New teacher ‘ruined for life’ after year of volunteering

Photo Caption: Jesuit Volunteer Colleen Swanson, left, shares a smile with Richard Davis. Swanson completed a year of service at Davis’ inner-city Nashville school.

By: By Jennifer Willems

Coming from a family of teachers, it’s no surprise that Colleen Swanson would make that her career, too. Double majoring in elementary education and special education at Bradley University, the Peoria native and member of St. Anthony’s in Bartonville graduated last year.

Rather than follow her classmates into the job market, however, Swanson chose to give her first year of teaching to the fifth-graders at an inner-city school in Nashville, Tenn., as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

Now she acknowledges that she’s “ruined for life” and that suits her just fine.

“Ruined for life” is the JVC motto and volunteers often find themselves changed as they embrace the program’s values of simple living, community, spirituality and social justice, while working directly with the poor. Swanson’s one-year commitment has taken her to Smithson Craighead Academy Middle School, where she has served as a special education teacher.

“I have the opportunity to work someplace completely new with a population I haven’t worked with that much,” Swanson said, noting that many of her students and neighbors are African-American. “Not only am I young, not only do I talk differently because I’m from the north, but I’m a woman. I’m Caucasian.”

She told The Catholic Post that even the simplest encounters with the students have changed her outlook.

One of the pre-schoolers, for example, asked her if she had McDonald’s where she came from. When Swanson told him that she did, he seemed puzzled since she was from Illinois and he was from America.

“His world is so small. He didn’t know Illinois was a state,” Swanson said. “I’m in my own country, but I’m being entirely engulfed in a culture that’s different from mine.”

Living simply in that country — where many people don’t — offers other opportunities for growth, she said.

While Jesuit Volunteers have full-time jobs with institutions and agencies that serve the poor, they receive $100 each month for things like cell phones, personal care items and entertainment. Everything else goes toward paying bills and buying groceries.

“Because we live in community we get creative,” Swanson said of making ends meet while sharing a house with six other Jesuit Volunteers. “It makes me much more mindful and being with other people who are also living this way helps me to maintain that simplicity.”

The effort to live simply also has her writing letters more and depending on e-mail less. This has the benefit of adding another dimension to her spiritual life.

“As I write the letter I pray for (the recipient), so the letter is a prayer,” Swanson explained. “I’m trying to find ways throughout my day to make those everyday experiences closer to God.”

The housemates focus on spirituality by coming together once a week for prayer. They have a prayer board where they list intentions and made a wooden cross they have decorated with photos of the people they serve or materials that make them think. One of Swanson’s activities has been to make cards for shut-ins in Peoria.

“So it’s not always sitting around in a circle in praying, but about how you connect with God,” she said.

Her awareness of social justice issues also has been raised by her housemates. They work with teens that have experienced homelessness, men who are in a recovery program, and refugees being resettled.

Swanson said she knew she was “ruined for life” when a group of inmates came to Smithson Craighead in June to move furniture, books and supplies to a new location.

“I couldn’t talk to them — their rules — but I had a desire to go out and talk to them, to thank them for their service and to thank them for coming. I was excited they were there,” Swanson said. “I don’t know what I would have done a year ago.”

Her commitment to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps ends in August, but she has JVC to thank for the next stop on her journey.

When Swanson went to visit a friend at St. Cecilia’s School in St. Louis’ inner city during Lent, she spent the week volunteering and was asked to apply for a job. She will be teaching second grade in the fall.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said, noting that the largely Hispanic population there will allow her to use her minor in Spanish. “I’ll be the fourth former Jesuit Volunteer hired as an employee.”

She volunteered for shorter periods of time during her years at Bradley, serving in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras. Swanson said she is grateful for all of those opportunities, but has enjoyed being able to build relationships during her long-term commitment in Nashville this year.

“People think that volunteering for a year of your life is impossible, and yet I’ve seen my friends come from a lot of different backgrounds and they’ve found a way to make it work,” Swanson said.

For more information on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, visit Jesuit Volunteer Corps. For more about Swanson’s JVC experience, see her blog at Colleen Swanson blog.

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