Ruined For Life

In 1956, when a few young women were invited to teach at a Catholic boarding school in Alaska, it’s unlikely that anyone envisioned that invitation’s eventual by-product: five decades of service and consciousness-raising for more than 12,000 (mostly) young people through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).

For those who have been involved with JVC, the story is as familiar as a fairy tale: In the 1950s, Jesuit priests, the Sisters of St. Ann, and Ursuline Sisters worked at the well-respected Copper Valley and St. Mary’s rural boarding schools in Alaska, teaching Native Alaskan children. In need of more instructors, a couple of the Catholic sisters asked recent college graduates from Regis College and Anna Maria College in Massachusetts to join them in exchange for room, board, and a chance for adventure. It was the beginning of what would be a wide-ranging religious volunteer program.

There were only a few predecessors. The Mennonite Voluntary Service started in 1944, pre-dating JVC by more than a decade. The Catholic diocese of Los Angeles also sponsored a volunteer program that preceded JVC, as did a handful of much smaller programs supported by other Catholic religious orders.

Originally a nameless, loosely organized group, JVC was given its title and a more formal shape in the early 1960s by Jack Morris, SJ, a Jesuit priest who taught at Copper Valley when the first volunteers arrived. Morris left the school in 1959 to study and to finalize his religious vows; when he returned in 1964, the program had swollen. “Friends invited friends [to come to Alaska],” said Mary Medved, SNJM, now executive director of Jesuit Volunteers International, part of the JVC network. Volunteers were doing jobs beyond teaching and were working not only at Copper Valley and St. Mary’s but also in Fairbanks and other communities. But it was rudderless, unorganized.

“No one was meeting them at the airport,” Morris remembers. “The bishop said [to me], ‘It’s all yours.’” When Morris was assigned to Portland, Oregon, in 1965, he carried the fledgling organization’s administrative center with him and served as its director until 1970.

Expanding into other schools and social service programs in the Northwest region, JVC eventually moved across the country: In the mid-1970s, the Midwest, East, and Southwest regions were created; JVC South began in 1980.

Today, the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service (CNVS) lists 200 volunteer organizations in its directory, many of which were modeled after JVC. Medved, who is also past director of JVC Northwest and a former Jesuit Volunteer, said that “JVC’s success has created its competition. [It] has provided a model for other religious orders with their own particular charism” to create their own volunteer programs.

JESUIT PRIESTS OFTEN had welcomed lay volunteers at their mission sites in other countries (including Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who worked with Jesuits in Honduras after college), but it wasn’t until 1984 that Jesuit Volunteers International (JVI) was formally created as part of the JVC “family.” Today, JVI sends volunteers to Nepal, Belize, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Bolivia, and Peru and collaborates with JVC on marketing and promotion strategies. Jesuit provinces around the world have adopted the JVC model from the United States and created their own national volunteer programs, in the Philippines, Bulgaria, Austria, England, and other countries.

Most JVC mission sites in the U.S. today are no longer necessarily aligned with Jesuit ministries, although each region, in varying degrees, is supported by a Jesuit province. Many JVC placements are with diocesan programs, schools in poor communities, and a multitude of nonprofit service agencies that focus on issues including prison ministries, community organizing, tenants’ rights, and health care, among many others.

Some Jesuit Volunteers work as paralegals, for instance, like those JVs who have been assigned to the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina since 1996. “JVC does a great job of pairing up wonderful [volunteers] interested in law. … We’ve had some really exceptional volunteers,” said Mary Lee Hall, the project’s senior managing attorney. “The only thing is that there are not enough.”

In general, each JVC region functions autonomously as an individual 501(c)3 organization with a separate board of directors and fund-raising, and each places volunteers only within its area. Funding is provided through fees from placement agencies and grants, and each region depends on individual donations. However, Maggie Conley, based in Baltimore at the JVC East offices, works for all the regions as the project manager for national JVC activities. Recruiters cover the entire country, working collectively for every area. The five domestic regions plus JVI share one membership with the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service.

JVC’s most well-known export to other lay mission programs are its four “pillars” or values, developed by past director Larry Gooley, SJ: simple living, spirituality/prayer, social justice, and community. According to CNVS executive director Jim Lindsay, “The four pillars have become fairly standard.” In conversation with many former volunteers, with placement supervisors, and with advocates for lay mission programs, JVC’s four values are cited repeatedly as a key aspect to the program’s appeal, longevity, and effectiveness.

