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Catholic Charities hosts event for Catholic student leaders to learn about volunteering

Catholic Charities D.C. held its inaugural Catholic Schools Service Coordinators’ & Student Service Leaders’ Gathering on Feb. 26 at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland. 

Catholic Charities offers comprehensive social services in Washington and suburban Maryland, addressing issues such as food insecurity, affordable housing, and immigration services for marginalized communities. 

In the past year, Catholic Charities has served more than 3.7 million meals, provided 7,700 people with dental and medical care, and given 2,663 adults and children behavioral health support. 

Student leaders from more than a dozen Catholic schools throughout The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington were welcomed by Georgetown Preparatory School president, Jesuit Father James Van Dyke. 

“Here in the DMV, there are phenomenal needs,” Father Van Dyke said. He spoke on the impact Catholic Charities has had to address local needs.

Students heard remarks from leaders in Catholic philanthropy, including Jim Malloy, Catholic Charities of Washington president and CEO, and Maggie O’Neill, director of the volunteer office of Catholic Charities of Washington. Malloy highlighted two tenets of Catholic social teaching.

“[One is] inherent dignity of all communities and the idea that people have to matter, people have to count, people have value, and everything you do and everything you do in service is trying to bolster that message,” he said. “The second one obviously is the default bias toward looking at the vulnerable to make sure that no matter where we are in the world, we’re looking around to see who might be left behind.” 

Catholic Charities volunteer coordinator Sophie Funari led the group in prayer before having students break into peer-to-peer networking, where they were encouraged to get to know one another. 

Following the one-on-one interactions, students gathered for breakout discussions, where they all sat in a circle and learned more about Catholic Charities, what kind of service opportunities they would like to work with, and what they could learn from those they serve, led by Funari. 

Dionne Odom, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, told the Catholic Standard what service means to her.

“[My mom] is a nurse, and she does nursing in substance abuse… I’ve learned that a lot of people who do things like that have grown up impoverished in the city or were in foster care,” she said. “They didn’t really have any guidance. So when I do service, I like to do service involving children, involving the homeless, people that haven't been given an opportunity to do anything with their lives.” 

Odom volunteers with Little Friends for Peace, where she works to plan religious retreats, and the United Planning Organization. Her passion is healthcare, and she plans to study medicine and become a pediatrician in the future.

“I’m planning on getting my nursing license and practicing nursing while I’m in medical school to be a doctor, a pediatrician,” Odom said. “I want to take a year off and do a year of service, whether in the city or abroad, just to help people who don’t have access to medical resources.”

Odom will graduate with more than 175 hours of service, surpassing the 100-hour minimum. She shared how excited she was to meet peers from other Catholic schools during the event. 

“I’m excited to finish talking to people. I’ve learned a lot about people’s schools and the way that they do service,” Odom said.

She hopes to return to Washington to work as a doctor once she has finished medical school. 

While students were learning more about volunteer opportunities in the hallway, faculty members held back for their breakout session led by Maggie O’Neill on planning for service opportunities. Schools are encouraged to communicate and coordinate with Catholic Charities on volunteer opportunities. Teachers shared how their schools incorporate service hour completion, which is a graduation requirement, as part of the curriculum. 

After a debriefing among their schools, students participated in a “Big Group Share Out,” where student representatives shared takeaways they had learned from the program and service opportunities they were interested in. 

Speakers shared how they learned to reflect on service, incorporate service as part of their schedule at school, and add service as part of faculty retreats. They were interested in opportunities to be “teacher helpers” at a child wellness center and organize shelter resident parties and events.

Mikes Connelly is a rising senior at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, Maryland. He volunteers with his high school’s basketball camp. 

Above and below, student leaders from more than a dozen Catholic schools participate in Catholic Charities gathering at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland. (CS photos by Mihoko Owada)

“I like working with people who like to do what I do. I like working with younger kids, kids that people don't have the experience like I do, and I like to teach them. And working with them directly is probably my favorite part. And seeing how even the short time I'm with them, I can help impact their lives any way I can,” Connelly said.

