e-mail us

Starting Point

Whether the market is bull or bear, volunteers are few, cupboards bare


Acceptance, the fifth and final stage of grief as defined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, is a tough one. I think I’m stuck in the second phase, anger. My grieving process started a couple months ago when I received a letter from Tim McCabe, executive director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: Midwest. McCabe said, “It is with great sadness ... I write to inform you of the current reality of JVC: Midwest.”

As a former Jesuit Volunteer, I continued reading cautiously. McCabe said applications to the one-year volunteer corps -- and voluntarism in general -- had been declining for some time. The JVC staff believed the most important cause was a strong market economy.

McCabe explained, “Large corporations are engaged in high-powered recruiting on and off college campuses, making lucrative offers to college seniors. It appears, in such a strong economy, it is harder for people to pay attention to the poor and marginalized.”

I thought, “Try feeding that line to the poor and marginalized.” Do the homeless know about this so-called strong economy? How about minorities? Migrant workers? The unemployed and uninsured? Single mothers? HIV-positive people trying to pay for their expensive drugs?

For a fleeting moment I felt guilty. NCR’s advertising department, where I am the manager, has benefited from a healthy economy. And after 10 years of living in the inner city, I recently moved to a suburb. Had I turned my back on the urban poor?

Then I realized my emotion was more about grief than guilt. The JVC staff projects a 50 percent decrease in volunteers for this fall. So McCabe and others spent a month trying to discern what to do. The decision was painful: At least three JVC communities -- in Kansas City, Mo., Omaha, Neb., and Minneapolis -- were to close (in the end, an unexpected influx of applicants saved Kansas City, but not the other two).

The prospect of locking the door to Kansas City’s JVC house hit close to home. I lived there 11 years ago and volunteered full-time at a battered women’s shelter. I assisted a psychologist in helping the children -- toddlers through teens -- deal with their own fears of living in a violent household. It challenged my view of the world and shaped my moral fiber. JVC changed life as I had known it.

The first day, I rode a bus to a neighborhood that many native Kansas Citians had warned a “white boy” against entering. But either by faith or naiveté, I responded to the call. Moncie, an African-American woman and director of the haven, welcomed me at the door. She pointed to a nearby street where a drug deal had gone bad a few hours earlier. Someone had been murdered -- hit over the head with a rock.

The shelter was an old, dilapidated house. But it provided safe asylum for those who entered, which was all that mattered. Stories of abuse came to life when I saw black eyes, cuts and bruises. One woman’s stomach bore the outline of a hot iron. Her husband didn’t like the way she had ironed his clothes. Moncie told me the physical wounds from domestic violence heal much quicker than the emotional scars.

Many women winced when they saw a man on the premises. The shelter staff assured them I would be a positive male role model for the children. It was a nice compliment but a huge challenge. My rapport with the youngsters came naturally. I was still a kid at heart, so we bonded quickly. One 10-year-old boy, Thomas, told me I was his brother. He said, “God made you and God made me. That makes us brothers. It doesn’t matter what color we are.”

Thanksgiving was especially meaningful that year. A church donated a turkey and all the trimmings, so those in the shelter could have a nice dinner. The women in the house cooked the food and set a modest table. They asked me to carve the bird. Together we prayed and thanked God for life’s blessings. I figured if they could feel blessed, I certainly should.

Every day at lunchtime my supervisor and I walked with the children to a nearby Salvation Army. The chow varied greatly from day to day. One time the food smelled even worse than it looked, so I opted not to eat. A 6-year-old girl asked me why I wasn’t eating, and I told her I was on a diet. She pushed her plate away and said, “Then I’m on a diet, too!”

Many other fond JVC memories remain in my soul, and I still volunteer part-time for a couple of worthy causes. The satisfaction I get out of those few spare hours far exceeds what I give of myself. How unfortunate -- even ironic -- that a strong economy will hinder others from sharing their gifts and receiving so many blessings. They will never know what a rich return their investment might yield.

Chris Curry is advertising manager for NCR.

Jesuit Volunteer Corps' website: http://www.JesuitVolunteers.org/

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998