Volunteer Stories

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Led Back to the Fold

by Robin Cuddy


Sandy teaches a class at the Genesis Center

Sandy teaches a class at the Genesis Center

Hundreds of students at the Genesis Center in Providence, Rhode Island have touched Sandy Yates’s heart. Before becoming an Ignatian volunteer, Sandy had a twenty-eight year career in nursing and cared for sick children in the Intensive Care Unit, the Emergency Department and the clinic at Rhode Island Hospital. Now a three year veteran in the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, she works at the Genesis Center which was founded in 1982 by Sister Angela Daniels in collaboration with Father Daniel Trainor to assist Southeast Asian refugees who were escaping Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Three years before she joined the IVC, Sandy’s twenty-seven year old son suffered head trauma in a ski accident.  He lived another fifteen months virtually paralyzed, debilitated and mostly unable to communicate. He died on Holy Saturday in 2011 with his family by his side. Understandably, Sandy was haunted by her son’s death, drifted away from the church and was still suffering with grief when she came across a listing for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps on a website called Volunteer Match. She was intrigued by IVC’s work in the realm of spirituality and social justice. Sandy says Jesus was looking over her shoulder that day as he led her back into the fold.

The Genesis Center provides literacy training and job skills to over 700 adult learners each year.   They are immigrants, refugees and many who were born in this country who have poor reading skills and who need job training.  Programs include training to become a medical assistant, a certified nursing assistant, a home health aide as well as training in the culinary arts.  Those who seek services at the Genesis Center have daycare and an early childhood education center available for their children. Students are taught financial literacy including skills in budgeting, and using checking accounts and credit cards. There is also citizenship training and training for younger students to receive an actual high school diploma and for older students to receive a high school equivalency diploma.

Sandy teaches a student how to take a blood pressure.

Sandy shows a student how to take blood pressure.

Sandy teaches medical terminology and clinical skills such as taking vital signs, doing EKG’s, spot blood sugars and urinalysis to a class of students training to be medical assistants. She also provides individual literacy tutoring to students who need additional help outside of the literacy classes. The English as a second language classes are taught in English to students who might speak the native tongue of a half dozen different countries around the world.

The students who have filled Sandy’s heart with joy include the 30 year old Haitian woman in the culinary arts program who was a terrific cook but who had learning disabilities as result of head trauma in childhood and had trouble reading the computer questions required as part of her job training and certification.  Sandy was able to work with her on her English and provide an accommodation that enabled her to pass her exam and this woman who spoke only Creole when she came to America was ultimately able to get a job in her field.  Another woman was in her late twenties from Venezuela, spoke only Spanish, and had a degree in the sciences. She was quite shy but became fluent in English, passed her exam at the top of her class and was hired to work as a medical assistant.  Sandy now tutors a refugee from Liberia who works long hours as a home health aide. This Liberian woman hopes to become a certified nursing assistant. She hopes that her three children will get a higher education and live the American dream.

Sandy is now both a volunteer and on the Board of Directors of the Genesis Center. Shannon Carroll, the President and CEO of the Genesis Center who is also on IVC’s Regional Council says Sandy always goes above and beyond the call of duty in her work.  Sandy says, “IVC gave me a reason to live, a chance to give back and tremendous joy and satisfaction in working with the students and the dedicated staff of the Genesis Center.” This joy became magnified as she attended monthly IVC meetings and was introduced to Ignatian spirituality by her spiritual director, in community meetings and through her local IVC chapter’s readings including reading and discussing the thought provoking book Just Mercy this year.

She says that Ignatian spirituality now guides her life.  “It was truly Jesus who brought me back to the fold.”

Robin Cuddy is a first year Ignatian Volunteer in Baltimore, whose service site is the IVC National Office.  She is expanding staffing capacity in the areas of communications and administration. 

Mercy and Compassion to Refugees – the IVC Way

by Catherine Albornoz

“Sayid (name changed to protect privacy) is a heart surgeon from Syria who is very well educated, speaks three languages, is a well-known and well-respected doctor in his community,” describes Bob Sliney, Ignatian Volunteer serving with Catholic Charities Refugee Services in South Boston.“In December of 2013, Sayid was a first responder to a bombing outside the hospital and was a victim of the second bomb. He sustained traumatic injuries and spent 6 months in a coma. He came to the US to receive rehabilitation and treatment, and the rest of his family is in Lebanon. His wife is an anesthesiologist and their children are 12, 10, and 5,” says Bob. “He comes from a very successful life and he landed in the United States with no resources at all.”