He shared what he learned and his takeaway from the summit.

“I learned, even though we all, everybody here came from different schools and different backgrounds, we're all coming together for the same thing. And I love the service, and I love helping other people out and just paying it forward because you never know, one day, we could be in that situation where we need help from these types of schools. So it was just a cool environment to be around and learn from,” Connelly said.

Following lunch, students and faculty heard remarks from Kerry Alys Robinson, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. 

“Thank you so much for what you are doing in your lives, for your merciful hearts, for your generosity of time, for your proclivity to service the world needs what you have to offer. And the fact that you are both committed to service and to leadership to inspire your classmates in this is remarkable,” Robinson said.

Students signed a frame for Robinson that will include a group photo of the students and Robinson from the event. 

“You probably don’t think of yourself as heroic, but you are in my eyes, and at such an incredibly young age, you have figured out the secret to life, just really being other-centered and encountering and accompanying people other than you,” Robinson said.

Robinson shared how she became interested in working in service at a young age. Her family, she said, has worked in Catholic service for 80 years, according to Robinson, through their work in the Raskob Foundation. Her great-grandfather, John J. Raskob, was an executive and businessman who built the Empire State Building and established the foundation with his wife, Helena Raskob. 

Robinson said the foundation was created with two intentions in mind.

“The first is that all of the money should be used to support Catholic institutions and Catholic ministries anywhere in the world. So essentially anything that the Catholic church is interested in, anywhere, which is everything. Their second intention was that their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would be invited when they were teenagers to serve as members of the foundation, never to be paid for their work,” Robinson said. “It completely changed the course of my life.”

Above and below, student participate in discussions during the Catholic Schools Service Coordinators’ & Student Service Leaders’ Gathering at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland. (CS photos by Mihoko Owada)

Robinson described the relationship she and her husband had with Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader who died in an Arctic penal colony where he had been since 2021. He died on Feb. 16 this year. Despite the circling speculation around his death, the Kremlin has denied involvement, and Navalny’s death certificate said he died of natural causes. 

The response to his death, Robinson said, demonstrated what she considered to be a need for “moral heroes.”

“There was something about this being kind of the world's loss, collectively grieving. And that led me to realize again how much our world yearns for moral heroism and the values that inform moral heroism,” Robinson said. 

Robinson went on to say that student volunteers are moral heroes themselves.

“We want to know that moral heroes exist and are there in the world. Well, that is what I see in every one of you who chooses among all the things one can do with their hours, with their day, with their week, with their lives, who choose service to alleviate human suffering that you see in every day, I know most of you, probably all of you said, well, I'm not a moral hero. I'm not a holy person. That is what moral heroes and holy people say all the time,” Robinson said. 

Robinson went on to say how much faith she has in the younger generation and told a personal story about when her family lived in Connecticut.

“[There] was a fairly big party. But recently, I had lost two very close elderly friends. And so I was still kind of grieving, and most of the neighborhood knew that. So the conversation at this occasion turned to death. And specifically, the question, if you could plan or, if you could imagine, choose the way you would die, what would that look like? Now, it was not entirely morbid. One person immediately said, ‘Oh, I would like to die at the age of 108, quietly in my sleep without even knowing.’ Another person said she would like to have a huge party with everybody she knew and loved that went into the wee hours of the night and after that died suddenly and quickly, that was me,” Robinson said. 

Another person said they would like to be given news of a terminal illness with time to make amends and tell loved ones how much they meant.

When the question was turned to her young daughter, who Robinson said was in high school, her answer was, “I hope I die saving someone’s life.”

She said this was the only answer at the party that was “Christlike.”

Robinson ended her talk by thanking the event for having her and saying that Catholic Charities can be found everywhere.

“Catholic Charities are all over the country. So even as you graduate college, there's always going to be a local Catholic getting involved. But really, wherever you find a need, helping to alleviate that suffering in your midst is exactly what the world needs,” Robinson said.