Volunteers gladly 'ruined for life' helping the poor Catholic lay volunteers are spending a year with city agencies.

March 19, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

Ruined for life.

That's the odd and only a little tongue-in-cheek motto of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

As JVC official Kathleen Haser explains, the motto refers to recent college graduates who spend a year living and working among people with far fewer privileges than the volunteers themselves have enjoyed.

Among the more than 400 young people in the current crop of volunteers (or "JVs"), six are based in Baltimore.

"They see life from the underside," Haser says of the volunteers. "Their hearts are changed. Maybe they never see the world the same way again."

Being "ruined," she says, means "being permanently changed to understand what it's like to be poor."

For three decades, young people just out of school have "ruined" themselves by joining the JVC, a sort of domestic Peace Corps. The largest group of full-time Roman Catholic lay volunteers in the United States, it is operated under the aegis of the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests and brothers.

The program was founded 35 years ago by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Jack Morris of Oregon, and adheres to four tenets: spirituality, simple living, social justice and community.

In the program's first year, four young New England women worked with Eskimos at a Jesuit school in Alaska. This year, 420 recent college grads have signed on at social agencies throughout the five JVC regions, which are based in Philadelphia; Detroit; Houston; Oakland, Calif.; and Portland, Ore.

The six JVs in Baltimore -- Kevin Jordan, Mary Morris, Karen Mathieu, Amanda Fowler, Susan Eggers and Bobby Rivera -- live in a rowhouse next to St. Ann's Catholic Church, at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street. St. Ann's owns the house. The six are on staff at city agencies that tackle issues such as truancy, elderly care, public housing and the transition of women from prison to society.

"The volunteers go where there's the most need, where it's hardest to hire people, whether it's an Eskimo village in Alaska or the Cherry Hill area of Baltimore," says Haser, the director of the JVC East office in Philadelphia and a volunteer in Baltimore a decade ago.

About 98 percent of the volunteers are Catholic, and 60 percent attended the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, Haser says. About 65 percent are women, and "almost all" the JVs are white, she says, adding, "There's a concern that the JVC do more to recruit more people of color. Many of the agencies that we work with would like to have people of color as role models for children."

Morris, the founding father, has downplayed the Peace Corps comparison, calling the JVC "older than the Peace Corps and twice as tough."

What makes it tough for the JVs is more than the work, which they describe as challenging but fulfilling. They must also contend with new, disturbing experiences.

For example, drug trafficking and domestic violence are not uncommon in the neighborhood of 22nd and Greenmount. The JVs say they were expecting some culture shock when they moved to Baltimore last September, after a week's orientation at an idyllic retreat in Pennsylvania; they just weren't expecting so much shock so soon.

"Our very first night in Baltimore, there was this big drug raid on a house nearby," says Jordan, an Albany, N.Y., native. "A police helicopter kept circling and shining down this big spotlight. There were police cars out front. It was a new thing for all of us. And pretty frightening."

Mathieu is from Bangor, Maine, a town with relatively few black residents. It was an adjustment for her to move into the middle of a largely black city.

"I've never been submerged in a major black community like this," she says. "It's . . . different. The community aspect of it is good, the closeness of the people here. But it's sad too, because of so many poor people and all the drug business."

After their first few months in the rowhouse, the JVs adjusted to the area, they say.

Baltimore JVs have lived at the house next to St. Ann's for five years, so the volunteers generally are known and accepted in the area. Jordan says some of the neighbors have even asked him if he's a priest.

Adapting to "simple living" has been another tough task for the volunteers. During their year of service, which started last September, each JV will earn $7,500. A thousand of that goes to the Philadelphia office's annual budget of $200,000. The rest is set aside for the JVs' household expenses and sundry needs.

(Despite their salaries, the JVs are considered volunteers because most of their wages are pooled, in keeping with the community tenet. They get $85 a month for such personal necessities as haircuts, toiletries, entertainment and so on.)

"The money is real tight," says Jordan, who works for Jobs With Peace, an organization that lobbies local government officials to have money earmarked for military spending diverted to domestic programs. "You learn to budget. You find the discount movie houses."

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