Eduardo Sagarnaga, also an Ignatian Volunteer with Catholic Charities Refugee Services, continues to share this story. “Sayid’s family sent him to the United States, but he was detained at a center because he didn’t have a visa. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has an agreement with Catholic Charities for cases in which the detainee doesn’t pose a risk, so he was released and came to us at Catholic Charities.”

“Sayid suffered from the bombing and now has aphasia. His mind is fine but he can’t communicate because of his injuries,” describes Eduardo. “It is like half of his brain is working and the other half is not. The other part has to learn everything from scratch. He has trouble speaking. After being in the detention center, he was in terrible condition. He had been in a cell and was unable to communicate.”

“When he arrived we worked to set him up with an apartment. We gave him a bed, some furniture, clothing from our Donation Center. We enrolled him in Mass Health and he started treatment. The legal department got him asylum status. With medical coverage and therapy, he is walking better, he can speak better. These are real successes for him,” Bob says.

“For me to be exposed to this is a new experience,” says Bob. “We spend time together. Sayid comes in after his rehabilitation. Eddie sat with him at a recent surgery. We pick him up from the hospital and take him home. Today we’re taking him to a local agency to fill out paperwork. While we’re together we share about our families. His attitude is remarkable when you think of who he is – an accomplished surgeon – and where he is now,” says Bob.

“He says, ‘It’s OK, I’m alive’. It’s remarkable,” says Bob.

“What’s relevant in this case is that Sayid is working with lawyers at Catholic Charities to get his family to join him here. The lawyers thought that perhaps within 12 months of the vetting process, his family would be here. Now with the political situation, Sayid’s family may fall into this net of ‘no Syrian refugees’,” Bob says. “It brings home the issue of what we’re dealing with today on a very local level. That’s the piece that’s affected me most.”

“It’s important for people to understand that the vetting process for refugees is very orderly, established, and thorough,” adds Eduardo.

Eduardo Sagarnaga and Bob Sliney, two Ignatian Volunteers, serve Sayid and many other clients at Catholic Charities Refuee Services in South Boston, an IVC Partner Agency. Eduardo principally supports the legal services team with interpretation services, working directly with clients, which he has done for two years. Bob began in September and helps wherever he is needed – from greeting people at the front desk to folding clothing donations to helping file paperwork.

As a native Spanish speaker, Eduardo gives the gift of language skills to Catholic Charities and clients. “Being able to speak Spanish is a good advantage, as a lot of people are coming from countries south of the border,” says Eduardo. “If we hire translation services, we have to pay. I save them money and interpret for them. That has allowed me to immerse myself in their stories.”

Ignatian Volunteer Eduardo Sagarnaga with Catholic Charities Staff Member Sandra Sarkis

Eduardo with Sandra Sarkis, Catholic Charities Staff

“I have the chance first-hand to know their situations. People come from all over the world, especially from war and conflict areas. Most are very, very sad stories,” he says.

“We offer two main areas of service – legal and resettlement services. In the case of legal services, we see unaccompanied minors, people looking for help for their children, young people fleeing violence, cases of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and others. As soon as Catholic Charities accepts a client, we are in constant contact with them. We help young people enroll in high school, enroll clients in Mass Health, and meet with lawyers and case managers,” he says.

Ignatian Volunteer Bob Sliney takes a selfie of his work of the day - building shelves and stocking them with donations for refugee families in the Donation Center.

Ignatian Volunteer Bob Sliney shares a selfie of his work building shelves and stocking them with donations for refugee families in Catholic Charities’ Donation Center.


Bob Sliney spends much of his time in what he calls “humble service”. “I work in our Donation Center which provides clothes to people from all nations. I spend half a day folding and sorting clothing donations so they’ll be ready when people come.”

“There are huge demands on the lawyers and case workers as they set up housing, food, and apartments for people. There is lots of paperwork.  I help with whatever I can so staff aren’t totally overwhelmed,” says Bob.

“We’re coming in not to change the world in a huge way, but to touch people one at a time,” Bob says. “We can impact individuals’ lives in a very real way. And in the current political environment, I can talk to people about the realities of what I’ve seen and be a witness. Eddie and I are just two Volunteers of a whole community doing important service in the New England area.”

