Ursuline Academy’s faculty and staff don’t just “talk the talk” when it comes to helping the least of their brothers.
An annual, hands-on service retreat enables these adult leaders to show their students that they are also willing to “walk the walk.”
On Feb. 3, Ursuline students from toddler age through high school were given the day off so their school’s 91 employees could spend the day working with the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit organization founded after Hurricane Katrina that rebuilds homes for senior citizens, people with disabilities and other families that cannot afford to have the work done.
After an on-campus prayer service, the volunteers divided into seven teams to take on light to moderate construction tasks at homes in various stages of renovation in New Orleans East, Gentilly, Mid-City and Broadmoor.
“At Ursuline it isn’t just ‘the lower school,’ ‘the middle school’ and ‘the high school.’ We all come together at various times of the year, and I love that,” said middle school social studies teacher Stacie Bourgeois, whose crew laid flooring, painted interior walls and installed porch lights at a double on South Tonti Street that saw nine feet of water after Katrina.
“There’s a job for everybody – the non-coordinated and the coordinated,” Bourgeois chuckled. “I’ve been relegated to cleaning the paint buckets, which I’m very happy to do.”
Bourgeois said she was eager to tell her students the story of the house’s 87-year-old owner, who would soon be able to move back to her tidy neighborhood after being victimized three times by fraudulent contractors.
“I’m sure she’ll be so happy to see her house finished, and to know that there are good people in the world – that it’s not all bad,” said Bourgeois, singing the praises of the St. Bernard Project, which has helped more than 420 families move back into their homes since March 2006.
“Their hearts are in it!” Bourgeois said. “After six years you’d think people would get burned out and move on, but they’re still so dedicated.”
Service part of school fabric
The faculty-staff effort came on the heels of a Jan. 27 service day in which every class of Ursuline students volunteered at a nursing home, homeless shelter or some other service site to mark the feast of St. Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursuline Sisters. In addition to this student service day – a school tradition for 10 years – Ursuline’s innovative high school service model assigns each grade level a specific community need on which to focus its efforts for the entire school year, with the ultimate goal of exposing every student to five concerns – from childhood literacy to elder issues – over the course of her five years of high school. Fittingly, the 285-year-old academy’s motto is “Serviam” – I Will Serve.
“Service has just became such a daily part of the girls’ lives that we thought it was really important that the faculty set the example and do the same thing that they’re asking the girls to do,” said campus minister Kim Otto, taking a brief break from prepping sub-flooring at the South Tonti Street site.
Otto said that in the days leading up to last year’s faculty retreat, which also served the St. Bernard Project, a few teachers were “hesitant and nervous” about being up to the tasks of construction.
“Also, a lot of our faculty went through Katrina themselves and had to redo their own homes – so it brought up a lot of emotions in them,” Otto said. “After they were finished they saw how much they could do – things they never thought they could do before,” Otto said, noting that those who were physically unable to do the “heavy lifting” lent moral support to their co-workers.
Covered in debris after waterproofing the underhouse insulation of his assigned home in Gentilly’s Edgewood Park neighborhood, Jonathan Baynham, an Ursuline High theology and psychology teacher, said he was enjoying the opportunity to bond with his fellow faculty members. The volunteers were deliberately grouped by retreat leaders to build collaboration among people who didn’t normally work together.
“We’re all underneath the house right now, so we’re communicating in a different way,” Baynham said. “At school we’re communicating, ‘These are the principles we want to be teaching,’ or we’re rarely interacting with each other because we’re interacting with the students – everyone is in their own classroom doing their thing,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to actually talk to each other as we’re doing something.”
Baynham said the service day brought to life many of the lessons he teaches his students in their study of the New Testament.
“Most of the retreats I’ve been on (solely consist of) prayer and reflection,” Baynham said, “but sometimes you have to stop talking and start doing, and then you can have something to reflect on. Sometimes it takes doing something to have something to reflect on. It’s not just lofty language anymore,” he said.
Inspired by student crosses
At the pre-retreat prayer service, 10 students from Ursuline’s Peer Ministry group went to campus on their day off to help send forth the faculty-staff volunteers. One peer minister noted how the service she was doing at Ursuline had inspired her to volunteer in Guatemala and told the adults that Ursuline students would be praying for their teachers on service day. The peer ministers gave faculty and staff members handmade crosses, each inscribed with a different quote from Scripture.
“They said to us, ‘We know that you (teachers) have crosses that you bear, and we know that you are going out to try to help families lessen their burdens and bear theircrosses, so here is a (real) cross you can keep in your office for the rest of the year as a reminder of the families that you are helping today,’” said Otto, tearing up at the memory of the morning send-off.
“Christ is calling us to work with the poor, to work with people who don’t have the same things that we have,” Otto said. “It’s part of our faith to do something – not just to talk about things.”
The website for the St. Bernard Project is www.stbernardproject.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.