My volunteer experience has made me even weirder, and that's a good thing

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
It takes the whole community to bring back all of our groceries using public transportation. (Brenna Neimanis)

New York, N.Y. — 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.


I have been called "weird" on more than one occasion today alone.

I have never taken offense to the term, since it was usually in reference to me doing things that I was excited or passionate about.

As a child, I skipped the whole playing-with-Barbies thing and spent my days catching lizards in the backyard and building shoebox habitats for them to live in. I would also fake being sick so I could skip school to stay home and watch my favorite "Animal Planet" shows. (Sorry, Mom.) But hey, I was crazy about animals, so I chose to live in a way that brought me close to my passion and kept me happy and learning.

As I got older, my weirdness continued to escalate. I would spend my weekends in college helping local farmers farm potatoes, waking up at 3 a.m. on Saturdays to play music and watch the sunrise with my roommates on mountaintops, or facilitating prayer walks through our college town. During the summers, I worked with international human rights issues in some pretty tough places. My focus has just always been different from the norm.

Being different is good. Having unique experiences and following your interests and passions is life-giving. Not caring what the rest of society thinks of your "abnormal" behavior is incredibly freeing.

But it takes time and intentionality to get to a mindset like that, and not caring what people think should never be replaced with apathy. The mindset should come from unapologetically chasing what is important to you.

Sometimes you need to be creative when sugar cookies are on the line. We didn't have a rolling pin, so we found an old bottle to use instead. (Provided photos, Brenna Neimanis)

We are taught by media and much of society from a young age to conform, follow the "right" steps to get where we are supposed to get, and to achieve a comfortable, complacent adulthood where we can consume unnecessary goods at an absurd rate, buy whatever our hearts desire (or whatever society tells us we desire), and finish our lives in big houses with an SUV or two, thinking mostly of ourselves and other ways to make us "happy." That's what we are supposed to do. That's the dream.

Some people like their SUVs or view shopping as a recreational activity, but I hate that this is what is expected of people these days. I also hate that this rampant consumerism and need for excess can so negatively affect us as individuals as well as our fellow human beings on this Earth.

My countercultural challenge for this year has come from serving with the Good Shepherd Volunteer program. I work with teenage girls who have been arrested and are serving their sentences at a juvenile justice residential facility. This has made me weirder.

My days are often full of crisis and drama and can be emotionally and physically exhausting, leading to the occasional breakdown on my subway ride or walk home. Even though it has been difficult at times, this experience has already drastically changed and challenged me.

The youth I work with typically have tough exteriors and can sometimes be a little severe, but I have grown even more patient and open to seeing the light and the positive changes through their built-up walls.

I see the beauty and the transformation in seemingly small reactions from each resident. The first time I witnessed one of our young women get angry and consciously relax her balled-up fists after a deep breath and a countdown from the number 10, I just about cried. Never before this volunteer experience would I have such admiration and excitement for someone reacting to a situation by not throwing a book or flipping a table.

Strolling through a beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood. (Brenna Neimanis)

My gratitude has increased greatly along with my ability to acknowledge small but positive changes in others. I am able to see things through a lens that is aware of other people's past traumas or current preoccupations. My mindset is different, and I am intentionally changing my awareness to one of love and compassion for those I interact with.

I realize how complex each person's story is and how I can be someone who either loves them and pushes them forward or someone who judges them and reacts to them the same way most of the world does. I have been challenged to seek grace for myself and love people more unconditionally, which has given me greater patience and unconditional love.

All of these changes I have seen in myself are positive but have also made me very "strange" to people who see situations like these differently. Sure, I get called a "hippie-chick bleeding-heart social worker" when I show empathy and provide a possible backstory when someone is acting in an offbeat way, but I think it's immensely important to err on the side of compassion when approaching most situations.

I have been working on centering my real motivation for living a life out of the norm. My motivation for my life in general is based on my faith in Christ, and in reality, he was a pretty countercultural guy. He was not one to follow the crowds or do anything based on societal expectations. He literally did the complete opposite.

Jen Hatmaker writes in 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess about living a life devoid of societal pressures to consume and turn away from those who suffer:

I can't have authentic communion with [Jesus] while mired in the trappings He begged me to avoid.

But it does forge a small sense of solidarity with Jesus, as He was always misunderstood for His countercultural ideas.

   The least shall be the greatest.

   Humble yourself like a child.

   Sell all your things and give to the poor.

   Don't gain the world only to forfeit.

I can't imagine these were popular ideas either. I'm sure Jesus got the 'I-thought-you-were-normal-but-now-I-see-I-was-plainly-wrong' face plenty of times. He always gunned for less, reduced, simplified. He was the most fully and completely unselfish, un-greedy, unpretentious man to ever live, and I just want to be more like Him. It's as simple as that.

Left, Reusable tote bags with my new favorite mantra written on it; Right, A peaceful day of reading Jen Hatmaker's "7: an experimental mutiny against excess." (Brenna Neimanis)

I'm with Jen. Thus far in this volunteer program, I have been given the motivation and the ability to really re-evaluate why I want to live a "weird" life by the standards of general society. With the focus on simplicity, spirituality, social justice and community, I have already explored and learned so much, and I am coming to a better understanding of what I want my life to look like.

I want to be more like Jesus. To love unconditionally, give grace, seek justice, dispose of excess, live simply and sustainably, be humble, be selfless, base decisions upon the greater good, care for those in need, and to not just blindly follow societal expectations. I believe that this is true freedom and truly the way I want to live my life.

Long story short: I like being, and I plan to continue to be, weird.

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