea of being part of something else, something bigger,” says Griffin, who wanted to reach out globally because of her family. They became more comfortable with her service once she was in Peru and safe, but she still doesn’t feel they get it now.
A few months after returning from Peru, Griffin found other people she could talk to at a national retreat for returned missioners. “It was amazing to be with other missioners. No matter where you were [for your program], you often have the same types of difficulties,” she says.
More than two thirds of former volunteers, including those who served before 1980, keep in contact with other former volunteers, according to the JVC study, and this number increases for those who have served more recently. The St. Vincent Pallotti Center, which serves lay volunteers before, during, and after their programs, helps maintain national and local e-mail mailing lists for former volunteers and hosts events that gather volunteers from different programs.
The desire to have real conversations also leads former volunteers to continue to live together after the service year is over. Nespoli e-mailed the national list hoping to find a former volunteer to live with in New York City—someone with whom he can “rise above the general conversations about work, TV shows, culture, and talk about the faith issues that matter to us,” he says.
‘Tis a gift to be simple
Community life isn’t always about having deep conversations, though. Her community, Rohling recalls, argued over whether using dryer sheets was simple living, eventually compromising at half a sheet.
Living on a limited budget (programs usually provide for living expenses and a small monthly allowance) can cause community arguments about seemingly small things, but it also forces volunteers to live simply. Once they move on from a challenging community environment and start earning a living, however, it can be difficult to continue the simple lifestyle. The JVC survey found that 39 percent rated this tenet as of only somewhat or little importance in their lives.
Today, Rohling laughs, “I use a full dryer sheet for my load of laundry,” but more importantly she has learned to challenge herself, especially with taking care of the environment.
The impulse to question his purchases remains strong for Comito, even if the meaning of simple living has changed as he gets older. He admits to occasionally buying things he doesn’t need but now asks, “How much is this going to distract me if I do buy this thing, and where is it going to take my focus?”
Small lifestyle changes—questioning the necessity of purchases, recycling, and reusing materials more frequently—are rooted in bigger ideas, such as being a global citizen and sensing the interconnectedness of all as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Simple living is very important to Nancy Lynn Gepfert, who lived in Guatemala for 11 years after volunteering there with the Claretian Lay Missionaries. She buys everything she can used, pays attention to where things are made, and, has developed an “ecological consciousness,” she says. It was volunteering with the Claretians in Guatemala, Gepfert says, that allowed her to see how Americans’ consumption patterns are tied to issues of trade, immigration, and the environment as well as understand the spiritual implication of such connections.
“How I live as an individual has an impact on people all over the world,” Gepfert says. “That might be the Mystical Body of Christ. We’re all one.”
Florer-Bixler came to L’Arche with a master’s degree in religion, but working and living with people with disabilities and seeing Christ in them still changed her personal faith and view of the church. “It gives you a much better idea of what the church is—and what the church should be—if the poor are the center of the church,” she says.
Volunteers are frequently active Catholics: They typically were involved in campus ministry in college and then had a unique experience living and sharing their faith with a small community during their year of service. “They come away with more of a flexible understanding that there are many ways of being Catholic,” says Andy Thompson, national director of the Pallotti Center.
Seeing its social justice efforts can help volunteers gain more respect for the institutional church, he adds, but they also may struggle to find a parish that shares their broader view of Catholicism. Former volunteers frequently contact the Pallotti Center looking for a good parish in a new city.
Griffin has yet to find her place in church. Her diocese is too conservative for her, she says, too focused on issues like abortion and going to Mass rather than the suffering in other parts of the world and finding God everywhere. “Religion is less holistic [here] than it is in Peru,” she says.
Nespoli was highly involved in the parish where Augustinian volunteers lived, but when he moved to Washington, D.C. following the program, he couldn’t find a parish that combined all of the aspects he wanted and got as a volunteer: a vibrant young adult community, an active social justice ministry, and good liturgy and music. “I never really found that rock, that parish that could keep my faith journey in a positive direction,” says Nespoli, who hopes to find such a parish in New York City.
While their colleges’ campus ministries were integral to nurturing the faith of Griffin and Nespoli, Maeve Smith practiced but did not fully identify with her Catholicism in school. A few years out of college and wanting to serve abroad, she looked into Catholic programs because she was afraid the Peace Corps wouldn’t give her enough support. Although she was unsure about the faith aspect of such programs, the Salesian Lay Missioners appealed to her because they wanted people with a sense of humor.
She ended up in Bolivia and discovered “holy fun” on retreats with other Salesian volunteers. She also began to appreciate the acts of faith of the Bolivian people, such as the Stations of the Cross procession through the village or saying the rosary at a different person’s house every night in May.
Since returning, Smith has taught religious education, assisted with youth retreats, considered religious life, met her husband through the prolife movement, and now works at a parish through LAMP Ministries in Schenectady, New York. She never imagined working for the church before, Smith says. “After volunteering you are empowered to realize that you have something to share.”
Change’ll do you good
Many volunteers do a service year because they want to make a difference in the world. But rather than changing the world, Thompson says, former volunteers find that they themselves have changed.
Even if their experience doesn’t alter the course of their life as it did for Smith, volunteers can always do more to incorporate these values in their lives. “None of those tenets are easy to live by,” says Comito. “I’m still struggling with them 20 years later.”
Service requires practice and renewal, Knobbe said to her fellow Amate alumni on retreat. It is a constant “conversion,” as she called it, involving not only outward deeds but inward reflection.
“You are going to go into this thinking that you are bringing light into a dark place,” Florer-Bixler tells Portland University students going off to volunteer, “but don’t be surprised when you find out how much darkness there is in you and how much people you are going to serve are going to teach you. “And don’t be afraid to share that experience in the rest of your lives.Megan Sweas is assistant editor of U.S. Catholic and a former full-time volunteer with Amate House from 2005-2006