Students pitch in to help alumnus dedicated to affordable housing for all
Every year, Campus Ministry sponsors groups of Saint Joseph’s students to volunteer during Spring Break, and this time I had the privilege of seeing them in action in Westchester County, just north of New York City. “It’s a tale of two counties,” says Jim Killoran ’80, who is head of the Habitat for Humanity chapter where the students served. While some areas of the county are filled with the mansions of corporate executives, housing in other areas is shabby. Killoran should know; he has spent 27 years with Habitat, about 20 of them in this county.
To do his job, Killoran functions as part minister, part politician, part sociologist, part banker, part developer, part community organizer, and part builder. He sure knows how to work a phone, too. As Sarah Gordon, a junior sociology/psychology major from Hallowell, Maine, says, “One day he was on his cell phone, on the regular office phone and typing into the computer all at the same time.” Gordon is the president of the Habitat club on campus.
Killoran appears kinetic but never scattered. He stays focused on his personal mission, which is to make housing affordable for low-income families. How does he keep going after 27 years? “The Holy Spirit,” he answers simply. Michelle Cyr, a senior nursing major from Biddeford, says while his energy can be a bit daunting, it is also inspiring. She says her week of service meant even more because it was faith-based, both for her, the other students in the group and their Habitat sponsor.
One of Jim’s favorite roles is mentoring hundreds of college students that show up in droves each spring. He takes a special delight in those from his alma mater. The day I was there, the St. Joe’s group was helping him move donated goods from a New Rochelle storefront to a warehouse Habitat had just leased. The chapter operates a ReStore, which sells the goods to benefit the nonprofit. As the students haul sinks, furniture, paint cans, and toilet basins, Jim praises them readily. He also praises and thanks God throughout the day. Later, he proudly drives us on a tour of the homes the Habitat chapter has built. As he explains how the organization works, the students get a lesson in political science, the sociology of neighborhoods and home ownership, and the economics of community development. Somewhere along the line, he breaks into song, cranking up the Top 40s radio station.
The students have spent parts of two days helping out at building sites, they have staffed the corporate luncheon for donors, they have marched in the St. Patrick’s Parade holding the Habitat banner, they have staffed the ReStore, and they have visited a center for homeless teens in Manhattan. Crammed into sleeping quarters in tiny 3rd floor rooms above the Habitat office, they are tired. On this, their last official work day, they must switch gears from moving supplies when Jim finds out 30 area families need help because of an apartment building fire.
We head to a church hall in Yonkers, where he immediately settles in to comfort the families, telling them Habitat can help them replace what they have lost and instructing the students to make lists of what the families need from the ReStore. I see their faces light up with hope. The students fan out into the room, open and empathetic, writing down what is needed and ready to come back and raise money on campus to help them.
I marvel at their energy and enthusiasm in the face of tragedy. I celebrate their total presence in the situation. I witness that doing good feels good. And seeing others do good makes me want to do good.
That’s how the Mercy values of compassion and justice take seed and grow.