'Just love' defines my year of service

The quote I received during the prayer service with the sisters. (Brenna Neimanis)

Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston.

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As a Good Shepherd Volunteer, I have heard the phrase "Just love" more times than I could possibly count. It is the epitome of what we as volunteers have set our hearts and minds on since day one of our year of service.

Attending dinner with some of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Queens recently, I participated in a small prayer service. I was given a slip of paper with a quote from St. Mary Euphrasia, the saint whose words Good Shepherd Volunteers is founded upon. It read:

Oh, how much love and compassion we must have for these souls entrusted to our care. . . . Love them, love them very much! Comfort them, strengthen these suffering sheep, make them happy, very happy. Never forget that you will win hearts only by love.

My mind immediately went to the girls I work with every day at the juvenile justice facility. Viewing my position and the youth I serve through this lens, as "souls entrusted to [my] care," brings greater urgency and importance to what I do. It's not just a job. I am here to serve and to show them how deeply loved and valued they all are and to help instill that within them.

As my service year with Good Shepherd Volunteers comes to a close, I have been reflecting on what major themes have been present throughout my time here in New York. I was not surprised to have the phrase "Just love" come to mind again. But when I thought deeper, I realized that this was not only an easy answer to my question and my reflections, but in actuality was the truest theme I experienced this year.

Love is beautiful. Many of us know that love can be a strengthening, encouraging, healing and powerful force, but it can also be challenging and uncomfortable at times.

Our central message in our community living space. (Brenna Neimanis)

The young women I work with are bright, funny, strong and resilient individuals, and I have the privilege of working with them at a very odd and challenging time in their lives. They have been in trouble with the law and have been court-mandated to live in the facility, often with other people they do not get along with. To top it all off, they are teenage girls.

These young women do not want to be here. They are not happy about it. Therefore, my relationship with them has to be built carefully, and my mindset and emotions need to stay in a very specific realm for our interactions to be healthy and beneficial. I have to intentionally enter each day with the mindset of showing unconditional love, without needing or expecting love or respect in return.

There are plenty of days that many of the youth do not care in the slightest how they speak to me and will often take their frustrations and anger out on me. But that is why I am here. What an amazing opportunity to continue to show them love.

Each day, I strive to show love, commitment and compassion, but not to gain anything in return. I must be unwavering in this love despite negative comments, aggression or bad days. Love is of the utmost importance because love is necessary for true healing to take place.

There is another quote by St. Mary Euphrasia that has stuck with me through the year and that encouraged me to keep serving and showing love, even when days were challenging:

"It is not enough that you love them, they must know that you love them," she said.

This is what I am striving for. Although some of the girls' behaviors and attitudes are tough and have tested me at times, I love each of them immensely, and I desperately want them to know how loved they are.

At first, it was hard for me to tell if they knew how much they were cared for, especially when I am used to being able to verbally and directly express that I love someone, but that sort of expression goes against agency boundary rules. However, small acts — such as volunteering to take the young women to court or to go on medical appointments with them, which many members of the staff dislike doing because it is time-consuming and often involves a lot of waiting — have an impact.

In all honesty, I have loved these experiences because they mean I am able to spend time getting to know these young people at a deeper level, without as many facility distractions or pressures. I love to be a support to them and try to make a stressful or boring appointment a little more bearable and meaningful.

"Love is love" street art in New York City. (Brenna Neimanis)

Although it can sometimes be hard to tell if I am really getting through to some of the youth, I have started picking up on subtle clues that they know I care about them and that they feel loved.

Small things show genuine concern for my well-being, like when the young women, even when they are mad at me, tell me to "get home safe" every night. It brings me joy to hear those words: I was at a training through Good Shepherd where the facilitator told us that you know you have reached a young person when they tell you to "get home safe" at the end of a tough day.

Some of the young women also try to protect me, and one even grabbed my arm as I was running to help during a fight, telling me that she wouldn't let me go in there because she didn't want me to get hurt. I was a little offended that she didn't think I could hold my own, but I appreciated the concern and felt loved.

Now, as great as this all sounds, I have had to be very intentional and legitimately work at approaching situations out of love.

Dear readers, a dozen or so teenage girls taking their anger and frustration out on you is not easy. It is overwhelming and can be really hard to want to love during those times. When girls are cursing at me after I asked them to sit in their seats, it can be easy to lose patience and compassion.

I'm sure this sounds understandable, but I was ashamed of feeling this way the first few times I felt hardened toward them. I beat myself up the whole way home, thinking, "How could I be feeling this way? I am here to serve and to love them! I'm totally failing!" But in the midst of this thought process, I began to think of the love that is shown to me and the grace I have been given.

I have to further understand who I am in God and that he calls me a beloved child. Only from this understanding can my love for these girls be a reality. I want to let it be known that I cannot do this of my own will and strength. I am only a vessel, broken and imperfect, who has experienced the love and compassion of God and can therefore relate to these young women in love. I need just as much grace in my life as they need in theirs, and undeservingly, I have received it.

I am thankful for a year that has humbled me and reminded me of my own need for grace and love. I am thankful for a year full of pleasant surprises and beautiful relationships. I am thankful for a year of learning more about what unconditional love looks like in my life and the ways that I can share that love with others. Lastly, I am thankful for this year's opportunity to just love.

[Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility that serves adolescent girls in New York City.]

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