Real Life 101 : College Graduates Serve Society in Jesuit Volunteer Corps


For the first time since she began volunteering at the St. Joseph DropIn Center in Venice, Monica Steigerwald felt threatened.

One of her clients, a paranoid schizophrenic, was convinced a monster had invaded his body. Standing near the slender 23-year-old woman, he began hyperventilating and acting hysterically.

Suddenly the client grabbed a knife and began brandishing it frantically in the air--before stabbing himself several times in the chest. By evening's end, the client lay hospitalized in the intensive care unit while Steigerwald, stunned and bewildered, tried to deal with the repercussions of the ordeal.

This is the Jesuit Volunteer Corps--where each August 350 freshly graduated college students like Steigerwald trade their diplomas for an education not taught in academia and an experience they usually never forget.

As participants in the volunteer program--which operates like a domestic Peace Corps--volunteers learn their lessons on the streets. By living in the communities they serve, they witness firsthand the plight of the poor, offer help to the homeless and battle countless other social ills that plague rural and urban communities across America.

The latest crop of volunteer workers, who complete their first week today, say the program exposes them to the "real world." This year, 21 volunteers are working in Los Angeles and surrounding communities, said Mary Ellen Green, executive director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps' Southwest region, which places students in agencies across California and Arizona.

Most of this year's volunteers come from upper-middle-class homes and are working in a variety of mostly nonprofit community agencies. Their jobs are as diverse as the problems that confront society, ranging from advocacy for the homeless to day care for inner-city children. Yet many seem to share a similar philosophy.

"I think we are committed to helping others who are less fortunate than us," said Patrick Greene, a 24-year-old St. Louis native who on Wednesday began working as an advocate for the homeless at the St. Joseph center.

"I don't expect to save the world in one year. I think I am realistic in my approach. The satisfaction I get will come from knowing that at least I am doing something to correct a problem in society instead of just talking about it."

Today considered the largest Catholic lay organization in the world, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps was founded in Alaska in 1956. Since then the program has grown and is coordinated by five independent regional offices.

Most participants come from Jesuit colleges and universities, but anyone who holds a college degree and is 21 or older can apply, said Green, a sister of the Dominican order. Volunteers receive a small monthly stipend, free housing and insurance coverage during their volunteer year. Competition to enter the program can be keen. The Southwest region alone received 700 inquiries about positions in the current class, Green said. Of that number, 125 applications were submitted.

"What you have here is the cream of the crop that has decided to do something countercultural," Green said. "They have decided to help others."

Steigerwald, a member of last year's class who once considered herself a "suburban queen," became acquainted with the program while attending Marquette University in Milwaukee.

"It was a good experience despite everything. I learned a lot about myself and even more about life," said Steigerwald, who said she had to undergo therapy to battle her steady stream of nightmares, inability to sleep and uncharacteristic hypersensitivity after witnessing her client stab himself.

Still, when she returns from her vacation this month, Steigerwald will join the staff of St. Joseph as a permanent employee.

Chris Ince, a Georgetown University graduate who just wrapped up his year working in Santa Monica, said the volunteer program gives socially conscious students a tangible way to live out their philosophies.

"It was an incredible experience," Ince said. "I was given the opportunity to work with so many types of people.

"The one thing I will take out of the program," the New York City native recalled, "is that the word homeless is as explanatory as saying someone owns a home. They are a diverse group and people are always trying to lump them together."

Some involved with the program say its success is a sign that young people care about issues beyond themselves.

"I think the Jesuit Volunteer Corps shows that not all young people are after careers and money. There are some young people out there who want to serve others," said Judy Alexander, director of employment services at the Chrysalis Center, an agency involved in housing development and employment services.

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