Eduardo adds, “IVC gives us a chance to live as the Pope says, living the Joy of the Gospel. The way we preach this is not by talking, but by acting, showing how the Gospel is working in our lives. IVC makes us aware of those suffering in our midst and how Jesus is in those people. If you can give your time to this mission, it’s wonderful. If you can give your money, it’s wonderful too. These are both important. IVC gives us the opportunity and chance to do something important for other people. That’s the Ignatian way.”



by Diana Gaillardetz

In the pathways of sadness,
sweetest lilies may grow:
Let us sow seeds of gladness-
let the joy overflow.
– Eliza E. Hewitt

An insightful chapter by Fr. Greg Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart is on “gladness”.  The stories he shares bring the deep meaning of “gladness” to light.  Boyle has a gift for finding grace in the ordinary and even pedestrian aspects of life.  His spirituality is deeply incarnational as his faith in Jesus, God incarnate in the ordinary, leads him to see God in simple people “and be glad”.  Boyle’s grace-filled narratives invite me to consider where I have found deep gladness in unexpected places.  These situations I have encountered in my three year service as an Ignatian Volunteer have been seeds of gladness scattered around that planted in me a sense of gratitude.

I serve at St Mary of the Angels in inner city Boston.  Our parish is a wonderfully eclectic, active, Christian community with a proud history of social engagement in a tough neighborhood.  Economic scarcity and fear of violence do not dampen the joy expressed at the parish – especially at the sign of peace that can last over ten minutes as everyone is greeted.  Underneath the joy expressed at Mass, are the life stories of people who do not let their circumstances define them.  As the microphone is passed around at the Prayers of the Faithful, we are invited to share in the pain and gratitudes of those whose lives we know.  Lynn shares weekly about her family and prays that where suffering and division occur, may they know that God is always there. Lynn plants the seeds of faith in her family so that the gladness and gratitude will be there.  Ashley prays for her teenage friends who get caught up in drugs and violence.  She is a bright model to them of living with gratitude and joy while holding the tension of pain.  As I listen to the prayers, I realize that when we lose tolerance for vulnerability and sharing in each other’s pain, joy becomes more distant and hollow.  Gladness, as Fr Boyle knows, comes when we practice seeing the ordinary moments as times of gladness and we express our gratitude for these moments.

A dying, bedridden man with a sparkle in his eyes asked Sr Virginia and me if he could give us a blessing when we started to leave after our pastoral visit with him. His blessing filled us with his inner light.

Gladness grows through vulnerability and gratitude.  I thought that I was sent to my Ignatian Volunteer site because of my experience working over twenty years in Pastoral Ministry. On the contrary, I am the student receiving gladness and blessing from a man who has practiced gratitude his whole life.

Regularly I meet people at my IVC site who are not burdened with a fear of scarcity but who have lived daily with “the less”.  They have found ways to live their lives in gladness.  To be glad or joyous you need to see with gratitude.  William knows this.  Without any formal schooling, he does not know his colors or numbers.  Yet, what William does know is how to give love to everyone he meets through his smiles, hugs, and joyous “thank you” to life.  His love of life is infectious.  I feel light and happy when I am around him.

Tom has spent all the extra money he has to refurbish the house of his father-in-law next to the Church as a gift for his daughter.  Sadly, the house has been burglarized four times this year causing Tom to lose many of his valuable tools. Tom, though, remains generous and self-giving.  He continued to come over while my son, Greg, and other scouts were building a Peace Garden on the parish grounds and offered extensive knowledge and his own tools to help with the Eagle project.  As I witnessed this simple man give of himself without reserve to my son and as I saw my son develop a sincere affection and respect for this generous, scruffy stranger, I am pretty sure what welled up  within me was “gladness”. I practice being grateful for all that is.

Gladness radiates from the faces of the youth who are asked to help with the Good Friday walks, and from the elderly who are honored at the Senior Dinners. Our joy can overflow as we practice planting these seeds of gladness. This beautiful word captures our response to the grace of God we encounter in ordinary human actions.

Diana Gaillardetz was grateful to the Ignatian Volunteer Corps in the New England region for offering an opportunity to work as a pastoral associate at St Mary of the Angels parish in the Boston Archdiocese.  Times of joy at the parish came from her work with the Confirmation youth, elderly Bible class, social justice projects and just having a “ministry of presence” in the community/parish.  Diana is married to Dr. Rick Gaillardetz and they have four sons, Andrew, David, Brian, and Greg – the oldest, twins, spent a year of service after college graduation with  JVC in Houston, TX and in the Rostro de Cristo program in Ecuador. No longer a volunteer, Diana now serves as part of the corps of spiritual reflectors for IVC New England.

