As the Good Shepherd Volunteer journey continues, the lessons so far

This story appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

by Sarabella Muise


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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 Geneva. This is Sarabella's eighth and final blog post. Read more about her.


For my last "Notes from the Field" blog post, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on and share some lessons I have learned at the midway point of my service year. Without the experiences I have had, I would not have this new breadth of knowledge about myself or the world around me.

These are the seven most important lessons I have learned so far:

1. Ask questions.

I learned the necessity of asking lots of questions pretty early in the workplace. I am interested in providing a therapeutic approach when interacting with clients; however, I have no clinical training. Some of the limited approaches I brought in at the beginning of my time included the belief that my personal opinion is irrelevant, that there is no reason not to believe the experiences of the person speaking to you, and that kindness should be prioritized in any interaction.

I quickly learned that clients will not always willingly disclose information. And I don't mean this in a deep, clinical way. For example, early in the year one of our girls had a wake-up time of 7 a.m. I knocked on her door and woke her up, asking what she had going on that day. She kindly replied that she had an appointment. "Great!" I thought, and walked away.

When relaying the information I had just received to my co-worker, she asked me, "What kind of appointment? Court? Medical? Otherwise? What time is the appointment and how long will it take the youth to get there?"

All these pieces of information are vital for our role as youth development counselors, because it is our job to prompt and encourage the youth about their goals for the day, encourage them to be on time to their commitments, and ensure that their food and hygiene are taken care of before they leave.

Without any of the follow-up knowledge about this appointment, I was not able to really do my job well. After a few experiences like this, I caught on. Rather than taking what the youth said as total fact and being complacent in accommodating their current moods, I learned to ask a lot of questions.

By doing this, I began to understand that questioning does not assume you are critical of the information being presented to you, nor does it cross boundaries in terms of respect for the self-sufficiency of the youth. In fact, asking questions can do the opposite: It shows that you care.

2. Assumptions are often incorrect.

Candidly, before I began this experience, I often assumed the worst in the population I work with. It was a fear-driven reaction based on stories past volunteers had told me and warnings that program directors had given to prepare me. I thought the girls were going to be unpleasant. My assumptions were not truth.

I was surprised and humbled when the girls welcomed me into their homes and put just as much effort into getting to know me as I did getting to know them. It has been a reminder that you never really know what something is going to be like until you try it.

In many ways, some of the themes in the stories I heard about my workplace, such as reactions of anger and hostility from the girls, do ring true. But in other ways, those assumptions are wildly different. I assumed these more negative emotions and challenging behaviors I had been warned about would be a constant. In reality, the girls I work with are people, too, and present a variety of emotions and behaviors, just like anybody else.

3. Little acts go a long way.

At my workplace, we practice the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention model, which aims to de-escalate crisis before it begins. This is different from other models that might address a situation such as a physical altercation at the time of the altercation, with interventions such as restraints.

Therapeutic Crisis Intervention uses tools like:

  • Hurdle help (helping youths with something that is challenging for them, i.e., walking them to an appointment);
  • Prompting (reminding them sometimes days in advance of appointments or plans, since structure and predictability often helps trauma survivors feel safe);
  • Caring gestures (for example, doing a girl's hair) to defuse a crisis before it escalates to something more serious.

Part of my job is to be attuned to the times where implementation of these techniques is needed.

However, on the flip side, I have found some of the most memorable moments for me at work to be those in which the girls show me caring gestures. Examples include learning from a youth how to properly wear a scarf for maximum warmth; the time a resident offered to cook me breakfast as she was making her own; when clients verbalize their gratitude and say, "Thank you"; or when they say, "Get home safe," every time I leave the building.

Remembering the impact these little moments have had on me helps me to remember how far my seemingly small acts of kindness can go.

4. You never know it all.

As a 24-year-old recent college graduate with limited work experience, I definitely realize I do not "know it all," let alone "know anything." However, I have been amazed to relearn this lesson through the eyes of two of my co-workers.

Both of these women have been working as youth development counselors for the last 18 years. They have truly seen everything in the book, whether it's stopping a youth mid-suicide attempt; flying to Nevada to pick up an AWOL participant who broke her leg; watching girls successfully leave our facility and get stable jobs; seeing former Marian Hall residents care for their own children years down the line; and more.

But even with all that experience, my co-workers have said to me that they still have room to grow. They don't feel like "experts," and they value my ideas and opinions even as a complete novice. This has blown my mind. I feel so humbled and grateful for their approach to this work and to be held up as an equal in the workplace, even though the facts of age and years of experience truly make it seem otherwise.

I hope throughout my working life I take on a similar attitude of openness and embrace the idea that there is always more to learn, as I have witnessed these women embody in their own careers.

5. Waking up early is possible!

Far too many times, I've made the excuse that it's "sooo hard" to wake up early. Before starting this job, trying to meet a 5 a.m. wake-up time was one of my biggest fears.

Some days are certainly harder than others — like the time I had a "movie moment" after I woke up late, ran up to the last train I could possibly take without being late just when the doors were closing, stuck my hand in the door, which stopped it at the last second with just enough time to slip inside and be on time.

Still, more days than not, I'm up when my first alarm rings at 5 a.m. With that track record, I will no longer have an excuse that anything is "too early," since after this experience is over I will have woken up at 5 a.m. for an entire year.

6. Patience is a necessity.

Rome was not built in a day, as the cliché has it, and that has proven to be true. I have learned this especially in terms of relationship-building, specifically building relationships with the other volunteers I live with in my community.

When the year started, I had high expectations that my community and I would become close friends quickly, due to having enough shared values to sign up for a year of service. We are halfway through the year and from my perspective, we are just now starting to gain the closeness I assumed we would automatically have in the beginning.

In hindsight, I may have had some out-of-whack expectations. But at the same time, the slower pace at which we have built up our relationships has surprised me. My experience building relationships with my college roommates went more quickly, I assumed due to living together. But now, as a group of post-college young adults, we all have lives outside of our apartment to attend to, which has played out differently in our relationships with each other.

Embracing patience by leaning into the fact that community-building takes more time than I expected has been the biggest help in releasing my expectations. I don't know if I have truly learned how to be patient, but I have learned the importance of remembering that instant gratification rarely works — except maybe on smartphone screens!

7. I have an aptitude for and enjoyment in structure, planning and organization.

During college, most people spend a majority of their headspace managing their own lives and schedules, as opposed to those of a group. At least, this was the case for me. But in our current community of five volunteers, I have been surprised to learn that not everyone organizes in the same way or even with the same zeal as I naturally do. I assumed everyone had a color-coded, hour-by-hour planner in college. But that's not the case!

Since it comes easily to me and I value being organized, I have helped spearhead a lot of our community's schedules and events throughout the year. Feeling naturally drawn to take on this role in community has helped me realize that I can use this skill in the workplace somehow, as I discern the direction of my future career. Both in community and in my workplace, I have really been able to understand organizing as a personal value of mine.

In summary, these seven lessons have been the clearest at the halfway mark of my volunteer year. It's amazing to say that despite all the challenges, growth opportunities and various ups and downs, I can truly say I have gotten everything out of a service year that I had hoped for — and there are still six months left!

Now as I enter the last half of my year, I am curious to see the other lessons I can add to this list.

[Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a therapeutic residence for adolescent girls in New York City.]