In this month’s Lasallian Volunteers “Ministry of the Month,” the Midwest District is featured. The ministry is San Miguel Chicago and the Lasallian Volunteers are Erik Thomas and Kathryn “Kat” Varone 16-17. Erik graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2016 with a Bachelor’s degree in accounting, and Kat graduated from Manhattan College in 2015 with her Bachelor’s degree in education and in 2016 with her Master’s in Special Education.
WHAT IS THE SAN MIGUEL SCHOOL OF CHICAGO?
San Miguel Chicago serves students who are academically at-risk and whose families are economically disadvantaged. San Miguel relies almost entirely on community support and donations to operate while currently serving 90 middle school students, over 120 graduates, and over 600 family members. The school utilizes small class sizes, a longer school day, reading and language arts focused curriculum, parental/family involvement, experiential learning through field trips and other hands on experiences, and intensive graduate support to help the students at San Miguel gain success both at San Miguel and into the future.
HOW DID ERIK AND KAT BECOME LASALLIAN VOLUNTEERS?
For Erik it was the next step after he went to Saint Mary’s College of California. He felt it was a natural progression during his time there. He says, “I recognized that Lasallian Volunteers would give me the opportunities to both experience life in a totally new and unknown city and to serve the Lasallian mission, which as an alumnus of a Lasallian college, is so dear to my heart.”
Kat had a similar experience as a double Lasallian alumna who has her roots at La Salle Academy in Providence, Rhode Island for high school and Manhattan College for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She says, “I felt that when my nine years as a Lasallian student came to an end, I wanted to give back to the Lasallian mission that had educated me so well. Lasallian Volunteers seemed like a great place for me to be able to give back to the mission.”
WHAT IS THE SERVICE THAT KAT AND ERIK PROVIDE?
Erik serves as a development associate and his day-to-day service activities include processing gifts, producing acknowledgment letters, managing donor websites, and also database management for all donor constituents. He was the assistant coach to the San Miguel Varsity co-ed soccer champions, and is currently the assistant coach of JV boys basketball. Kat is on the eighth grade team, teaching language arts and reading. She is also the assistant coach of the girl’s volleyball team.
HOW DO THESE VOLUNTEERS TOUCH MINDS AND HEARTS AT THEIR SERVICE SITE? The entire culture of San Miguel allows these volunteers to touch the hearts and minds of the students. When Erik is doing development work, he knows that those campaigns to raise funds directly impact the students. He says, “Development requires a lot of patience which has to translate into your dealings with the students. I try to remember that as much as possible. The smiling faces of the students remind me why I do what I do each day.”
Kat has known that she wanted to be a teacher since she was in elementary school. It is very important to her that she engages the students at San Miguel in new and creative ways. Kat feels very lucky to be serving at San Miguel because she recognizes the love of learning that the students bring with them every day. She says, “Students always ask for help and ask to be challenged in the most unique ways. Their love for learning doesn’t come from them sitting quietly at a desk furiously writing down every word I say. Their obvious desire for learning is shown through the way they challenge a lesson. If you’re unprepared, if your lesson is boring, if you haven’t given thought into preparation it is going to show. Learning how to tailor a lesson, and then watching them actually ENJOY IT, that is when I feel success. Watching these students who so eagerly want to learn fully engaged and excited about a lesson—that is what this is about, that is what makes me feel successful.”
HOW HAS ERIK AND KAT’S FAITH HELPED THEM IN THEIR SERVICE AND IN THEIR COMMUNITY? Both of our volunteers describe prayer and their faith lives to be of primary importance to their volunteer experience. Kat describes faith as necessary in being able to do her service well when she says, “without faith none of this would be possible for me. I am fortunate to work and live in a place where I am free to express, practice and embrace my religion. My faith allows me to see the good in places of struggle My faith allows me to see God in those people I encounter each and every day.” Additionally, one of the most powerful expressions of the Lord is often through other people. That is certainly the experience of Kat and Erik who find God often in the students at San Miguel. Erik says, “A student told me, ‘Mr. Thomas, you are from here now, you live here all the time, so Chicago is your home.’ She was welcoming me to her city and I thank God for letting these kids be a shining light in my life.” In Kat’s daily life, she sees her students as leaders to each other against fear and violence. She says of the difficulties they face, “I see God in my students each time I witness them protecting one another which takes the shape of standing up for one another, and encouraging each other to do the right thing. They live in a tough part of town but these students know that they have each other.”
HOW HAS LIVING WITH THE DE LA SALLE CHRISTIAN BROTHERS IMPACTED KAT AND ERIK AS LASALLIAN VOLUNTEERS? Both Kat and Erik spent a lot of time in college and high school with Brothers of the Christian Schools and have good relationships with Brothers in their home communities. They speak fondly of those men because as students they were taught, encouraged, and cared for by Brothers in college. Living in community with them has changed and matured their understanding of the life of a De La Salle Christian Brother. Erik has found two men who he looks up to as second fathers. Kat has experienced her Brothers to be the perfect combination of the mother and the father, an idea we find expressed in the Founder’s Meditations. She says, “Ever since high school I have had good relationships with the Brothers I’ve had as teachers or mentors. I can say that each of them has made me feel that I am capable of doing amazing things, and have validated my desire to help others. Living with Brothers this year, I have experienced much of the same. However, living with these Brothers has challenged me. Instead of offering inspiration they are giving me advice, instead of saying, ‘go out and do it,’ they are saying, ‘well, what can you do better?” I feel supported, empowered and challenged by living with these men who have decades of experience dedicating themselves to the Lasallian tradition.
WHAT DO THE VOLUNTEERS IN THE 2016-2017 COHORT SAY TO COLLEGE SENIORS ABOUT THE LASALLIAN VOLUNTEER PROGRAM?
Kat and Erik have very different roles at San Miguel but they agree that Lasallian Volunteers allows young people, who are looking for a chance to change the world and impact others, to do so in a unique way. Both Erik and Kat place a high value on faith and immersion into the community that they are serving in as a transformative aspect of the program. Erik says, “It’s a chance for you to walk, talk, and live with those that you will serve and that will impact your life for the better.” Kat echoes this when she says, “Going in with the thought that you have what these people need, before you actually know them will get you nowhere. It takes building relationships, understanding and change within yourself to be effective where you are.”