I was talking with a Brother at Saint Mary's about my future before graduation last May, and he told me that sooner or later I was going to have to jump. By this he meant I was going to have to make a decision about what I would do after graduation and go with it. Although I wasn't so convinced at the time, he was right and I jumped, joining the Lasallian Volunteers.
By August, I was on the other side of the country, in Philadelphia, attending the Lasallian Volunteer orientation session. On the second day, we ventured north from La Salle University, the site of our orientation, to Saint Gabriel's Hall, a residential center that provides for the rehabilitation of delinquent youth.
The first part of the day was spent doing team-building exercises, with the afternoon set for "higher," more challenging activities. So, after climbing about thirty feet up the side of a tree, walking out onto a three foot by three foot platform, I jumped off, Superman-style, toward a trapeze bar suspended out and away from the platform.
After grabbing the bar, feeling the exhilaration, and admiring the scenery, I found that, even though I was wearing a safety harness, the frightening part was letting go and being lowered back to the earth.
Being back on the ground after jumping, I realized everything was all right. And that my year was going to be all right.
As we drove across the Walt Whitman Bridge from Philly to Camden, the evening skyline of Philadelphia was beautiful. Yet, it seemed worlds apart from what I had heard about my assignment: on warm humid days when the wind blows right, the stench of the waste plants can be enjoyed at San Miguel School, the Brothers' alternative middle school where I will work for the next year. In the car, one of the Brothers, in whose home I'd be living, said, "You came in under the veil of night," and the Brothers laughed a great deal. I wondered if they laughed because otherwise they might cry, or be torn with anger because of the destitution and poverty of this city. Tomorrow, he added, I'll get the true flavor of this place, of Camden, New Jersey.
The literature I had read about Camden describes it as "among the top five most economically depressed cities in the U.S.," leaving me to wonder, what are the other four? The description, however unfair, paints a detached picture of life in Camden, a statistic that somehow normalizes the poverty.
The poverty in Camden is far from normal.
Boarded-up buildings and liquor stores seem to be among the main architecture here, with few people out on the streets. Those I see, at first impression, are in and out of the liquor stores or prostituting themselves on the main strip in town, called "Broadway."
So, not to be too depressing, but Camden is a pretty depressing place. But there also is a great hope here. I see it in the Brothers, the teachers, the volunteers, in the students. They know there is something special about Camden, and I know there is something special there, too.
Blossom of Hope
Stepping out of the car at the Brothers' residence, I first saw a blossoming flower planted in a small bed outside the school. Something in that flower gave me hope and told me that this will be a place of growth, for both my students and myself.
The desire for personal growth and a continuously deepening knowledge of myself were some of my motivations for volunteering. I feel called toward education, particularly Catholic education, and I see the Lasallian Volunteers as, first, a way to discern that call and, second, a foundational step in understanding the need of the poor for education and how I can respond to that need.
It's about relationship, about giving and receiving, and about offering my gifts and being open to learning from others. I hope at the end of this year that I can look back, and, if only in the smallest way, see that I made a difference in the students' lives, as well as deepening relationships with those around me and God.
The Lasallian Volunteer program offers a unique opportunity for an individual to respond to Christ's call to serve others, especially the poor. The response is a one- to three-year experience in the field of Christian education or related human development service. During this period of service, Lasallian Volunteers work in ministries of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, sharing fully in the ministry and community life of the Brothers and their Lasallian Partners, the lay people who have joined in the Brothers' work. Saint Mary's College has eleven alumni currently serving as Lasallian Volunteers, and more than eighty Lasallian Volunteers have come from Saint Mary's College in the program's fifteen-year history. To learn more about the Lasallian Volunteers, go to: http://www.cbconf.org/volunteers-contact.html