FrancisCorps volunteer service program fosters faith and friendship in young adults
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
For Julianne Rees, it all started when she failed organic chemistry.
“My long-term plan was to go to medical school… But I didn’t pass organic chemistry, so I had to retake it.” Retaking the class meant she had to hold off on taking the MCAT and delay her application to medical school for a year. “I was trying to decide what to do in that year in between, and I thought about doing a year of service,” she continued.
Rees met Brother Jim Moore, OFM Conv., then director of FrancisCorps, at a service fair held at her college. Something clicked. Rees applied and was accepted to the program and is now marking, along with her five roommates, eight months as a FrancisCorps volunteer.
FrancisCorps, a yearlong Franciscan lay volunteer program, has been welcoming volunteers to Syracuse since 1999; FrancisCorps also has a program in Costa Rica. Typically volunteers are recent college grads, most are Catholic and the majority are women. Many are also searching for “what’s next.”
“I think many of the volunteers are looking for a time to discover who they are and what they want in life,” said former volunteer and current FrancisCorps assistant director Jordan Differding. “They’re looking for a way to integrate their faith and focus on doing service, and to equally balance the two.”
Through their work at different sites around the city the volunteers have been able to do just that, sharing in the Franciscan charism by serving the underserved and learning some lessons about themselves and the world along the way.
Rees, from Pennsylvania, is serving in refugee resettlement, where she works with individuals to find housing and employment and performs home visits for those already settled, and at an afterschool program at Our Lady of Pompei, working primarily with Vietnamese students. Rees doesn’t speak Vietnamese — though some of the students think she does, the way she can pick up on their squabbles — and said she didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a refugee before coming to FrancisCorps.
“I’m still learning the culture, but it’s refreshing to see parts of humanity that run through all cultures but are expressed differently,” she said. “In the course of my job, I have a lot of hospitality shown to me, a lot of gratitude expressed to me. And whereas an American might write a thank-you note, I might get a can of soda or a banana… It’s very humbling.”
Luke Morgan, from Kentucky, is serving at the Franciscan Northside Ministries and Assumption Church food pantry. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he began and that the job continues to be different every day. Even eight months in, some days still bring surprises. Recently, a client told him that no matter where he goes, he should praise God and shout it out. So the two of them, right in the food pantry, shouted praise for God.
“I feel like I’ve been exposed to so much that I could do almost anything or learn how to do almost anything. I might not be the best at it, but I’ll do my best to do it and do it well,” Morgan said.
Kaitlyn Mullen, from Long Island, New York, is working with refugee children and teens at Northside CYO, a position she never imagined holding. Originally placed at another site, she was called on to fill an opening at CYO.
“Part of [the reason I agreed to switch positions] was that it was so outside my comfort zone that I knew I would never do something like this otherwise. It’s challenging but I enjoy it,” she said.
Gina Didio, from Skaneateles, is serving at the L’Arche Community of Syracuse, where people with and without disabilities share life together. At an initial meeting with Brother Jim, Didio said she didn’t feel drawn to serve at L’Arche — until a visit to the site completely changed her mind.
“Most of the time, when you talk about working with people with developmental disabilities, it’s about provider-consumer — I’m providing this care for this consumer. And that’s not how L’Arche is at all,” she said. “I’m assisting the members to live the most independent life they can and to the fullest extent… And they’re in turn helping me live that lifestyle also.”
Rebecca Pierson, from Ohio, is serving at Vincent House, a neighborhood center on Syracuse’s west side, where she works with 5- to 12-year-olds. Though she originally envisioned working in Costa Rica, she loves the kids she serves in Syracuse.
“For me, FrancisCorps has brought to the forefront how you can live out your faith day-to-day,” she said.
Carolyn Berlandy, from Connecticut, is serving at the Bishop Foery Foundation neighborhood center on the south side of the city, working with 4- and 5-year-olds. Despite having no teaching background, she said she adores the children she serves and loves her work, even when it’s tough.
“This program gives you an opportunity to live out your faith, and challenges you to live out your faith,” she said, musing on finding the face of God in a misbehaving child. “Sometimes you have to think, ‘How does my faith call me to respond to this situation?’”
Each volunteer found FrancisCorps in a different way — some, like Rees, through fairs, others through mentors or friends, or by internet search — but all said they were drawn to the program’s unique opportunities for direct service and small community living.
Though the volunteers work at different sites, they live together, sharing a converted two-family house near the Franciscan Motherhouse on Court Street. The volunteers have a chore wheel and a cooking calendar to divvy up the household duties. They pool their stipends to buy groceries and share at least one meal and prayer together every day. Current FrancisCorps director Friar Rick Riccioli said community is an integral part of the program.
“Service is good, but it’s not the only thing. It won’t last unless it’s grounded in community. You need to have a good community where you experience Christ’s unconditional love, where you argue and fight and make up again and the love continues,” he said.
The volunteers have found that living in community has created a special kind of family in the house — and they certainly act like family, teasing one another and finishing each other’s sentences.
“I’ve lived with people before, but because they were my friends,” said Mullen. “Here, we didn’t know each other first. We had to work to create these bonds.”
Having a support system to come home to has also helped them work through hard days, celebrate great days and handle everything in between.
“We sometimes have very long dinner table discussions,” Pierson said. “Nights where the food will have been eaten for hours and we’ll be talking about our days and a million other things. It’s a great thing to have.”
With the end of their service on the horizon, some of the volunteers are looking to what the fall will bring. Rees will be off to medical school and others are applying for new service positions and jobs. In the meantime, they are trying to stay present in the moment and gain everything they can from their FrancisCorps journey.
“This has been the biggest learning experience of my life,” Mullen said. “I’ve learned to be open-minded and everyone has taught me things…. If I had been closed-minded when I was applying, I never would have been here and that would have been such a mistake. Every day you learn something you can’t get from school.”