Jesuit Volunteer Corps members find joy in giving
Five mornings a week, Caitlyn O’Toole from Rochester, New York, takes the RTA bus from Uptown and travels to the New Orleans Public Library main branch to help adults improve their literacy.
The recent college graduate does this as a volunteer member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in cooperation with the YMCA’s Educational Services (YES!) adult literacy program. She said she is one of 12 JVC volunteers in New Orleans this year, living together and working in the community.
“I tried to go into this with an open mind without too many expectations,” O’Toole said about her initial match with the literacy program, but she’s pleasantly discovered how the experience has filled her heart.
Adult students ‘amazing’
"The students amaze me every day,” she said. “I knew going into it I would love them and they would be these incredible people, but getting to know their stories of why they didn’t learn to read and why they are coming back is so incredible. I get to build relationships with the students when I see them every day.”
Students encourage each other to learn and create a safe, family environment where successes – gauged by testing – are celebrated.
Ronald Mott Sr., now retired, has been attending the center for about six months. He said he’s always had trouble reading, dropping out of school in the seventh or eighth grade.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve doubled my reading ability and I’ve done well in math,” he said. “I wish more people would attend. I know the struggles and what people go through. ... I’m doing it for my grandchildren to teach them to stick with it.”
“I think it’s amazing that these students find time to make the progress because life is so busy with jobs, family and other responsibilities,” O’Toole said.
“I think the community of the students is incredible – they support each other.”
A place to grow
Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) is a year-long volunteer program through the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) whereby participants put their Catholic “faith in action” by volunteering at a job that mirrors social justice issues while living simply in community with other volunteers and sharing resources (they receive small stipends for transportation, expenses and food), their job experiences and faith.
JVC provides a week-long orientation to accustom participants to their job as well as a local orientation in their host city to learn the community and social justice resources. The housemates have their own jobs but share the commonality of social justice being close to their heart.
“We each have different perspectives of what family is, but we have to meet each other where we are,” she said.
O’Toole was vaguely aware of JVC through family friends who had taken part in the 1970s, but she didn’t think it was for her. Then, while attending Iona College, earning a bachelor’s in English and political science, she did a service trip to New Orleans and felt really engaged.
“I have gotten so much from that trip that this was a way to give back,” she said. “I started looking for different organizations, wanting to do something where I could live with other volunteers in community and we could share our experiences at work and through social justice as a family and in community.”
Inspired by the mission
She said the four pillars of the JVC experience – social justice, spirituality, simple living and community – resonated with her.
O’Toole narrowed her choice of JVC volunteer placements from 300 jobs to about a dozen and interviewed for three. While she hadn’t necessarily planned on returning to New Orleans, it worked out that way.
“When I came out of the interview, I felt the job at the YMCA was the best fit,” she said. “I liked what they were doing – educating adults. ... I come from a family who appreciates education – I couldn’t imagine walking into the grocery store and not being able to read – so it’s wonderful to be able to share your passion and help them fill in the puzzle pieces, to serve them that way.”
O’Toole said she’s learned much about herself and the connection between her volunteer work and the wider scope of social justice and how it fits into life.
“I knew that reading was always important to me, but I didn’t understand how strongly I felt about it,” she said. “I think it taught me a lot of what I genuinely need and what I want. I don’t have the need to buy clothes; I know I have plenty now. I’ve also learned so much about New Orleans and the people here. There is this wonderful feeling of hospitality and friendliness. ... I am so grateful I am here and have this wonderful job and get to meet all of these wonderful people.”
She’s not sure of the future once her year ends, but said JVC has a saying that she’s found holds true: “After you do JVC you are ruined for life. After this experience, your life has changed, you can’t go back to the person you were without this mindset of JVC.
“This year is meant to be part of my discernment process to figure out what’s next and what I am going to do with my talents,” O’Toole said.
For more information on YMCA Educational Services (YES!) and adult literacy programs, visit www.ymcaneworleans.org. Information on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps is at www.jesuitvolunteers.org.