Stories of Volunteers in Action

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Seeking the Magis

by Mike Galbreath

Learning more about Ignatian spirituality and a desire to become closer to God were why Joan Brennan joined the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC) last September. Though new to our program, Joan is no stranger to service in the Jesuit tradition. For the past 14 years, Joan has volunteered as a part-time school counselor at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, where she continues to serve in her role as an Ignatian Volunteer. Recently, she shared some of her unique journey with us.

“Ruined for Life”

Joan is the first IVC Chicago volunteer who was also a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Soon after graduating from Marquette University with a nursing degree, Joan joined JVC for a year where she served at a women’s shelter in Kansas City while living in community with other volunteers. “We had an introduction to Jesuit spirituality and a few retreats. It was a very good experience for a young person. The JVC has an expression: ‘Ruined for life!’ which they use, in a joking way, to refer to alums of the program. I often think of JVC Kansas City as the place where a seed was planted in me to serve others as I continue to grow in my relationship with God.” Prior to her JVC service, Joan completed a master’s degree in counseling from Villanova University, and later went on to pursue certification as a school psychologist through Loyola University Chicago.

Cristo Rey 

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Joan at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School

Fifteen years ago, while attending a Christmas dinner she had a casual conversation with Patricia Garrity, the principal of the then-new Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen. Ms. Garrity shared about this unique school and mentioned that the priest who had been serving as the full-time school counselor was in need of help. Coincidentally, Joan had begun to think about returning to her counseling career as her children were growing up and she was feeling a need to extend herself again. Joan offered to “fill-in as a volunteer” and she has not stopped since.

Over the years, Cristo Rey has added two other full-time counselors so that all 550 students have an assigned counselor who meets students based on each student’s unique need. Joan averages ten individual counseling sessions each school day and often maintains the same students on her caseload throughout their four years in high school. Joan explains that many of the Cristo Rey students she works with live at or close to the poverty level and often face community concerns such as gangs and street violence.

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Meeting with a student

“I have a caseload of sixty-five students. Our students are like most adolescents in their fears, anxieties, and their need to feel loved, have friends and to be included. Daily, I see a lot of pain. But I also see the incredible giving our students want to do and their generosity. The beauty of working with students from Cristo Rey is the school promotes students helping others as part of the community service curriculum. Our students are always overlooking their own concerns and reaching out to others. Much of my role is to listen, understand, help and encourage them. I can clearly see God in the middle of this. I am always praying for God’s guidance and asking for help so I can best direct them.”

Why IVC?

“I first learned about the Ignatian Volunteer Corps from the parish bulletin at St. Issac Jogues Church in Hinsdale and talking about it with IVC volunteers who are also members of our church community. I often thought through counseling and the other volunteer work I had done that I was already working in some spiritual ways by helping others. But after praying about it, I saw IVC as a way to help me develop a deeper, more personal relationship with God. In my first year in IVC and especially with the help of my spiritual reflector, Fr. Mark Henninger, SJ, I feel I can better see God in everything I do, and especially in working with the kids.”

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Talking with a colleague

Through IVC, Joan has been reintroduced to Ignatian spirituality including praying the Examen, the Principle and Foundation, and the use of imagination in prayer. “Some of these ways of praying are new to me. I had heard about Ignatian prayer from other volunteers, but the reflection sessions during our meetings have helped me to experience them firsthand. It is all very deliberate and centered. In my next reflection session with Fr. Henninger, I hope to further discuss imaginative prayer.”

When asked to elaborate on the connection between her faith and service work, Joan explained, “This year, with IVC I feel God’s guidance is helping me better do my work as a counselor. I have always been faith-based in my approach to counseling. I now feel stronger in my interactions with other school staff. I work with many great counselors and teachers and I now feel even more energized. My counseling work at Cristo Rey ties in so well with IVC’s spiritual formation program. IVC has added a community component with monthly meetings with other volunteers, monthly meetings with my reflector Fr. Henninger, and recommended reading. Soon, we will be wrapping up the year with the annual IVC retreat. All of this creates a very powerful sense of God’s presence that not only helps guide my counseling but also enriches my life.”