Two Elizabeths: Graff and Niarhos. Emily Buchan. Celita Pope. Amelia Willoughby. Five millenials. They could be at the mall. Or figuring out how to make more money. Instead, they are all spending time as AmericCorps volunteers. With them is Alex Brecht, AmeriCorps Site Director for Washington DC. AmeriCorps is dedicated to addressing local needs in “six priority areas: disaster services, economic opportunity, education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, and veterans and military families.”
These millenials defy the conventional wisdom about the “me, me,me” generation. They are believers in the value of after school programs for children in difficult family environments and tough neighborhoods. And they report discovering more about themselves and how their lives might unfold even as they help disadvantaged children get a better shot at improving their prospects.
We talked at Mary House in DC –the meeting a happy outcome of mistaken identity. Looking to connect to the Catholic Worker refuge for those in need, often called Mary House, we stumbled upon this Mary House. The diversity of the volunteer group speaks to the welcome this place offers “to homeless and struggling families,” helping them, the website promises, “as we ourselves would want to be helped, while providing a safe haven that allows families to reclaim their dignity.”
Elizabeth Graff’s efforts are channeled into direct service to children in need through after school care as well as into development work on behalf of Mary House. She would like to make fuller use of the various social media platforms to promote the work she is involved in and spread the word about the good being done through Mary House.
Liz Niarhos wants to put her command of Spanish to work helping Latin American immigrant families. “These families are struggling to get the kind of education their children desperately need to get ahead. I like to think that I am giving voice to the fourth to sixth graders I work with.”
Emily Buchan enjoys the challenge of contributing to a “turnaround school.” As a curriculum assistant, she helps children by showing them how to bond with animals. Cultivating that “human/animal bond” grounds them and helps them get a better sense of what their priorities should be (“not new sneakers”) if they want to escape the limits that poverty places on their development.
Celita Pope credits her parents’ decision to send her to North Carolina for five years with her success in escaping the limited horizons of many who are born and raised in Ward 8 of the District of Columbia.
“I was the youngest of 10 children,” she said. “My parents got smarter over time about how to raise their children. As a result I am the only one who completed college—and I came back so I could help improve my community.” As a volunteer with the Academy of Hope, she is helping adults who have lost their jobs in the recession, improve their prospects for employment by completing their G.E.D. and get better educated. “That includes some of my siblings,” she says. “They look at me and they know it’s possible to do better. I give them hope.”
Alex Brecht was introduced to “adventeering”—or the adventure of volunteering through Call to Serve. The only paid staffer in the group, he helps place AmeriCorps volunteers. He sees education as an avenue to self-empowerment and values the outreach by Catholic nuns to children in need through after school programs.
Like Alex, fellow Catholic Amelia Willoughby has no time for the kind of battles the church has been waging on abortion and same sex marriage. In Alex’s view “There are so many other important issues we should be focusing on.”
Amelia says she cannot stop being Catholic. “I love the Eucharist. It gives me so much peace,” she says. But she is baffled by the sexism that still runs through the institutional church. “My mother told me from the time I was very little that I could be anything I wanted to be. I was so Catholic I had Jesus wallpaper! So, when I was five I said I wanted to be Pope. No. Could not be Pope, I was told. Just don’t understand that!”
Amelia speaks with energy and humor about her experience with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, advocating for immigrants through the only nonprofit immigrant law office in Washington. She is less enthusiastic about her current experience working in a middle-school for boys in D.C. “It’s not the boys that are the problem. I was always taught that one should “use things and love people. It seems like I am encountering the opposite these days.”
Elaborating on her relationship to her faith, Amelia said: “As a young Catholic woman, I am not sure where I belong in the church. I was in an AA meeting to support a friend when my grandmother who is Argentinian, called me in tears to let me know about the election of Pope Francis. That moment sort of captures where I am mentally. At a confluence of many currents. I cannot imagine sacrificing the Eucharist. Or giving up on our 2000 year history. Hey, I am glad that the Jesuits march in the Gay Rights parade!”
Catholic or not, the diverse group at Mary House reflected an ability to navigate difficult terrain with grace and generosity. They do not pretend to have all the answers and they are transparent about their search for the path that is right for them. They speak for their generation’s capacity for giving of themselves and growing in ways that are often unheralded but so important to healing and serving their communities.