Campus Ministry celebrates 20 years of sending students to help others in need
– when they could be basking in the Florida sun or enjoying home-cooked meals.
On a late
afternoon in March 1992 while driving through the hills of West Virginia,
Sister Michele Aronica, RSM, saw a single snowflake drift by the windshield. As
she steered the St. Joe’s van with nine students aboard, the snowflake made her
think of the road sign not far back. “Expect hazardous weather next 75 miles,”
it warned. The van climbed deeper into the hills, and, before long, one
snowflake quickly turned into a blinding white-out. Unable to continue, Sister
Michele and the driver of another car carrying students pulled over to wait out
the storm. A third car in the caravan with Campus Ministry director Sister
Sylvia Comer, RSM, had gone on ahead, losing contact with the others when the
signal from the walkie talkie faded. Reaching the group’s overnight stop far
earlier, Sister Sylvia sat up waiting and praying until 2 a.m., when Sister
Michele’s van and the other car finally pulled in. And so it was that St. Joe’s
first Spring Break Workfest began with a blizzard.
night in West Virginia, the crew of volunteers slept on mats in the local
parish hall. They included Board of Trustees member Cynthia Murray Beliveau ’70
and Edna Talbot, mother of one of the students. The next day they all reached
tiny McKee, Ky., where they settled into a rustic camp, woke the following
morning at 6 a.m., and got to work helping the Christian Appalachian Project
(CAP) repair homes in one of the nation’s poorest regions.
up on the roof working on the house and would come back covered in black. There
was no hot water and sometimes just a trickle of cold. Talk about roughing it,”
says Sister Sylvia, laughing.
following year Sister Michele and Sister Sylvia returned with another group of
students who wanted to serve in Kentucky. This time the blizzard hit in
days the group was stuck in an EconoLodge. Interstate 80 was shut down to all
traffic. In such tight quarters, student dynamics were eroding fast, and Sister
Sylvia decided to take action.
every church in the area to see if they needed help shoveling out. I called Red
Cross. I called Meals on Wheels,” she says.
so grateful for the help … (the students) shoveled snow, they delivered meals,”
recalls Sister Sylvia.
never did make it to Kentucky that year, but the following year volunteers
arrived there easily. Unbelievably, flooding in the area forced them to leave
after several days.
first three years of weather setbacks and a focus solely on Kentucky, the St.
Joe’s Workfest has grown to 40 students at five sites this year, including
Philadelphia, New Orleans, Yonkers, N.Y., Bellows Falls, Vt., and Kentucky
(where they have gone every year since CAP started the program).
On a typical
day at a Workfest site, students are up and out early, putting in a full day to
help abused, homeless children with homework; organize clothing donations;
serve in food kitchens; clean up building lots; paint rooms at a resource
center for homeless teenagers, staff a Habitat for Humanity retail store,
insulate and caulk windows, repair sheetrock – or whatever else needs done.
’80, who heads up Habitat for Humanity in Westchester County, N.Y., hosts a
group of Workfest students from his alma mater every year. He shows them more
than how to swing a hammer; he also shows them behind the scenes how building
community relations and support is necessary to building community housing.
putting in a long day, students also reflect on what they do through journaling
and daily group sharing. One kind of reflection involves “popcorn
prayers,” in which anyone can pop up to express gratitude for something that
happened that day.
Not all the
participants are religious. Frank Daggett ’80/’08, who coordinates Spring Break
Workfest for the Campus Ministry office, says most students who go have a sense
of something spiritual in their lives, but might not be able to articulate it.
“They’re not necessarily religious, per se. They respond to a situation, but
not if we preach.”
students are immersed for a week with projects where people are putting their
faith into action through compassion. “It may not be a faith-based
organization, but once you meet the staffers, they’re usually practicing their
faith,” he says.
stressful for students? Dealing with economic extremes can feed a sense of
guilt, as students “weigh a family’s income for a month vs. the cost of a pair
of Uggs,” Daggett says. “It makes them think about: What do I need to be happy?
They might think that people (they serve) are going to be dejected. Turns out
they’re happy. It’s a turning point realization.”
last four years, student leadership has played a larger role, and now most
Workfest groups serve without a faculty or staff supervisor. Student leaders
for each Workfest site train ahead of time in handling contingencies, group
dynamics, fundraising and other aspects of the experience – all of which builds
participants get trained in sensitivity toward a new culture where people
suffer because of poverty, old age or loneliness. They are taught to remember
the people they will serve have faces, names and life stories. They learn about
empowerment, dignity and the phrase “working with.” They see they can come to
help as an equal.
called to bring Christ’s love,” says Daggett simply.
Sanborn, who now works in The Academic Center, was formerly in Campus Ministry
and coordinated the weeklong trips as part of her job. She also went along as a
staff leader on Workfest for five years, and discovered “how much we learn from
those who struggle.” She and the students came away with a clearer
understanding of hunger and living on the streets. “It’s eye-opening, pure and
simple,” says Sanborn.
Dowler ’02 volunteered all four years with Workfest and now works for Habitat
for Humanity in Portland, Maine. She says Workfest builds leaders and “requires
you to take yourself beyond the ‘safe’ boundaries of what is comfortable … to
places where you see the worst that this world can offer and discover that you
have it within yourself to make it better – one person at a time.” She says the
Mercy tradition exemplified by the Spring Break Workfest program led her to do
the work she does now with Habitat.
part, Daggett loves the work. “I enjoy working with student leaders. It’s fun
to see how participants get excited about it,” he says. Though a week isn’t
enough time to make a huge contribution, some eventually go on to additional
service. Kelly Hopkins ’10, for example, decided to become a long-term
volunteer at Christian Appalachian Project, while others have joined Mercy
Corps or the Jesuit Corps.
justice coordinator Daggett says he’s really proud of Saint Joseph’s students’
willingness to serve, and thankful for the legacy handed on from Sister Sylvia,
Erin Sweezy, Holly Sanborn and others. “This past week I got a call from a
counterpart at an Ivy League school, asking about our student-led service
program, and I was amazed at how far ahead of them SJC is,” he says. “Workfest
is truly one of the gems of St. Joe’s!”
St. Joe’s Workfest came about when a staff member from the Christian
Appalachian Project (CAP) rode circuit across the Northeast in the fall of 1991
to sign up college students to volunteer in their new program called Spring
Break Workfest. Campus Ministry director Sister Sylvia Comer put up a sign-up
sheet, promoted it and got 10 students for the journey to Kentucky.
Beiting (Hon.’01) started Christian Appalachian Project in 1964 after he was
assigned to pastor a large portion of east-central Kentucky, though the area
had no Catholic church. He realized that aside from needing spiritual guidance,
the people of Appalachia were in great need of physical support. With the help
of family and friends, he brought them provisions, clothing and other goods.
Catholic priest who was raised in Kentucky, he wanted to help people help
themselves out of poverty. “I found myself in Appalachia, pastor of a
non-existent church in a parish the size of the state of Rhode Island. I
thought to myself, ‘This has got to be some mistake.’ If it was, it was the
happiest mistake of my life.”
n 1957, he and his associate pastor pooled their
small stipends and bought land to start a summer camp for boys from poor
families. Named Cliffview Lodge, it was racially integrated during the days
when segregation reigned. The summer camp was a success, and in 1964 Father
Beiting named his growing ministry and declared it would be “a group that would
roll up our sleeves and get the job done.” The Christian Appalachian Project
was born. Now
the 15th-largest human services charity in the nation, the nonprofit,
interdenominational organization has grown to touch the lives of more than 1
million people each year with a wide range of services that help to change
lives, teach skills and improve the community. For more information, go