Volunteering is about serving and growing
As a senior at the University of Illinois, Kristine Wollscheid wasn’t sure what to do after graduation. Her one desire was to try living in another part of the country. A teacher recommended volunteer opportunities through the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services. Sounding like a good idea, Kristine checked out her options and soon discovered the work of the Sisters of Bon Secours.
“As soon as I met some of the sisters, it just felt right,” Kristine remembers.
Experience spurs growth
The volunteer program is basically a faith-based Peace Corps for domestic volunteer service. It promotes spiritual growth as well as community living. Bon Secours volunteers work in Baltimore, Maryland and Richmond, Virginia, and live with other volunteers during their year of service. The community they build with one another can be as important as the work they do every day. We ask them to do more than live together. We ask them to share their faith journey as they go through a year of service.
Kristine started her year of service in 1999. She worked at the Women’s Resource Center in Baltimore. The center, created by Sr. Pat Dowling, CBS, focuses on meeting the needs of women who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The goal is to bring all needed resources to one location. Women drop in to eat breakfast, do laundry, shower, use the telephone to make appointments, report domestic violence, get counseling, and help with other problems through a referral system.
Work requires a connection to faith
Kristine served as an advocate for the women simply by offering a listening ear and making referrals to agencies for needed services. “One woman,” she explains, “came regularly for help to stay in drug treatment, seek employment and get on her feet to support her five children.” The gravity of Kristine’s work often drove her to seek support from her faith. “I had to really connect with my faith, because sometimes the situations we encountered were devastating for me.”
Many of the women Kristine helped were single mothers. She had never known people who lived in such difficult circumstances. The domestic violence cases were especially hard. “To see a woman walk in with a black eye or a laceration was heart-wrenching. It was necessary to look beyond and connect with my faith to find the strength and peace needed to continue working.”
To support the volunteers, weekly community nights are held where they talk about where they have seen God in the course of the day, or where it felt like God was absent. They share the joys and frustrations of their work. During these sessions, they pray together, learn new skills to improve effectiveness, and learn more about Catholic activists like Dorothy Day and the Sisters of Bon Secours. The volunteers all come with the same heart and the same desire. They are for the most part, the extraordinary student; someone who has a strong commitment to serving and being with others.
We look for volunteers driven by an apostolic spirit, someone who wants to do something for others and who expects nothing in return. It is a true desire to see that someone is given the opportunities, assistance, direction, and support they need to become self-sufficient individuals.
Eyes opened to a new view of the world
The volunteers’ experiences transform them into people with a different view of the world. One volunteer came from a very successful job in the corporate world. Her search for meaning in life came up short. Coming to Bon Secours to volunteer in an after school program tutoring at risk children, though, changed her life. After getting her teacher’s certificate, she now teaches underprivileged children and loves it.
Requirements to be a volunteer
- Lay Christian women or men
- Age 21 or older with no dependents
- In good physical and psychological health
- Without family or financial obligations that would inhibit a ministerial presence
- Attracted to the mission and spirit of Bon Secours and motivated by an open, apostolic spirit
What volunteers receive
- Stipend, room and board
- Health insurance
- Spiritual retreats
- Student loan deferment
- A structured, supportive environment for personal growth
- An opportunity to focus on personal and spiritual growth through living as a member of a small Christian community for one year
Spreading the word
The volunteers are a witness to what the Sisters of Bon Secours want to accomplish. Former volunteers share their stories with their families and people in their hometowns, spreading their witness and acting as informal recruiters for the volunteer program. They are the best recruiters. They are happy, and that speak volumes.
Volunteer who can’t get enough serves two years
Morgen Smith was studying foreign affairs at the University of Virginia when she realized she would graduate soon but still did not feel sure about her next step in life. Volunteering seemed like a good way to explore the world and take time to figure things out. So a few months before graduation, she started looking into volunteer programs.
