Marked for Life: Former Full-Time Volunteers Confess That Their Experiences Change Them for Good

By Sweas, Megan | U.S. Catholic, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Marked for Life: Former Full-Time Volunteers Confess That Their Experiences Change Them for Good


Sweas, Megan, U.S. Catholic


"This feels like a homecoming," Beth Knobbe told a retreat group of both new and familiar faces--30 of her fellow alumni from Amate House, a Catholic lay volunteer program in Chicago. Knobbe actually lived with just a few of the retreatants when they were part of the program. Most of the alumni on the retreat were more recent Amate graduates, including eight who had just completed their service year in 2006, 10 years after Knobbe had finished hers. Still, Knobbe immediately felt connected to these young adults, who knew what the full-time volunteer experience was all about.

"All of us can admit that an experience like Amate changes us," Knobbe said. "We use that wonderful phrase 'ruined for life,' which is to say, 'you will never be the same.'"

For Knobbe, being "ruined for life" meant that after working for a corporation for seven years, she found herself "giving in to God's deep desire for my life." She earned her master of divinity degree at Catholic Theological Union and became a campus minister at Northwestern University. Being "ruined," however, isn't just about one's career. "It's a way of life, a way of being with others, and a way of being with God," Knobbe said. "Service is more than something to cross off our to-do lists. It isn't something we do, it's who we are."

The 30 Amate alumni at this retreat are just a few of tens of thousands of alumni from numerous Catholic service programs in the United States and abroad. These programs allow young adults, generally right out of college, to work with the poor without pay while living in a supportive faith-based community for a year or two. Though each program is unique, four common tenets often shape the volunteer experience: social justice, community, simple living, and faith. These tenets also become values former volunteers live by for the rest of their lives.

Working for justice

Nikki Rohling planned to pursue a career in public relations for chemical companies after graduating from the University of Dayton in Ohio. After a year teaching preschool through the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, she knew that neither public relations nor teaching were for her. Instead she took a job at the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services. "I never thought that volunteering would lead to a full-time job," Rohling says. Now the associate director of CNVS, she helps 5,000 people a year have similar life-changing experiences.

"Volunteering is a really good professional stepping stone," Rohling says. "A lot of times people say it's taking a year off, but as far as professional experience, you gain a lot."

Half of her 12 roommates, Rohling says, stayed on at their volunteer jobs. According to a study of Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) alumni, 48 percent of former volunteers--compared to 28 percent of all college graduates--work for non-profits and the government (including education), and their top three professions are teaching, health care, and social services. Moreover, 72 percent of former Jesuit volunteers say that social justice is important to their career.

Interacting with the poor also affects how someone lives out his or her concern for social justice. Jennifer Griffin, who majored in Latin American and urban studies at Fordham University, for instance, thought she wanted to help people by planning neighborhoods. After two years of reflecting on her future and working with teenage mothers as a Good Shepherd volunteer in Lima, Peru, however, "I really realized that God gave me gifts to work directly with people rather than working with neighborhoods," she says. "God was calling me to work with people emotionally and spiritually." This fall she will start a master's program in social work.

After direct service, volunteers tend to have a bias against business--a sense that "business is evil, [and] I can't go into it," notes Brendan Comito, who volunteered with JVC from 1989 to 1990 and is the third generation of his family to run Capital City Fruit in Des Moines, Iowa. …

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