I wanted to do a year of volunteer service right out of high school, but did not have the opportunity to do so. I learned that I found great joy in serving others through my social outreach group in high school and had a strong desire to give more time, energy, and direct focus to volunteering.
Come April of my senior year in college, I found myself without a plan for the following year and the idea of doing a year of service re-entered my mind. I visited theCatholic Volunteer Network website and found the online RESPONSE directory,which helped me to narrow down my search to the type of program I was interested in with the type of support that I needed.
This is where I learned about the Cristo Rey Network of schools and truly the next chapter of my life began.
The Cristo Rey Network is a high school model that offers low income families the opportunity to send their students to Catholic college prep high schools. How is this possible when most Catholic high schools are quite expensive, you might ask. The school partners with local corporate businesses, organizations, universities, hospitals, law firms etc where the students will work five days out of the month to offset their tuition cost. (Click here to learn more and see me in my classroom at minute 4:37.)
It took a leap of faith to go to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School (DBCR) in Washington, D.C. because I would be joining the Salesian Domestic Volunteers (now called Salesian Home Missioners) in their first year as a volunteer program and I would also be the only volunteer placed at DBCR. I was going to be a pioneer both in my volunteer program and placement in the school. DBCR was also only in its fourth year of existence and still responding to the challenges of being in the “start up” period. It would be two years of learning and growing for all of us.
During my first year of service at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School I worked in the Youth Ministry and Faith Formation Department while also teaching two sections of junior theology. In my second year I taught a full course load, five sections, split between freshmen and junior theology as well as assisting the youth ministry team.
Within those classrooms and the small youth ministry office God called me to be a Salesian Sister. I learned a lot from working side by side with Fr. Abraham Feliciano, SDB (Salesians of Don Bosco). In him, I witnessed the everyday charism of the Salesians and joyful service to the young who are most in need. Fr. Abe loved those students with his whole heart and they knew it. They knew that they could rely on him to crack a joke and brighten their day or that they could come to him with serious problems and he would lead them to Jesus.
I learned that the heart of the Salesian charism is a daily encounter with Christ in and through our students and hopefully reciprocated as we open ourselves to be an image of Christ for them. I spent countless afternoons in that youth ministry office, surrounded by young people, laughing so hard I thought I would burst! I also learned how to be with them in and through the struggles they encountered in their daily lives. (Click here to see the class of 2014 reading excepts from MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. These are some of the many students who have overcome great challenges in their live and that I had the privilege to see Christ in everyday. )
While working with these students, I lived in community with volunteers from several different programs. We were a mixed bag of Franciscans, Salesians (that’s me!), Columbans, and volunteers from the Catholic Volunteer Network. Over the course of my two years there we ranged from a community as small as four to as large as nine.
The Franciscan style of living in community is simplicity. On an economic level, we made do with all second hand furniture and shopped frugally for our needs. We usually did not buy Ziploc bags, for instance, because we could reuse Tupperware containers instead. As a part of my volunteer program, I did not have a car but I received a stipend each month for food and transportation.
On the community level, simplicity meant that we relied on each other. Sometimes that took the form of practical matters, such as grocery shopping or mopping up a flood in the basement. Other times it took a more personal form as we relied on one another for support and friendship. Now that I am living in community with the Salesian Sisters, I look back on my time in community as a formative period. In learning how to live with different people of various personalities, I learned how to recognize the gifts that all members can bring to community and I was able to learn more about myself as well.
As my two years of volunteering came to a close, I decided to stay and accepted a full time paid teaching position at DBCR. But I had an inclination, even then, that God was calling me to something more, something deeper. God had gifted me with two wonderful and difficult years at the service of a school and students truly in need. But His ultimate goal was not for me to stay at one school and with one group of students, He wanted to expand my horizons of service and the dimensions of my heart. I had the opportunity, while Fr. Abe was at DBCR, to attend daily Mass in our school chapel. This daily encounter with Christ in the Eucharist helped me to see Christ every day in the young people and opened my heart for the possibility of deeper relationship with Him.
When the Salesian Sisters came for our vocations assembly I heard God’s voice speaking directly to me saying, “This is it!” I must be honest, my first reaction was irritation. “Oh very funny God! Here I am sitting through the same vocation talk presented to all five of my Theology classes. Aren’t you supposed to be speaking to the students right now?! Leave me alone!” But because our God is good and patient, He didn’t leave me alone. After three years in Washington, D.C., He called me to move to New Jersey where the formation house of the Salesian Sisters is located.
It took some convincing on God’s part to show me that it was not just DBCR where He wanted me to serve, but anywhere the Salesians are and with all young people tho whom He might send to me. The Salesian Sisters dedicate their whole selves to God in the service of young people through education, parish catechism, youth centers, and anywhere young people may be found. St. John Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello (our founders) shared the joy of Christ with every young person they met providing for them a home to feel welcome, a school to prepare them for life, a Church to evangelize, and a playground for them to make friends and have fun!
For me, what started as just a year of service post college opened the doors of my heart for Christ to call me to my life’s vocation. I am now half way through my first year of formation and if I had to identify one overriding emotion, it would be deep a sense of peace.
For more information on vocations, be sure to check out the Catholic Apostolate Center's Vocational Discernment Resources
Kelly Schuster is a former Salesian Home Missioner and is currently an Aspirant with the Salesian Sisters
For more Catholic Volunteer Blog Posts please visit the CVN Blog Page.
The Catholic Apostolate Center is proud to partner with the Catholic Volunteer Network by developing faith formation resources for volunteers and alumni, assisting in its efforts to provide and advocate for faith-based volunteerism and collaborate in many additional ways.