Poverty is affecting more and more people in today’s distressed economy. And young adults are volunteering to work with the poor to help alleviate the imposing challenges they face.
Some turn to formal volunteer service organizations (think Catholic Volunteer Network or Jesuit Volunteer Corps). Leah M. Nusse, recruitment and marketing manager for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, said that groups like hers play a role in addressing the need that comes with rising poverty levels. (Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show 46.2 million people or 1 in 6 Americans living in poverty.)
“With an increased need for services and a diminished level of giving and support of the organizations responding to the need, Jesuit Volunteers can help fill a critical void and increase the capacity of our partner organizations to provide their much needed services,” she said.
Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) works in various poverty-related ministries with children, women and men experiencing abuse, homelessness, unemployment, hunger and disabilities.
“We offer one way for young adults to fully be present to those who are often invisible in our society,” said Nusse. “Immersion in a year of full-time service brings a unique opportunity for personal growth and transformation, usually impacting an individual’s awareness and actions for the rest of their life.”
Lindsay Poston, a member of JVC Northwest, volunteers at the Wallace Medical Concern, a free urgent care clinic serving low-income and uninsured patients in Portland, Oregon.
“As a clinic and referral coordinator, my work is threefold,” Poston said. “I staff our clinic’s Health Window at Portland’s Mexican Consulate, connecting immigrants to health care resources in Oregon and giving health education presentations. I manage our clinic in downtown Portland. And if anyone comes to the clinic with needs beyond the scope of what our small clinic can provide, they join my caseload and I work with them to find a provider or clinic willing to give free or reduced-cost care.”
In light of the increasing poverty rates and economic crisis, Poston said there are now two distinct groups of people needing access to social services, “the old poor and the new poor.”
“Those experiencing generational poverty have grown up in this situation and are more adept at navigating social services and community resources,” she said. “Those who only recently fell to this economic status are often less adept and more ashamed about accessing support, but they’re also demanding more respect as they do it.”
“This is revolutionizing the delivery of social services,” Poston added. “I think that by doing service at a time of such change, I can shape the way my agency interfaces with our patients and set a precedent for other agencies to offer their services in a way that affirms their clients’ autonomy and dignity.”
Poston said that many young adults misperceive ministering to the poor as evangelizing a vulnerable population.
“If we understand it to be something more inclusive — advocating for the poor and marginalized, empowering them, being in solidarity with them, and acknowledging their human dignity — then countless avenues for ministering to the poor open up,” she said. “This could include formalized volunteer programs, helping out at local nonprofit organizations, supporting legislation that creates a more just society, or simply acknowledging the man who sleeps on the park bench you pass each day.”
Poston said she has seen an increase in volunteers, due in part to people who have lost jobs having time to volunteer.
“More importantly, I think that the increasing poverty rates force individuals to confront the reality that these ‘impoverished people’ are not so different from themselves — that with the fragility and flux of our economy, they too could easily be in that position,” she said. “Rather than fostering selfishness, I’ve actually seen this fear and uncertainty increase empathy.”
Poston said her faith plays a role in her volunteer work.
“My faith assures me that there is something divine in our shared humanity — that there is something divine in each and every person we serve,” she said. “It allows me to see that my existence is inextricably bound to theirs, that they deserve more than what life has dealt them, and that I have the power to do something about it.”
Phil Gutierrez is a coordinator for the young adult group at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City, which operates the Xavier Mission, the parish’s community outreach arm.
“The Xavier Mission serves the poor through five ministries: the Welcome Table soup kitchen on Sundays, the All Saints Clothing Room, the Hurtado Men’s Shelter, food pantries, and the Life-Skills Training and Empowerment Program for the homeless,” Gutierrez said.
“Ours is a generation quite familiar with volunteer work, especially from our high school and college years; and the economic crisis provides ample illustration of the growing ranks of New Yorkers without consistent food, clothing, or shelter — conditions which demand our time, talents, and whenever possible, our treasure,” he said.
Gutierrez said the Welcome Table soup kitchen serves 900 to 1,200 guests while Mass is being offered. “It is one of several ways that faith and ministry converge for those who seek to grow closer to Jesus by welcoming and serving one another.”
Mandie Mohn of St. Gerald’s Parish in Omaha, Nebraska, has had the opportunity to volunteer with various organizations in her community to help those in need. The young adult group at the parish has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and The Carolyn Scott Rainbow House, a shelter for families and patients undergoing long-term treatment at a local hospital.
“I feel fortunate enough to help others,” Mohn said. “It makes me feel better to see how I’m helping.”
Mohn encourages other young adults to seek out ways to volunteer in their community.
“It’s a challenge for young adults to know where help is needed, but the opportunity my church has given me helps,” she said.