Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

Margaret A. Van Dorn '08

When I committed to a year of service and intentional living with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I thought I should prepare myself for a few things. There would surely be a periodic community fasting for peace, accompanied by a few candlelit prayer vigils, radical literature spread across the coffee table, and of course, and perhaps above all else, an intense immersion into the lives of the poor, broken, and despairing. Or so the recruitment brochure implied. I expected to be doing good work among inspiring people, but imagined that my daily orbit in the field of social services would lead to some pretty dark places.

And there are some days when this dark forecast has proven true. I leave work, baffled by the suffering I have encountered there and even more disheartened to hear, when I get home, of the struggles my housemates have endured at their respective placements. We all work among different populations—at risk youth, people in recovery, senior citizens, impoverished minorities, homeless men, women, and children of every conceivable background—and yet, I am gripped by the pervasive sense of aching among these different communities.

But for all the undeniable suffering, there is an astonishing kind of hope I have witnessed here too. One day we took a tour of each other's agencies in Berkeley and San Francisco. It was a revelatory day for me. I learned that the field of human services is vastly diverse and that while the issues burdening our society are greater than expected, so too is the number and variety of people ready to do something about it. People are gifted in different ways, but with very specific concerns that penetrate deep into the heart of the community they serve.

That revelation has proven increasingly true over my past six months in JVC. Just recently I was asked to develop a “life skills” curriculum for the clients in our drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. Life skills? What life skills? I am 22 years old and probably in desperate need of my own and you want me to lead a class of more than 60 people who have already fought, squirmed, and skidded their way through life? The only budget I have to balance is an $85 monthly stipend! My magical job interviewing skills consist of me declaring, 'Yes, I am ready to give you a year of intensive labor for next to nothing.' (A hard offer for any nonprofit organization functioning in this economy to resist).

But then I remembered Chris, a fellow JV working at a computer tech lab for the homeless in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, and decided to call upon him for some advice. Now we are collaborating on a computer literacy class for our shared clients, and I am learning that I do not need to excel in everything in order to really serve people, but must simply remain aware of my own connectedness to people. That sense of personal limitation can be a humbling thing for any Santa Clara graduate to grasp, though I think it's a necessary exchange for interpersonal development and communal growth.

We are already connected as people more than we may imagine and our strength and promise shall come from simply realizing and responding to that. “If we have no peace,” in the words of Mother Teresa, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” and that this belonging rings out through every chord of our social connectedness. JVC has called me to work in dark places, after all, but I have found here an entire constellation of ignited people to help guide me.