A halfway reflection: Feeling bruised and faltering — but not giving up
Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our eighth round of bloggers: Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer in New York City, and Julianna Lewis is a VIDES+USA volunteer in Bogotá, Colombia. This is Sarabella's sixth blog post. Read more about her.
We are well into 2019, which means I am about halfway through my year as a Good Shepherd Volunteer. What better time to look back on my Good Shepherd Volunteers application to remember what my goals, hopes and intentions were when I applied, and to assess what sort of progress I have made so far.
I envision most experiences positively. Signing up to be a volunteer was no different. What strikes me most, however, when reading through my application after five months of volunteering under my belt, is my idealism. I had multiple friends complete a year of service prior to me, so I knew it would not be all sunshine and rainbows. Still, I applied with eagerness and excitement, looking forward to the inevitable challenges.
I realize now, rereading my application, how quickly things have changed. In some ways, I am almost embarrassed by what I wrote not even a year ago. The first question in the application simply asked why I wanted to commit to a year of service. The energy and excitement with which I answered was constant throughout my application. I described my reason for wanting to embark on this journey in the following way:
I believe I have a natural tendency to want to be of service to others and the idea of engaging in a post-grad service program like Good Shepherd absolutely thrills me. It will provide me an opportunity to focus my service desires and turn them into more concrete skills in preparation for my current career goal: social work. Specifically, I want to be an art therapist. Getting exposure to different populations, locations, people and scenarios can only help me in those career endeavors.Walking home from grocery shopping, past the George Washington Bridge at sunset (Provided photo)
I used the phrase "absolutely thrills me" when referring to this opportunity, and I was not exaggerating. However, at the halfway mark I am no longer "absolutely thrilled." This field is hard.
The completely unfair and persistent obstacles the girls I work with face are challenging to witness. It often feels like we are not doing enough to combat these obstacles. They include the simple fact that these girls do not have a place to call home; some have been victims of sex trafficking; they face racism, sexism and classism; and many have never been taught basic life skills like financial literacy or sometimes even personal hygiene.
I have also discovered that this field is grossly underpaid which, along with the emotionality of the job, causes high employee turnover. It is challenging to see my co-workers work two 40-hour per week jobs just to make enough money to live. It is challenging to see them leave our workplace exhausted from working 16-hour or 24-hour shifts so they can collect overtime pay.
And it is challenging to reconcile that I am experiencing all this, both my co-workers' and the girls' experiences, as an observer and that I have a completely different set of circumstances awaiting me back home at the end of July.
The next question on the application was: "How have you participated in works of justice? How have these experiences shaped your understanding of social justice?"
For this question, I answered with anecdotes about a service club I was a part of in college. As I reflect on that now, my time in that club seems minuscule and much less like "participating in works of justice" than it did before.
It should not be forgotten that volunteering and giving back to the community is a positive endeavor, no matter how big or small. However, serving food to the homeless for two hours per week did not give me the same insight into that vulnerable population as spending 40 hours per week with these girls does. In my current position, I am seeing very intimately, day in and day out, their lives.
Engaging in a service year is much more immersive than gathering volunteer hours in a college club. At this halfway mark, I feel much less rewarded and much more depleted than I have felt when volunteering in the past.
Why is that? I can't say if it is the challenges of living in New York City or interacting with the realities of social injustice in such a concentrated way — it's probably a combination of both. But I often feel this persistent and underlying anger that I am not used to.
In my application, I spoke about utilizing this year to gain "exposure to different populations, locations, people and scenarios." In terms of that goal, I am certainly succeeding. Without this experience, I would never have interacted with my former gang member co-worker; the sexually exploited youth whom I took toiletry shopping; or the God that I have been questioning so much.
So, as I experience the halfway point of my year, I sometimes catch myself wishing the time would go by faster. It may be cowardly, or privileged, or human, but I often feel like running from a lot of these realities. I want to escape back to sunny California where the buildings aren't so tall and you don't feel like you are constantly in a tunnel. Back to my family, whom I really miss. Truthfully, back to my life of privilege, which I don't deserve any more or less than the 14 girls I work with in this group home.
I ran into this experience in a zealous full sprint, but it did not take long to feel like I am struggling to crawl.
At the beginning of the year, I subscribed to an email list that sends me quotes by St. Mary Euphrasia, founder of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd — she is the reason both Good Shepherd Services and Good Shepherd Volunteers exist. I am holding onto her words in this time of discernment and frustration. She said, "With gentleness and kindness, sustain the bruised reed, and let us not extinguish the faltering flame."
Her words are comforting because they acknowledge the ubiquitous feelings of bruising and faltering without giving up or running away from them. So, with an emphasis on gentleness and kindness, I will walk forward through the cold New York winter and through this season of my volunteer year, eager to see what I will find on the other side.
[Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a therapeutic residence for adolescent girls in New York City.]