JVC’s commitment to helping its volunteers espouse those values, providing four retreats a year, is “one of the best action and reflection programs out there,” said Jack Morris. “The heart of growth is internalizing [those values].”

MORRIS IS KNOWN AS the creator of JVC’s indelible motto “ruined for life,” which indicates that the JVC experience of service to marginalized and poor people can radically alter one’s outlook and future.

“It’s a resurrection statement, isn’t it?” said Morris, who now serves as the pastor of St. Mary by the Sea parish in Rockaway, Oregon. “You’re transformed.” To volunteer, said Morris, “is to be open to the mystery.”

Bob Casey Jr., Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, served as a Jesuit Volunteer in 1982-83 in North Philadelphia. “I had the opportunity to teach children and to learn from them as well,” he told Sojourners. “As the scriptures tell us, it is in giving that we receive. My experience in JVC will forever impact my life as a husband, father, and elected official. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to serve.”

Rob McCann says that when he headed west 15 years ago to spend a year as a Jesuit Volunteer in Woodburn, Oregon, he assumed he would eventually become a lawyer like the rest of his family. Instead, he had “transformational experiences” and now works as the executive director of Catholic Charities in Spokane, Washington. He notes that after 35 years in Spokane, Jesuit volunteers are a “fixture of Catholic Charities [in Spokane]. Donors know who JVs are.” The volunteers bring “youth, energy, and enthusiasm. They breathe new energy. We couldn’t run this agency without them.”

Participation in the program has peaked and dipped over the years; after several years of declining numbers of applications, JVC Northwest reports that applications for the 2006-07 cycle are up 40 percent. In 2005, JVC and JVI placed more than 300 volunteers at 54 sites. More than half of JVC applicants are students at Jesuit colleges and universities. JVC continues to be the largest Catholic lay volunteer program in the U.S., according to Andy Thompson, national director of the St. Vincent Pallotti Center, because they have “a tremendous built-in feeder system. [The Jesuits] promote it. They are big promoters of laity in church work.”

The early days of JVC coincided with the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, which opened wider opportunities for non-ordained people within the church. When Jesuit college graduates were originally invited to teach in Alaska, it was “new to invite lay people,” said Medved. The Jesuits have “allowed [JVC] to evolve into a lay-run organization.” She credits them “with their commitment over a long period of time, hard times, lean times. Jesuits didn’t give up on JVC.”

In April 2006, JVC released its first major alumni survey, conducted by Fairfield University. Nearly 5,000 former volunteers were surveyed; 37 percent responded. Answers show that 18 percent of former JVs work in the nonprofit field, as compared to 7.4 percent of the general public. Half of former JVs work in the service sector (education, health care, etc); 96 to 98 percent of them donate to charity regardless of income level, and 92 percent vote in presidential elections. Overwhelmingly, former JVs are women (71 percent), and they stay connected: More than two-thirds of respondents noted that they had been in contact with another former Jesuit Volunteer within the past year.

According to Morris: “It’s the age of the laity. Baptism is the most important sacrament, not ordination … [but] you can’t have a lay commitment without community. … People are looking for something.”

As a Jesuit Volunteer, Mary McGinnity, who now works with the Office of Justice and Service in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., taught inner-city high school students in 1978-79 in Newark, New Jersey. “My JVC experience informed my understanding that service, social justice, spirituality, and lifestyle are intertwined and reflect off of each other,” she said. “One isolated from the others is not as rich or, as I’ve come to believe, as meaningful.”

Other former volunteers recount similar reactions: “I often bring up justice and simple lifestyle questions at home, and justice issues at the school at which I teach,” said Ray Sherrock, who lived and worked as a JV in Anchorage in 1989-90 and now teaches at a Jesuit high school in St. Louis.

Michael Amabile, who served in Baltimore in 1999-2000 and who currently is on the JVC East staff, wrote, “I’m ‘ruined’ because I never stop asking questions about my relationship to others and to the world. I know that I don’t always come up with the best answers (the ones that please God; the ones that allow me to be most open to following God’s will), but I try to always be aware of how God is moving in my life and how I can be an instrument of God’s love alive in the world today.”

Judy Coode is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C. She was a Jesuit Volunteer in Anchorage in 1989-90.

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