She searched two booklets of program descriptions, crossing out the locations where she didn’t want to live and work she didn’t want to do. She visited the Bon Secours program in Baltimore and it felt like the right place for her to be, so she signed on to volunteer for one year in the after-school tutoring and mentoring program for inner-city children.
Morgen spent her mornings checking in with families. If a student had been behaving differently than usual, she would contact the family to find out what was going on at home. It could be that the family’s electricity had been cut off so the child’s routine was disrupted. During lunch time, Morgen walked to Bon Secours Hospital for Mass and lunch with the hospital’s pastoral care staff. “I had never really attended daily mass before and it was a good opportunity in the middle of the day to make time for that and remember why I was called to serve in the first place,” she says. It also gave her an opportunity to swap stories with people who work at the hospital.
Morgen also planned the activities for the after-school program, sometimes coordinating students from a local university and senior citizens who offered to help. She set up the church hall, and then worked with the 30 to 35 students who attended the program, helping with homework, discussion groups and field trips.
Finding her place in the world
During that year, Morgen lived with other volunteers who were serving through Catholic Charities. Being with that group challenged her to think more about who she was and her place in the world.
Morgen had long been drawn to vegetarianism and environmentally sustainable habits, but she couldn’t articulate why those things attracted her. During her volunteer time, she began to see how those actions were tied to global justice and solidarity with the poor. One way of acting justly, she realized, is to refuse to buy clothes that are made by people in sweat shops in foreign countries.
She also gained a deeper understanding of how the poor in inner city neighborhoods are confronted by injustice every day. In the neighborhood where she worked, for example, there was only one grocery store so it got away with charging higher than normal prices.
Morgen also began to see the Catholic Church as more than just a place to go on Sundays to attend Mass. “It was an invitation to put your faith into action and learn about social justice and what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be Christian. It’s not just learning to follow rules. It’s the way you live your life every day.”
The experience was so positive Morgen signed on for a second year with Bon Secours. “I just couldn’t get enough,” she says.
Looking back, Morgen marvels at how the experience was so much more transforming than she could have predicted. At the end of her second year of volunteer work, she decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “My goal is to provide legal representation to the urban poor,” she says. “I think it’s something I never would have thought about or known about if I hadn’t volunteered.”
Meet the Director of our Volunteer Ministry Program
Shannon E. Curran is the director of the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry Program, a program in which Christian men and women volunteer one year of service to work in the communities in which the Sisters of Bon Secours serve.
Prior to this position, Curran served as a theology teacher for Towson Catholic High School, a private, coeducational school in Towson, Maryland. In this capacity, she taught courses on social justice, moral decision-making, Hebrew Scriptures, and understanding Catholic Christianity. She also served as coordinator of the school’s service-learning program.
Her foray into working with young people did not begin with her three-year tenure at Towson Catholic High School. Curran previously served as a graduate assistant for the Department of English at Iowa State University, an education coordinator for Viva House, and an after-school program supervisor for Youth and Shelter Services, Inc.
It is not only her experience in the educational field that makes her an ideal candidate to work with the young men and women in the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry; Curran also has three years of experience living in an intentional community as a full-time volunteer, an aspect that is integral to the experience for volunteers who participate in Bon Secours’ program. She also has mentored students at various non-profit agencies in Baltimore, recruited volunteers while working as the volunteer coordinator for South Baltimore Learning Center, and has been the recipient of grants and awards for her community outreach work.
A graduate of Loyola College in Maryland, Curran received her master’s in leadership in teaching from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, and currently is working toward a master’s in theology from the Ecumenical Institute of Theology.
“Southwest Baltimore is a neighborhood that has been abandoned by most people and institutions of power,” says Curran. “The fact that the Sisters of Bon Secours continue to both live in and serve this community attracted me to this position. Basically, I want to be part of a community that strives to live the ‘Preferential Option for the Poor.’ Although I was a full-time volunteer eight years ago, I continue to learn and grow from those years. I look forward to combining my experiences with service learning, particularly in Southwest Baltimore, with the experiences of the volunteers.”