Erin Swezey lives and teaches to serve


April 04, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

In soup kitchens, shelters, clinics, schools and tumble-down homes, Erin D. Swezey's army is hard at work.

Hundreds of freshly scrubbed Loyola College students are rolling up their sleeves and confronting poverty in the city's grittiest neighborhoods, in Appalachian mountain towns, in Mexican orphanages.

Since arriving four years ago as Loyola's director of community service, Ms. Swezey has mobilized the campus into a hub of good works and good faith.

That's not to say Loyola's party-hearty reputation has evaporated. But under Ms. Swezey's ministry, the school's Jesuit ideal, "Men and women for others," has found new vitality and application in a city that needs.

Last year, more than 60 percent of Loyola's undergraduate student body of about 3,250 participated in community-service projects. "If she ever sat back and thought back of all that goes on in the city as a result of her work, . . . I think she would be overwhelmed," said Sister Catherine Gugerty, who runs a campus program that gives students the opportunity to live in Baltimore's inner city.

For Ms. Swezey, watching suburban kids blossom into responsible, spiritual young adults as they encounter hardship, perhaps for the first time, is its own reward.

"Often times, students from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds can't always appreciate poverty . . . until they can look at their own spiritual brokenness and how materialism really affects them," Ms. Swezey said. "They really learn those values from people who are lacking economically or educationally, but are very, very deeply, faith-filled, community-oriented people."

Barely 5 feet tall, with a trim haircut and vivid blue eyes framed by violet-blue glasses, Ms. Swezey exudes athletic energy, even though she's six months pregnant. When discussing Loyola's service renaissance in a sunny office stacked with books and files at the Andrew White Student Center, she is as focused as a laser.

Her vocabulary, rich with such phrases as "faith component," "change agent," "values formation," reflects the tandem career she has forged in campus ministry and higher education administration.

Good works are not enough, Ms. Swezey says. She insists on follow-up "reflections" to discuss the significance of community service. As they share highlights and disappointments, student participants also find support from their peers. "Students begin to make connections with their faith and social issues that come from [speaking with] students doing a similar kind of service work," she said.

For example, reflections were an integral part of a recent spring break immersion experience. Ten students spent a week living above the Beans and Bread soup kitchen in East Baltimore, ate on a food-stamp budget and performed volunteer work around the city. It was a draining and occasionally upsetting week for the students, two of whom were forced to eat in a soup kitchen because they had no money.

In the evenings, when they came together, students reflected on the day and came to see the downtrodden in a way that gave them strength to continue service work.

During one reflection, a student asked another, "What do you do when you see a homeless person on the street now?"

"I stop and I look at their eyes," she replied. For these students, the homeless are no longer anonymous street figures to avoid. "They are all people with a story."

Community service has become a national cause celebre, the path to a collective social conscious as well as an alternative source of human energy in an economy down for the count.

The Clinton administration has proposed a widespread community-service program for students. In Maryland high schools, 75 hours of community service will soon be mandatory for graduation. And colleges of all stripes have created community-service programs in which participation is often a class requirement.

Spiritually based agenda

Even in the thick of this lively public dialogue, Loyola College's spiritually based community-service agenda stands out, thanks in large part to Ms. Swezey. "She's just unbelievable, what she's been able to do with people," said Loyola's president, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger.

In four years, the Center for Values and Service, co-founded by Ms. Swezey and a faculty member, the Rev. Timothy B. Brown, has grown from a skeleton crew to a staff of several administrators, a secretary and 12 student coordinators. The center's budget, originally about $6,000, has increased tenfold, Ms. Swezey says.

It has been fortified with handsome grants, and students routinely organize fund-raisers so that they, too, can donate money to targeted programs. The Class of 1992 pledged $15,000 and muscle to a Habitat for Humanity project in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood.

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