During the first week of January, as temperatures plunged, a handful of CHC students returned from winter break early to participate in the College’s Urban Plunge program. They — along with four CHC staff mentors — immersed themselves in living and working with marginalized women and children in Philadelphia’s Kensington section and Camden, N.J.
“The whole point is to walk as one with those you serve,” explains Joannie Cassidy, SSJ, director of campus ministry, who was joined by Ryan Murphy, director of service-learning, Colleen Gibson, SSJ, assistant director of campus ministry, and Shane McCarthy, service-learning assistant, for four days of walking with those in need.
The group of ten spent their mornings working with children at the LaSalle Academy in Kensington and Holy Name School in Camden. In the afternoons, they worked at St. Joan of Arc, cleaning and doing prep work for the community center, and at the Kensington Community Center, where they organized food donations and the pantry. In the later afternoons and early evenings, they served meals at Sarnelli House and the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen.
One afternoon, they visited the Drop-In Center run by the Salvation Army, a safe place for women to get off the streets, clean up and get a change of clothing.
“This was quite an educational experience,” says Murphy. “The young women staffing it were so passionate, and talked with our students about how it’s possible to break the cycle [of poverty].”
Sister Joannie agrees: “They presented the history and mission of the center and the social services they offer, their hopes and long-term goals. They talked about the plight of so many women and children and the importance of women helping women … of moving toward health and wholeness.”
The students’ understanding of CHC’s mission of serving the dear neighbor was reinforced that week. They learned what it really means to walk-one with people, and the understanding of solidarity.
“From this, they got a different vision, it raised their social consciousness, and then we ask, ‘Now what?’ Once you see, then what?” asks Sister Joannie. “The issue of poverty is huge, and we just began to break it down.”
In the evenings, they all bunked in sleeping bags on the floor of Sarnelli House after sharing in reflection and prayer.
“We not only worked and lived together as a group, we also oriented students about poverty and its underlying causes and the questions around social justice,” says Sister Joannie. “We also discussed the immigration issue and how it relates to the region and the nation, to the city and the College. This issue is not going away. And we tied everything to the College and SSJ mission and charism, of being in solidarity and one with the dear neighbor.”
“It truly is unique and distinct here in the way in which we do it and how students will live in their own lives,” added Murphy. “Our students come here in part because they are hungering for these opportunities, and it’s not just enough to bring food to the needy.”
“When you meet the people and learn their stories, the experience is somehow more real, and informs your own life,” adds Sister Joannie. “It also helps the students see how the courses they take relate to the real world. They see the interconnectedness, which really matters and changes the conversations they have with their friends.”
Not just pity, not just charity. The group took their beliefs to another level, and took action among people in neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in the region. For example, students enrolled at the LaSalle School must belong to families that earn less than $12,000 per year. These children, from 3rd through 6th grades, are considered at-risk, and need mentoring in social and emotional topics as well as academic.
Another immersion event is being planned for some time in May. A Rural Plunge (in a different geographic area) may be offered at some point in the future, because rural and urban poverty have very different qualities. Students must apply and complete an essay about why they feel called to participate in this way.
“We want to help them transform in their life to help others, for their whole life—to assimilate the world’s bigger picture into their personal narrative,” Sister Joannie adds.