Invaluable lessons learned through service


Student volunteers at the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver

St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Congregation of the Mission and one of the patrons of St. John’s, said, “The poor have much to teach you. You have much to learn from them.”

As I embarked on the Denver Plunge over spring break last week, I had no idea how much I would learn as I worked with a team of two leaders and nine other students to serve Denver’s urban community.

Community service is not a new experience to me, nor is it new to any of my fellow St. John’s students: if nothing else, we are all required to do academic service-learning in some of our classes. However, I find it striking that every service opportunity throughout my St. John’s career has also been an opportunity to learn something new.

As we gathered at St. Thomas More Church to begin our journey to Denver, I began to learn the value of patience. Eager to take off, we were all gathered by 12:30. However, there was an issue with the airline and, after an unbearably long day of waiting to learn what the outcome would be, we learned that we would not be able to travel until the next morning.

Fortunately, I was able to use that patience in abundance on Monday and Tuesday, as I volunteered with a kindergarten class at Annunciation School, a Catholic school that serves low-income children, mostly from Denver’s Hispanic and South Sudanese populations. Children are a very rewarding group to work with, and it was a great encouragement to see them gain confidence with just a few minutes of individual attention.

On Wednesday, the same pure joy found in the children shone through the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of women who run nursing homes for the indigenous elderly. Another lesson I learned here was how to polish stainless steel: although we assumed that we would be playing bingo or socializing with the residents, instead we scrubbed the kitchen quite literally from top to bottom.

The Laradon Home, a center that provides services to developmentally disabled adults and children, taught me the power of a strong voice. Laradon was founded in 1948, when Elizabeth Calabrese decided that there needed to be an alternative to the institutions that were then the only thing available to the developmentally disabled, including her sons Larry and Don. Calabrese, and her husband Joe, gathered their life’s savings and began Laradon. This day of work was the most difficult for me, because there seemed to be nothing for us to do, but it was an excellent opportunity to see the volunteers put love into action as they helped each patient.

That night we had the opportunity to eat dinner at SAME Café, where staff cook lunch with organic and local ingredients every day. Patrons have the option of donating whatever they can to defray the cost of their meal or to volunteer to work in exchange for food. According to Sarah, the café’s first full-time employee, about seven people form a crew of regulars, joined daily by others. She also said that many of the café’s visitors say that the meal they eat at SAME will be their only food that day.

On our last day in Denver, we volunteered at the Food Bank of the Rockies, a gigantic facility that processes food from the TEFAP governmental assistance program and distributes it to smaller food pantries throughout the area. Here, we loaded pallets with cases of food that would be sent to various agencies, including some that we worked at earlier in the week. It was interesting to see the extent of need in the Denver area as we worked in the warehouse, and touching to put names to the faces that packaged the food that some of us then distributed to clients.

During our time in Denver, we worked with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, a group of young adults who devote a year to full-time service work. The various service sites that we visited were places that the volunteers work full-time. It was inspirational to see the work that these young men and women do with those experiencing poverty and homelessness.

Campus Ministry offers plunges to a variety of destinations, including Panama, Lourdes, France, New Salem, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Other extended service experiences are also available through Student Affairs. I encourage every student to make the most of the Vincentian aspect of our university by serving others during this time in college, whether for a few hours or a few days.

St. Vincent was right: we have much to learn.