By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
With the holiday season approaching, along with it comes a desire to reach out and do good, to stop selfish ways and begin helping others. Whether it’s dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, helping to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the hungry, or buying a Christmas gift for a child one will never meet, something about the holidays makes people care a little more than usual. For some, though, the feeling is not so fleeting.
A group of young adults in Syracuse embody the holiday spirit all year round. They belong to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). These four men and women have made a year-long commitment to help empower the people that society often neglects, such as the homeless, unemployed, refugees, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Daily, they practice the virtues of generosity and compassion through their work for social justice and through the hope they give to others.
“I was looking for a volunteer program that worked with my spiritual values and has good community support,” said Jesuit Volunteer Sarah Robar. “I knew that my involvement with JVC would be an experience that would change me and my outlook on life.”
Since 1958, more than 7,000 members of JVC have committed themselves to working with the poor. It is the largest Catholic lay volunteer program in the country, and also serves internationally, with five domestic regions across the U.S. –– East, South, Midwest, Northwest and Southwest. Applicants, typically college graduates, are carefully screened by JVC staff to make sure they are motivated, emotionally stable and guided by JVC values of community, simple living, social justice and spirituality. If selected, Jesuit Volunteers are matched to a city depending on the type of service that interests them and what region they desire to work in.
Robar, Jim Deasy, Candace Veit and Bobby Logan are part of the 90 Jesuit Volunteers that work in the Eastern region. As a JVC community living in Syracuse, they see an area particularly troubled with poverty, homelessness, unemployment and lack of affordable housing. Non-profit organizations in the city depend on their help to provide services for people dealing with these issues and create options for them. Deasy, who volunteers as a job coach at the Brighton Family Center through Catholic Charities, said that while at first he wasn’t sure about moving to Syracuse, his work here has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“At first I thought I wanted to move to a major city. But I think I ended up where I was needed most,” he explained. “In Syracuse, I deal with a small community where I am able to get to know the people that I work with.”
Veit serves as volunteer coordinator and works with guest services at the Samaritan Center in downtown Syracuse. It is a typical Wednesday night and she is getting ready to open the doors for dinner, expecting around 250 people to come through the kitchen –– the only one in Syracuse which gives seconds –– for this evening’s meal of fried chicken, yams and peas. Tonight she has recruited about eight students from Holy Family School in Fairmount, and Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, to help her and the rest of the staff. Veit said that she is fortunate to be able to find enough volunteers to help serve meals.
While some may be hesitant to interact with people living on the margins of society, it is clear that Veit takes a genuine interest in their well being. She is not afraid to sit down with the guests and get to know them. Whether it’s helping someone who came for dinner find a place to stay for the night, or replacing for them something as simple as a baseball hat, she tries to help in any way.
“The people who come here recognize me and know that I will be here if they need something. I try to talk to them to see if their needs are being met and if we can provide any services for them,” she explained. “It is easy for me to get wrapped up in the coordinating efforts, like finding volunteers, but I am really here to help the guests. They need something personal.”
Veit explained that like any other job, the work that Jesuit Volunteers do can be extremely challenging at times. Although they may want to help everyone they meet, they do not always have all the answers. “The kitchen has seen an eight percent per month increase since last year in the number of people who use our services,” she noted. “This is one of the frustrating parts of my work –– it’s not our job to ask people questions about why they are here –– so we really don’t know why the numbers are growing. We are just here to give them a meal.”
Logan also faces certain job obstacles working at the Northside CYO in Syracuse as a Refugee Youth Worker. By developing recreational programs and activities, he tries to build relationships with refugee children whose parents have fled to Syracuse from places such as Somalia, Sudan, and Togo in hopes of a better life. He said that while parents are grateful to him for what he does for their children, at times it is a challenge to work with them.
“Many refugee parents still embrace the language and customs of their country. This makes it difficult for their children to adapt to America,” Logan explained. “Recently I got the kids new shoes. I went to the parents and asked what size feet their children had and some couldn’t speak English. These parents really want to give their children every opportunity and we try to help them but there are so many roadblocks.”
If their work does get to be overwhelming at times, a strong sense of spirituality and community gives volunteers the support they need. By sharing meals, discussion, prayer and fun, volunteers renew each other’s commitment to JVC.
“Our work doesn’t end at 5 p.m. We come home and pray and reflect on our service,” said Veit. “We also talk with each other about our jobs and problems –– not discussions about charity, but discussions of justice. Most people are separated from what we see on a daily basis so it’s important that we have this support.”
Each Jesuit Volunteer community has a local support team, which often includes Jesuits and former volunteers. Members of the support staff, many of whom have experienced community living themselves, introduce volunteers to local peace and justice networks and other resources, participate in community meetings and challenge a volunteer’s commitment.
Beth Scanlon, one of the two members of the support staff for JVC house in Syracuse, meets with volunteers each Wednesday at their community night. The meeting gives volunteers an opportunity to share their experiences with each other and talk with staff about any concerns that they might have. Scanlon, a former Jesuit Volunteer herself, said that while the staff is there to help, they rely on the volunteers to tell them exactly how their help is needed.
“It is the Jesuit Volunteer’s spirituality which motivates and sustains them,” she noted. “We are here to talk to them and help them to stay on track with the ideals of JVC, but it is really they who tell us what they want from a support team and how we can help them.”
“The goal of JVC isn’t really to make us live like a poor person, but rather to challenge the way we think,” Logan said. “Living simply gives you a different view of the world.”
While many college graduates are in a hurry to earn lots of money, Jesuit Volunteers aren’t afraid to do something out of the ordinary. Many of them have declined hard-to-come-by job offers and graduate school invitations in order to live a simple life for a great cause. Upon his college graduation, Brian Nicholas, a Jesuit Volunteer from August 2001 – 2002, postponed medical school to join JVC in Seattle, Wash., ministering to prison inmates and the homeless.
“I knew I wanted to go to med school but I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go right away. I was encouraged by my professors to write,” explained Nicholas, now at Upstate Medical University. “I looked back on some things that made a significant impact on my life –– one was a service program I did in high school called Young Neighbors in Action. This experience influenced my desire to do something greater and join JVC. I think that everyone has been given certain gifts and we are called to use them outside of ourselves.”
JVC has been able to respond to society’s growing social justice problems because of the generous spirit of its volunteers. At times the fight to better the lives of people is a struggle, but volunteers continue working to improve the lives of others through their commitment to community, simple living, social justice and spirituality.
“We are a group of young people who all want to work to help others,” explained Logan. “It can be challenging, but we laugh a lot and have a good time too. The people we serve give us the strength to come back; we get more out of them than they will from us.”