Every family has its struggles. Even the ones that don’t look like they do. You know the ones, their family Christmas card features them in perfectly coordinated outfits on the beach somewhere. Their house always looks straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog. They do quintessential things like have big parties at their house regularly, and tell stories about how their Aunt Susan makes the best chocolate-chip cookies and how you have to try them. It must be nice to be Aunt Susan. For many years, I was envious of that life. I so badly wanted that perfect family to be mine. I was constantly wondering why my family was not like that. I became the star of a show I called “The Perfect Human,” in which my character could be described as type-A organized, over-involved, life of the party, and never broke a sweat through it all. But behind the scenes, things were very different. Life was far more difficult than I would ever let meet the eye. I was determined to hide my secrets for as long as I could. I never wanted anyone to know what life was really like for me. So, I hid it all away in a box inside and I locked the key.
In the last few years, my mindset has changed. I now know that I wasn’t the only one putting on a show. I now know that I wasn’t the only one struggling behind closed doors. In the last few years, I have felt myself growing and I have started to look at things with new eyes. And while this is fairly common for most people as they grow up, I can’t help but credit Lasallian Volunteers for accompanying me through this journey and for allowing me to change, undoubtedly, for the best. Dedicating the last year and a half to Lasallian Volunteers has given me the sense of family that I have always desired, and has taught me new ways to appreciate my own.
One thing that sets Lasallian Volunteers aside from others is the opportunity to live in an intentional community with religious. Now, that may sound daunting or intimidating or maybe both. Truthfully, if you had told me a few years ago that I would have chosen to do this, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I was raised Catholic and went to Mass almost every Sunday morning with my family. I was perfectly content with doing the basics: Mass, brunch, repeat the next week. Mass, brunch, repeat the next week. This was the routine. I did no praying until the following Sunday. When I went to college, I began to understand that there is a lot of good stuff that happens during the week, in between masses, that I never really considered to be religious or spiritual experiences. But I started to realize that God is most present in my conversations and interactions with others. That’s when I feel Him and I can see Him. God is present when I’m singing and playing music. This helps me feel boundless joy. God is present when I’m praying alone and God is present when we’re praying together. He encourages me to go deeper, be open and vulnerable in all of my relationships, including my relationship with Him. Being a student, studying my passion, participating in immersion trips, and meeting new people…. I thought my undergraduate education was going to be the best four years of my life. I thought that that was it, and then the “real world” was going to hit me like a ton of bricks and I’d never know the same joy again.
However, at some point of my senior year, something called me to apply to Lasallian Volunteers. Maybe it was the fact that I had known some friends of mine who had done the program and had good things to say about it. Maybe it was because I had participated in one of Manhattan College’s Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) trips to Browning, Montana, and upon return, felt that I should be doing more and that I needed to be doing more. And that I needed more than just a week to do it. Either way, it has led to some of my best memories and the ride of my life.
Joining the Lasallian community has felt a lot like coming home. It has taught me so much. I have learned practical skills, like how to cook and how to manage my time on days when there are just not enough hours in the day. At the San Miguel Community in Tucson, Arizona, community means making sure everyone gets up on time for work. Community means saving an extra slice of pizza for someone who’s had a rough week. Community means volunteering to drive someone to the airport, even if it’s way before the sun comes up. Community means seeing the grumpy side of someone that no one else gets to see. Community means feeling the pain and the hurt when someone else feels it first. Community means watching “Jesus Christ Superstar” when only one community member was really interested (hint: that was me). Community means being present, spending time, enjoying each other’s company. Investing time and energy into the community is always worth it. Through thick and thin, there is always community. Just like family.
Similarly, it’s easy to think that the students, clients and families that LVs serve are vastly different from us. That we are entering communities that are unlike our own. However, my students and their stories have made me feel way more normal and more accepted. Because I’ve learned that abnormal is normal. I’ve learned it’s okay to feel pain, and hurt, and suffering. And really feeling it is the healthy thing to do. This year, my students invited me to participate in their KAIROS retreat, a weekend I will never forget. I learned that my students and I actually have a lot more in common than we do in difference. The more stories I hear from them, the more I connect with them. The more I connect with them, the more I love them. The more late nights I spend at the school for basketball games, fundraisers, events, the more I treasure my time for them. I don’t regret a minute I’ve spent with my students. I collect their stories and I carry them with me. They inspire me. Since I began working with these young people, I haven’t been able to get these thoughts out of my head: people need people. People have the ability to change people. We can do a lot for each other, if we extend a hand. The only way we will continue to heal and grow is with constant consideration for one another.
Working with young people requires a commitment that asks for prudence, gentleness, tenacity and zeal. Students that are entrusted to our care need to know that we are devoted to them, and we will never stop caring for them, no matter what. I am passionate about helping individuals find what sets the fire inside them, and what is going to get them out of bed each day. My unique experiences as a Lasallian Volunteer have been some of my life’s greatest blessings. I know now that I am dedicated to accompanying students as they navigate life and the challenges that come along with it. I can only thank my students, my community, my mentors, my coworkers, and my family for all they have done for me in helping me discover my purpose and feel prepared for whatever comes next.
Jo-Ann Mullooly is a second-year LV serving at San Miguel High School in Tucson, AZ and is a 2016 graduate of Manhattan College.