Finding God in New England

This wonderful reflection was written by Mary and Tony Mahowald for the IVC Chicago Footprints blog.  Mary and Tony are two long-time IVC Chicago volunteers who moved to Boston area and joined the IVC New England program. What a blessing to be connected by a common mission! Tony and Mary shared these thoughts after their move to Boston in 2013. They continue to serve at College Bound Dorchester, though Tony has joined Mary at her site.

Happy New Year to all of our Chicago IVC friends!  We are delighted to be invited to share with you a little of what has been happening in our lives since we left Chicago last summer.  The main theme for us, as you may guess, is that central theme of Ignatian spirituality: “Finding God in all things.”

All things” surely includes all places as well as all people, not only those that are familiar but also those that are new to us.   Moving to the Boston area has definitely presented the challenge of newness to us.  We left our “comfort zone” of many years, and spent the subsequent months making our new living space homey, getting acquainted with new people and a new parish, finding stores and health care, getting used to Boston driving habits, and walking a lot over the hilly terrain and curving streets that are so unlike those of Chicago.  Amid all of these differences, we found one resource that very much resonated with our past:  the New England IVC.  Shortly after arriving, our reconnection with IVC has helped us meet like-minded friends, and find a setting where we continue the type of work, with the type of support, that meant so much to us in our former home.

Through IVC New England, we both work in the Dorchester section of Boston in a College Bound organization whose aim is not only to help people earn high school degrees but also to support them through their college years.   Tony tutors “over-age middle schoolers” at one site, where he also helps to develop science content for the program.  The students remind him of the characters in Fr. Greg Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart. Most have been kicked out of a number of previous schools and in many ways this is the place of last resort. To the school’s credit, they have a record of getting more than 75% of their students through high school and into college.

Mary works at another site where the aim is to help adults obtain their high school equivalence; she mainly tutors in the math program and sometimes substitutes for the teacher.  Many of our students come from Cape Verde; others are from Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, and some have grown up in the neighborhood, which is about an hour away from where we live.  We are as new to our students as they are to us, and not only geographically.  For legal or social reasons, most have been out of (regular) school for years, and English is often their second language.  Many of the adults are single parents whose toddlers accompany them to school.

Our volunteer work can be exhausting, especially when coupled with the added time we give to our grandkids, their busy parents, and our daughter, who live nearby.  More importantly, we feel privileged and thankful for the opportunity to do what we do because it says who we want to be.  Without these involvements, life might be pretty boring, and we might even be less healthy—physically and mentally as well as spiritually.

New England thus presents another place where we are challenged to find God among people who have clearly been less advantaged than we have been throughout our lives.   The finding is not always possible, but the ongoing search is what we have come to realize is all-important.

A Commute Towards Happiness

                                by Jim McCarthy

My commute from the MetroWest suburbs to Casserly House starts with a 6:45am commuter train from Concord to North Station, then an Orange Line subway to Forest Hills, then a bus to Stellman Road.  As a semi-retired Ignatian Volunteer Corps member, I think to myself, “Why do I feel so much happier than my fellow commuters?”

Sister Nancy greets me with “Are you up for teaching a class this morning?” or “I’ve got a new one for you to register.  Let me know whether you think we should take her.”   I never know what awaits me, but that is part of the appeal.  Refugees and immigrants also never know what awaits them.  I am one of them!

As adult ESOL students start to arrive, I gather a few around a table and we engage in casual conversation and vocabulary building.  We might talk about what each of us did over the weekend or what we ate.  I learn that Haitian soup frequently includes bananas.

I meet one-on-one with adults, walking through the immigration maze with them, listening to them and counseling them in whatever way I can.  I marvel at the resilience I see in these suffering people, how they can cope with tragedy, torture, loss, poverty, and discrimination.  And I wonder, “How can these people still smile?”

The day continues with lunch at noon, and I break out the yogurt and granola bar and enjoy discussions with Sister Nancy and Amanda (JVC) about social justice, Ignatian spirituality, and Boston’s unique quirks.  Drop-in visitors at lunch are always welcome.

My after-school tutoring is frequently a lesson in humility.  A child once admonished me “Jim, this is second-grade math; you’re supposed to know this stuff!”  Rather than worrying about my tutoring skills, I tell myself to try to be that loving father or grandfather the children have not experienced.

As I do the reverse-commute back to the suburbs, I reflect on my experiences, and say a little prayer for the suffering.  I saw God’s love for the poor and felt His presence among them.  Yes, I know I am so much happier than my fellow commuters!