Common Venture Volunteers Reflect on the Experience

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By Sister Michelle Balek, OSF

Never underestimate the power of a shared service experience! This summer we’ve had 26 individuals give volunteer service in seven different sites across the country.  But more than checking off tasks on a work list, these experiences have changed lives – rippling out to those served as well as to those serving. Our FCV volunteers have come to appreciate that serving with Franciscan humility truly is different from helping or fixing, as Rachel Naomi Remen states in her article included in our orientation materials: “Service…is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe.”

Here are some of this year’s volunteers experiences:

Associate Mary Ann Koch was on the team going to the Prayer Lodge in Busby, Mont., in early June. “Probably the most awesome part of the week for me was getting to be part of the sweat which was done in the Cheyenne tradition. In the total darkness water is tossed on the hot rocks and as the steam filled the space we prayed our prayers of thanksgiving, requests, and heart break. I think I got a small glimpse of what the beginning of creation might have been like as the water sizzled and spit while it was being flung onto the smoldering rocks in the total darkness. Out of that darkness we were joined with each other in a special unity of a shared experience. Another awesome part of the experience was the chance to be with the land, the birds, the air, the storms, the space, the wild flowers, and the “big sky” that Montana is known for…

Through this Common Venture experience I have been enriched and my vision has been expanded. So, let me end with a line from “A Montana Blessing” that I found there: May your vision be as boundless as our sky.”

Jesi Rosenmeyer returned to EXCEL in Morton, Miss., after a wonderful experience last year. The highlight of her week in June was “working with the kindergarten (tutoring) groups – a few kids worked on teaching me Spanish so I could fit in, too!” An insight she gained from the people she served was “…just the hardships of what must come with entering a new country and how tough it would be to be a kid and have to translate for your parents.”

Mary Stephany had this to say about her week of service in July at EXCEL in Okolona, Miss: “This is my 4th experience volunteering in the Excel program in Mississippi.  I continue to be inspired by the people of Okolona, as they are so welcoming and friendly, a wonderful community.  And as always, I return home having gained much more than I have given.” Her teammate, Susan Green, had this to share about her first time in Okolona: “What an experience! What a good week. Young and old, friendly and inviting. The experience we had in serving the summer school children breakfast and lunch was so much fun. They always showed their appreciation with ‘Thank Yous’ and a smile. What a great week!”

New this year was an immersion-service trip to Minneapolis, Minn. in an experience of walking with those who are poor. The highlight for Kaity Brien was the time “…to talk with people firsthand about their experience of homelessness and seeing the shelters up close was very educational.” But it didn’t stop there. “The education I received really motivated me to get more involved with what my community is doing to combat homelessness and increase food justice.” For teammate Tina Vondran the insight gained about people she served was “that they are not outcast but remarkable people, many or all with their own story.” She went on to say “I’ll never forget it or the people I’ve met, or the issues that most people would rather ignore instead of start talking about even in small towns/communities. I’m a different person today than that of four days ago!”

Also new this year was the St. Margaret’s House in South Bend, Ind., serving women and children. Kathy Stephan was kept busy with a variety of tasks during the week, offering her ample opportunities to interact with the women and children. An insight she gained was that “All the women had stories. Some tell them in a loud, clear voice (like witnessing at church) others tell them through art/scarves [that they make]; others through work; others are still too angry or closed to tell their stories…This mission made me want to look around my own community to see if there was a need not fulfilled.”

New to giving service at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker Farm in Ames, Iowa, Moriah Bohlman shared that “the simplistic atmosphere and attention to the poor” that she experienced, “has made me want to change some things in my life that could be simpler, to help those who don’t have much!”

A team of six ventured to the new FCV site of St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, Neb., this August. The main service request was help with the hand-processing of corn for use in meals for their sacred events and rituals. They worked from morning until night, alongside community members, listening to and sharing stories. “Learning about the indigenous peoples’ spirituality and care for creation – and how this intersects with Christianity,” was a highlight for Jane Alderman. “Working together with the people made it more of a family experience,” shared Yvonne Kisch who went on to say, “and was the best of the service trips I’ve been associated with.”

We never know how far the effects of an experience will ripple out to touch both ourselves and others. A FCV experience can stretch us even a little beyond our comfort zone and raise new questions, give us new information, connect us with people we never would have met otherwise. And as these returned volunteers have demonstrated, our lives –and theirs- will be better for it.