“Young adults answering the call to serve the needy find a community and support for their apostolate in the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, which is marking its 15th anniversary this year”, writes Julie Filby on the Archdiocese of Denver website….
The story continues… Living the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul – The name St. Vincent de Paul has become synonymous with the word “charity.” Based on his dedicated service to the poor some 400 years ago, St. Vincent was known not only for his compassion, but also for his ability to organize others to expand his mission.
His spirit thrives today in the work of the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers. CVV was founded in 1994 by Bill and Mary Frances Jaster. It is a group of men and women, age 22-30, who make a one-year commitment to serve Denver’s poor, elderly, homeless, developmentally disabled and troubled youth. The volunteers live together while working full-time at area nonprofit and charitable agencies.
How it started
The Jasters were inspired to start the organization following a mission trip in the early 90s. Bill and Mary Frances, with their two young children, studied in Guatemala and Honduras, then worked with Central American refugees at the Houston Catholic Worker.
At the Catholic Worker, they were struck by the fact that many of the young people there were not completing their year-long commitment to the organization. In talking with them, they realized they were not receiving the support they needed to fulfill their mission.
“Young people in mission need support and community,” Mary Frances said. “They need companions on their journey.”
Upon returning to Denver, they drafted a proposal and started presenting it to established groups around the country, asking if they could launch a similar program in Denver.
“They all said ‘no,’” according to Bill. “Except the Vincentians.”
The Vincentian clergy, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, were running Denver’s St. Thomas Seminary (now St. John Vianney Theological Seminary), where Mary Frances was teaching part-time.
“They jumped right on our proposal—said it fit well with their vision to accompany the poor, train clergy and empower the laity,” explained Bill. “What better way to empower the laity than to accompany the poor?”
They were awarded a three-year declining grant from the Vincentian’s Provincial Council, which provided the funding needed to start CVV.
“The idea was that this program—and these young people—would carry on the charism of St. Vincent de Paul beyond the clergy and out into the community,” Mary Frances added.
In 1995, they bought two “cool, old houses” at 1732 and 1738 Pearl St. in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. In August, the first group of 12 volunteers moved in. The capacity of the adjoining homes, connected by a fire escape, is 13.
The lifestyle of the CVV team focuses on simplicity and community—participants are expected to work together to care for the house and to participate in the process of mutual understanding and respect for others. Most volunteers come from other parts of the country, and occasionally from overseas.
Volunteer Thomas Driscoll, a 23-year-old from outside Syracuse, New York, working as a teacher’s aide at Annunciation Catholic School, was concerned living with so many diverse personalities might be difficult.
“Learning and sharing with 12 other people that have different ways of thinking has been a challenge—but it’s also turned out to be the best part of the whole experience,” Driscoll said. “It’s made us a special ‘family.’”
Community life develops further as the individuals commit to a shared vision and a common set of values.
“Coming home to a community of people who share a similar mindset to serve and work toward justice is a great blessing,” said 22-year-old volunteer from Chicago, Jackie Lorens, who is serving as a case manager at Sacred Heart House. “We share stories, ask for advice, and sometimes just vent about our day.”
In their 15-year history, Colorado Vincentian Volunteers have served nearly 50 agencies in the Denver community including emergency assistance centers, homeless shelters, health services, schools and early childhood education programs, and services for women and seniors.
“The agencies come to depend on the volunteers each year,” Bill said. “Budgets are being cut severely, and the volunteers are needed more than ever.”
Volunteers understand the needs are great.
“As the lines between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ become blurred in today’s economy, no one is immune to the effects of poverty, unemployment and homelessness,” Lorens said. “Present-day issues like health care reform and a struggling economy allow those who have continually lacked resources to have a voice and speak out about their needs.”
Volunteers are required to have a college degree or equivalent work experience. Directors work with each individual to identify the best work site for them in terms of education, interest and experience.
“Many end up being hired by the agency they do their volunteer work for,” said Mary Frances.
Of the program’s 166 alumni, 55 have remained in the Denver area.
The agencies served contribute a stipend that covers about half of the volunteer’s annual expenses. Currently volunteer expenses run about $18,000; therefore each agency contributed $9,000.
Additional funding is raised through grants, individual donors and a Companions guild that sponsors fundraisers and an annual membership drive.
CVV participants receive room and board, health insurance, transportation and a monthly stipend of $75. They are also eligible for the AmeriCorps Education Award, a government-sponsored financial award provided to individuals engaged in service.
Although CVV is a Catholic-affiliated program, it is open to participants of all faiths who are interested in expanding their spirituality through Christian worship.
“Spirituality and prayer are an important component of our program,” Mary Frances said. “We help participants discover the presence of God in everyday life—and clarify the connection between their commitment to the poor and their spiritual journey.”
The spirituality component includes weekly Mass in their home chapel, spiritual direction, theological reflection and discussion, and regular retreats. They also educate volunteers on important social justice issues, such as immigration.
“The two feet of Catholic social teaching are charity and justice—you can’t have only charity,” Bill explained. “You have to ask the bigger question: ‘Why do we need charity?’”
Volunteers learn a lot about themselves and the way God speaks to them through the people that they serve.
“They are really formed by the people they work with,” he said. “We want them to remember that child they knelt with, the person who was homeless, the family that knocked on their door needing food—and to carry those experiences into their life, their family and whatever vocation they choose.”
The CVV recruits volunteers by word-of-mouth, the Web site (www.covivo.org), college ministry fairs and through the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. This year they received 90 applications to fill the 13 openings.
Their board of directors is currently studying options for the future, in terms of growth. They are considering alternatives such as expanding the number of volunteers; ways to better serve alumni who still have a desire to serve; and how they can use their program to match the talents and resources of retiring Baby Boomers with volunteer opportunities.
“This is a time in history where we can all humble ourselves and realize we can rely on one another to revitalize the human experience,” Lorens said. “It’s a time to answer a call to serve and work as a global community to meet the needs of the world around us.”
COLORADO VINCENTIAN VOLUNTEERS
Individuals can join the Companions, a network providing time, talents and treasures to support the CVV mission.
Donations can be made on the Web site (click Donate) or mail to: 1732 Pearl St., Denver, CO 80203.