FEATURED ARTICLE: Mercy Legacy Thrives in Mercy Volunteer Corps
March 01, 2016
By Elizabeth MacNeal
Packing up your things and moving to a new city, sometimes even a new country, is not an easy task. It takes courage and faith to trust that a year of volunteering will impact society in a sustainable way. At Mercy Volunteer Corps (MVC), we tell volunteers during orientation that they are the small part of society that chooses to step outside their comfort zones—and that is “where the magic happens.” This magic comes from forming new relationships, engaging in fulfilling service and pushing personal boundaries, but it also brings challenges and moments of uncertainty. It is during these moments that Mercy volunteers turn to their experienced counterparts— the Sisters of Mercy.
THE VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCE
I had the opportunity to see Mercy volunteers toward the end of their year of service at the transition retreat, a weekend retreat that guides Mercy volunteers on how to transition out of their role as a volunteer and into living a life in the spirit of Mercy. I could feel the energy in their smiles, their laughter and their warm presence. As I listened to their stories, I could see the change within each of them. Each had beautiful memories of their experiences. They told me about how they spent weeks trying to get just one man suffering from homelessness off the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the indescribable joy they felt as they watched him start to move into a new life. They told me about the success of starting a new street clinic that offers mammograms to women without medical insurance living in Savannah, Georgia. They told me about their time attending rallies, marches and advocacy days and how these experiences connected them with communities that shared their passions. The volunteers shared their stories from Navajo reservations to major metropolitan cities, and just as each of the volunteers had beautiful memories of their experiences, equally they had frustrations.
They spoke about the ignorance in denying someone medical care. They spoke about cultural insensitivity, social injustices and failing systems. The volunteers did not pack their bags and leave, or ignore those in need of service. They stayed, and they served. With every frustration and enraged voice, I saw a fire within them. The Mercy volunteers use everything they have witnessed during their year of service to create change. They have brought passion and light to some of the darkest places in our society.
If you ask any Mercy volunteer their favorite memories from their year of service, you will inevitably hear a story about a Sister of Mercy. From Mercy Day celebrations and weekly dinners to trips to the beach, the Sisters of Mercy quickly become family members for Mercy volunteers.
Just as with any family, the sisters are not just there for fun trips and dinner invitations. They also support frustrated volunteers facing a system that prevents someone who is homeless from getting emergency shelter when temperatures dip below freezing. They are there for the moment when a volunteer at the clinic loses her first patient. They are there for each march, rally and advocacy event, handing Mercy volunteers posters and signs and marching right alongside them. The sisters teach Mercy volunteers what it is to serve and how to keep going, even at the most difficult of times. They teach Mercy volunteers to show compassion for those they serve while also encouraging them to use their frustrations to affect change in sustainable ways. The Sisters of Mercy teach Mercy volunteers every day how to continue the legacy of Catherine McAuley. They encourage them to join the next generation of Mercy, not just for their year of service, but for the rest of their lives.
SISTERS HELP MVC GROW
Seeing the passion and hearing the stories from our Mercy volunteers brings a renewed commitment to the staff of Mercy Volunteer Corps—a commitment that we continue the legacy to serve people who are poor and marginalized by placing Mercy volunteers in areas of the United States and South America with extreme Mercy volunteers Kaitlin Dinkelacker (left) and Nicole Panza (right) fill grocery bags to be handed out to MercyFirst’s clients in New York City. need. Within these past two years, Mercy Volunteer Corps has expanded to three new cities: Hartford, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and San Francisco, California. In each new city, Mercy volunteers have thrived with the help of support systems, which include sisters, Mercy associates and alumni.
We were able to first expand to Hartford because of the diligent work of the sisters helping us coordinate housing and service sites and supporting volunteers during their year of service. In Pittsburgh, we received a grant from McAuley Ministries which allows volunteers to be fully supported financially. This, coupled with the amazing support of the sisters at Carlow University, has fostered a strong relationship with Mercy Volunteer Corps and the Pittsburgh community.
The most recent MVC site is San Francisco, California. It is through the work of West Midwest Sisters Judy Carle, Sheila Devereux, Mary Kilgariff, Martha Larsen, Joan Marie O’Donnell, Eileen Pazmino and Marian Rose Power—as well as others in the Bay Area and Burlingame, California— that Mercy Volunteer Corps was able to send two volunteers to San Francisco in September 2015. One of these volunteers, Lauren Mifsud, writes, “The Sisters of Mercy have been an amazing support to us since we have arrived in San Francisco. Many of them have invited us over for dinner, especially for events like Mercy Day and Thanksgiving. Sister Frida even took Bianca [another Mercy volunteer] and me to Muir Woods to see the redwoods! We were blessed to have Sister Judy accompany us to our fall retreat in Sacramento and Sister Joan is always connecting us with Sisters of Mercy in the Bay Area. They are always checking in on us, too! Sister Sheila sometimes drops off a bag of goodies at our front door, and we like to take turns having one another over for dinner.”
WITNESSING THE WORK OF MVC
In each of the 11 Mercy Volunteer Corps cities, Catherine McAuley’s legacy continues as Mercy volunteers and Sisters of Mercy collaborate to serve people who are poor and marginalized. With each visit to an MVC city, I am reminded of how critical the relationship between the Sisters of Mercy and Mercy Volunteer Corps truly is.
I recently was blessed with the opportunity to visit Mercy volunteers serving in Guyana, South America. While there I not only enjoyed the hospitality of the sisters in Georgetown, but I also witnessed firsthand how sisters and volunteers are serving together in the name of Mercy. I visited one Mercy volunteer, Dylan Salamone, at his service site, Mercy Wings Vocational School, which offers academic and life skills classes for men and women unable to complete traditional high school. I sat in on one of the classes he teaches, a life skills introductory course.
After a moment of watching Dylan teach, I realized that he was not the only teacher in the room. Sister Denise Lyttle (CCASA/Guyana) jumped right into the lesson, pushing Dylan in his teaching and challenging the students to focus on his lesson. As I watched these two Mercy educators, one sister and one volunteer, jumping about the room and inspiring students, I realized how much impact Mercy has on each community where it is present. Before this experience, Dylan, like many Mercy volunteers, most likely had never heard of Catherine McAuley or met a Sister of Mercy. Now, he is co-teaching in a foreign country in a Mercy school with a Mercy sister. It was through Mercy Volunteer Corps that he was able to join the circle of Mercy and meet lifelong friends and mentors in the Sisters of Mercy.
Watching this moment made me realize why Mercy Volunteer Corps was first started, and why the legacy of Mercy is so critical to carry on and continue to spread. It is through Mercy that all are called to serve. This service can be both beautiful and frustrating, but ultimately every service done in the name of Mercy builds on a larger legacy.
As Mercy Volunteer Corps looks to the future, we are hopeful and eager to continue to serve people who are poor and marginalized. Mercy Volunteer Corps is grateful for each helping hand that makes the MVC journey so memorable and so impactful for a world in need of mercy.
Elizabeth MacNeal graduated with BFA in graphic design and a minor in art history from Marywood University. She currently works as the communication specialist for Mercy Volunteer Corps in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth has led service immersion trips to both Honduras and Ecuador and spent time living in London and traveling throughout Europe. You can contact Elizabeth.