On Vine Street in North Camden, six young adults live in a two-story house, as participants in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) program. Coming to Camden in August, fresh out of college, they traveled from the far-off states of Washington, Oregon, Missouri, Illinois and California, to live out the four core JVC values of community, spirituality, simple living and social justice in the Diocese of Camden.
Mark Lenihan, Molly Downes, Jenna McElfresh, Stephanie Krivus, Christine Soma and Amber Yakkel work at different places around the diocese, but these different experiences bring them closer together every night when they congregate back at the Vine Street house.
“Living in Camden has brought us closer together,” noted Lenihan, 22, a St. Louis, Mo., native. His desire for service came from hearing his mother talk about her experience serving in Jamaica while in the Peace Corps. When he was a sophomore in high school, he went with her on a return trip to Jamaica. Since then, he’s “always known that I’ve wanted to do some sort of service.”
Working at the San Miguel School in Camden teaching social studies and religion to middle school students, he gets to do just that.
“This experience has been incredible, challenging, and has taught me to always keep challenging myself,” he said.
He drives to San Miguel everyday, with roommate McElfresh, who also works at the school as a service learning and physical education instructor.
“It’s amazing, really fun,” said McElfresh, a 22 year-old San Diego native who co-teaches language arts and social studies at the school, as well. During her time at MaryMount College in Los Angeles, completing a double major in history and Spanish, she became attracted to service through her volunteer work at a homeless shelter in the city.
Molly Downes, a Seattle native, works at Northgate Apartments in Camden as a case manager in the social services office, helping residents get to and from doctor’s appointments, and helping them learn how to pay their bills, among other tasks. She calls the experience “tremendously purifying.” She has witnessed a standoff between a SWAT team and one of the Northgate residents, and saw a heroin-fueled man impale himself on a fence.
“Where dignity is not being affirmed, there is injustice,” she said.
To get through the hardest days, Downes relies on her roommates — morning runs together, a house where everyone is “always laughing” — and her faith: “I’m learning to lean on God a lot. I’m spending time in prayer, reading Scripture.”
With a stipend budgeted for community food items, and another for personal expenses, the volunteers are living simply, but are growing together spiritually. They perform weekly meditations, attend weekly Mass at one of the Camden parishes, have daily after-dinner conversations, and gather with seven other Jesuit volunteers living in a house in north Philadelphia.
It is the struggle together, of living in Camden and seeing the poverty, that has brought these volunteers closer to God, and confident that he will help them do his work in Camden.
“What makes me feel the best and strongest, is the knowledge that I need God.”
“The utter poverty definitely opened my eyes up,” remarked 22 year-old Stephanie Krivas, a Chicago-raised volunteer who is working for CATA, a Farmworkers Support Committee in Mount Laurel. “It has been a life-changing experience.”
When asked what lies ahead for them after their time is over in August, most of them are not sure if another year of service will be called for, graduate school, orfull-time employment.
“I want to do something that I’m passionate about,” said McElfresh.
For the volunteers, it’s about Cura Personalis “Care For the Entire Person,” a main tenant of Jesuit spirituality that they try to live out each day.
On Tuesday, March 23, there will be the third annual cocktail reception, “Celebrate Jesuit Volunteers,” from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1733 West Girard Ave., Philadelphia. Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder of Project Home, a nonprofit organization providing housing and services to homeless men and women in Philadelphia, will be featured. $75 includes spirits and small plates.
Serving full-time in nonprofit organizations and schools, and working in direct service, advocacy, and community organizing, there are over 300 Jesuit volunteers working in 32 cities in the United States, and seven countries. For more information, go to www.jesuitvolunteers.org/celebrate