Please welcome our guest writer. I think you will find what she has to tell us fascinating and inspiring.
Hello Seton friends! I’d like to thank Mr. Westhoff for inviting me to write a guest post about my recent year of service in St. Louis. This past year I was blessed to be a member of the Vincentian Service Corps, a program for young lay people run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. I lived in community with seven other volunteers, each of whom worked full time at a social service organization.
I chose a volunteer assignment at the Nurses for Newborns Foundation (NFNF), helping to write grant applications and generally assisting around the office. NFNF works to prevent infant mortality, child abuse and neglect through free nurse home visits to poor families. While NFNF is not a Catholic organization, its founder is a devout Lutheran woman, and her faith touches their mission and work. It was so inspiring to see our nurses working hard across Missouri, from the inner city to rural isolated trailers. NFNF programs bring health checkups and parent education to teen parents, mentally or physically handicapped moms, and families with premature babies, or any poor family that needs some extra help.
During my time at NFNF, I learned a lot about health disparities and the realities of poverty. Accompanying nurses on their visits to clients, I was amazed to see how complex and different each family situation was. Unemployment, lack of education, lack of transportation, the confusing Medicaid system, and memories of broken or abusive families all can conspire to keep parents in the cycle of poverty. I also saw how much of contemporary culture must change if we are to have a true Culture of Life. Young women my age who were single mothers of five children had grown up in a world where chastity and marriage were the exception, not the norm. Even though these women had made the right choice to give their unborn babies life, there was no guarantee that the children would have healthy, successful lives.
Still, there were also many reasons for hope in our clients’ lives. I was amazed by how many extended families supported teenage mothers’ decision to keep their babies. A strong network of family and friends was crucial to our clients. I’ll never forget the NFNF client who performed an emergency delivery of her friend’s baby, relying on what her nurse had taught her. Or the afternoon when all the members of a parenting class all spoke up to encourage a young mother to pursue self-respect instead of staying with an emotionally abusive boyfriend. So many clients have benefitted from their nurse’s mentoring. I saw parents go back to school, find jobs, and even formalize their relationship in marriage. Donations of baby clothes, diapers, and car seats were always helpful, but what our clients needed most were positive relationships.
While I was helping babies and families, the other VSC volunteers worked in a wide variety of agencies, from daycare to middle schools to a teen shelter to caring for the elderly. It was great to see how often our ministries overlapped with each other and with other St. Louis organizations. For instance, one of the NFNF nurses paid a weekly visit to the pregnant women’s shelter where another VSC volunteer worked.
Community living with other volunteers was a major component of the VSC experience. Knowing others who were going through the same high and lows of volunteering was an in valuable support system. The eight of us ate and prayed together three times a week, and went on three retreats throughout the year. On a daily basis, we shared chore duties and carpooled to work. I think for all of us, sharing a house with 7 other Catholic women was a taste of what the religious life might involve. Our home was even a former convent! Since we were all from different states and family backgrounds, the year was a learning experience in appreciating differences and settling conflicts with compromise. During the year, VSC paid for our rent and utilities. We each earned a monthly living stipend of $330, some of which went into the community food and transportation funds. “Living simply” on a limited budget gave us a sense of solidarity with the people we served. It also was a wonderful exercise in detachment and how little “stuff” you really need to be happy.
Getting to know the Daughters of Charity was another profound part of my VSC education. I like to joke that my nun acquaintance has increased 2000%! The Daughters are kind, welcoming, and courageous women who serve in apostolates such as nursing and teaching. Each woman has amazing stories to tell about her different assignments around the country. Sr. Teresa Daly, the Daughter who directs the VSC, met with us every week. She often brought guest speakers about social justice or Vincentian spirituality.
Learning about the Vincentian family of organizations was one of my favorite parts of my VSC year. The Daughters of Charity, Congregation of the Mission priests, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society of lay people are all inspired by St. Vincent de Paul’s work and writings about serving the poor. Seton School even has Vincentian connections – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton modeled her order after the Daughters of Charity in France. Today’s American Daughters are descended from her group at Emmitsburg. Other Vincentian saints include St. Catherine Laboure, Bl. Giogio Frassati, and several Daughters martyred in the French Revolution. Personally, I want to take Bl. Frederick Ozanam as a patron over my graduate studies. He founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul along with some college friends, and later combined his work for the poor with his career as a professor of languages.
Although it has inspired many different groups and ministries, the heart of Vincentian spirituality is to see Christ in the poor. Put into action, this means patience, flexibility, and trust in Divine Providence even when our work does not seem successful. Service is not just an altruistic civic duty; it is a profound encounter with God. Only through His love can we find the motivation and strength to keep helping the poor.
Pope Benedict XVI highlighted these same ideas in his new social justice encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. “Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that ‘becomes concern and care for the other.’” The Holy Father also cited a scripture verse that is the Daughters of Charity motto: The charity of Christ urges us. (2 Cor 5:14)
If you or someone you know feels Christ urging them to a year of service, research the many options available. Catholic Network of Volunteer Services (CNVS.org) maintains a directory of programs that you can search by different criteria. You can serve anywhere in the US, as well as abroad for longer commitment periods. Of course, feel free to contact me if you want to know more about VSC specifically.
In practical terms, right after college is the best time for a volunteer year, since you have very few career or family obligations. If you have student loans like I did, you can arrange with lenders to defer payments until your year is done. You can also earn an Americorps federal education grant of $4725 for your year of service. Most service programs follow a school-year schedule, beginning and ending in the summer. I had thought about a year of service, but it wasn’t until my last semester of college that I seriously considered making it a reality. I knew I wanted a break from school, but I also remembered my friends’ discouraging experiences in meaningless entry-level jobs. VSC proved to be the perfect alternative, giving me “real world” experience but also deeper meaning. I hope that its effects will continue throughout my life.
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