For a quarter-century, SJC students have been trading swimsuits for shovels, sacrificing a traditional spring break experience to perform service work for those less fortunate.
By Ann Swardlick
Sister Michele to Sister Sylvia: “Put up a poster. If students sign up, we’ll go. If they don’t, we won’t.” So settled the debate about whether to launch the College’s first alternative spring break program some 25 years ago.
Ultimately, 16 students and four adults ventured to Kentucky in the spring of 1991, where they participated in Workfest, a week of volunteer service with the Christian Appalachian Project. They slept on camp bunk beds and rose every day at 6 a.m., joining in morning prayer with other student volunteers.
After breakfast, they headed out to their worksites, where they would spend long days building and repairing homes for people in eastern Kentucky. When they returned later in the evening, they gathered to reflect on the day and the powerful experiences they were having. Throughout the week, participants learned a great deal about Appalachian culture and even more about themselves.
Sister Michele Aronica ’74, RSM, and Sister Sylvia Comer ’62, RSM, recall that first trip to Kentucky. “What struck me,” says Sister Sylvia, “was the joy and the faith of people who had so little.” In short order, new homes took shape, constructed by teams of students led by experienced carpenters. Sister Sylvia was amazed “to see what we built in just a week!”
“After that first trip,” says Sister Michele, “we came to understand some important things. First, our students are interested in service. Second, they make meaningful connections on these trips. And third, the experience changes them. They begin to see service as part of their social responsibility.”
Fast forward to the present day and Spring Break Workfest is still going strong. Slots fill up quickly for this annual tradition, which has earned a reputation as an eye-opener. “It’s a journey I went into expecting to help change someone’s life for the better,” says Danielle Charette ’17, “but somehow, every time I go, I find the people I work with only change my life for the better.”
“Workfest programs bring students from across the country together, forming lasting bonds through shared experiences.” Says Jennifer Deacon ’16, a nursing major and veteran Workfest volunteer, “It’s incredible how complete strangers bond so easily when coming together for the same reasons.”
Walking the Walk: In The Mercy Tradition
Sister Michele believes Spring Break Workfest is perfectly aligned with the College’s mission statement. “Part of our mission is to do outreach to underserved populations. Over the years, I have seen that it really nurtures something inside to engage in civic volunteerism; it’s transformative.”
Kathryn Cody, coordinator of social justice and leadership, agrees. “The connection to Mercy is so real,” she says. “We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing it.”
According to Cody, there has been a growing emphasis on student leadership development. “These are really student-led trips,” she explains. Cody works closely with Workfest trip leaders before groups depart in the spring. And she relishes meeting with students upon their return.
“They come back with their stereotypes broken and their eyes wide open! I tell them, yes, this week of service is good, it’s important. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the nailing of shingles or renovating of homes that matters, it’s the transformation that occurs within.”
For 25 years, Saint Joseph’s students have been returning to eastern Kentucky, contributing their time to the Christian Appalachian Project, now one of the largest human-services charities in the US. Workfest has also expanded to other sites around the the country.
On Friday, March 4, Bishop Deeley was on hand to bless more than 30 students who were headed off on Workfest service trips. In addition to Kentucky, they were traveling to New York to work with Westchester County Habitat for Humanity; to Louisiana to work with Camp Restore on construction and social service projects in New Orleans; and to Pennsylvania to volunteer with Blessed Sarnelli Community, providing resources to the poor and homeless.
A psychology major in her junior year, Charette is a three-time Spring Break Workfest participant. When asked why the mission trips are so impactful, she counters with a question of her own: “How can you explain an experience that somehow manages to touch your life in such a big way in such a small amount of time?”