Story by Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photo Courtesy SERVE, A Ministry of Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New Orleans
It has been a decade since SERVE (Students Engaging in Reflective Volunteer Experiences) began offering high school students meaningful opportunities to earn service hours during summer vacation.
Over the past decade, nearly 900 teens have provided 32,201 volunteer hours in the community at such places as Ozanam Inn, Second Harvest Food Bank, the Greenwalt Adult Day Center and local schools.
It’s not only service hours that students obtain. They also benefit from interacting and gaining insight with people and programs that they otherwise might never have encountered, including meeting students from other local high schools, said Shannon Murphy, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans’ director of volunteers.
“When I was in seventh grade at St. Rita of Harahan, I took a field trip to Second Harvest, and I packed and sorted food. I liked it, so I went back for my service hours,” said Rebekah Haase, 16, a St. Mary’s Dominican sophomore who earned between 35-40 hours in one week last summer.
Haase said the service work “helped me see how generous people are. If I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have seen all the food people are sending in for the people who need it. It helps me see that there are good people in the world, and I want to be one of those people. … It’s not your typical service hours. It’s just a good experience all around.”
Murphy was instrumental in putting the program together with her former Mercy High School religion teacher, Paula Taylor, who happened to be associate director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education at the time.
Murphy had worked for Catholic Charities for about a year and noticed that the teen volunteer program wasn’t especially organized.
“It was piecemeal; one student here, one student there,” she said.
She learned of a successful volunteer program in Atlanta and really wanted local students to make relationships and gain something from volunteerism, so she created SERVE “to put a face on poverty and see that these people are just like them; they just happen to have different circumstances.”
In 2009, Hurricane Katrina recovery was still in full swing, so those volunteers worked with Operation Helping Hands in more physical labor of rebuilding homes.
Gradually, other summer SERVE opportunities were added, such as working on the Head Start programs with underprivileged youth and Summer Witness campers at St. Joan of Arc and St. Peter Claver parishes; and partnering with Good Shepherd Nativity School’s summer program, senior citizens at the Greenwalt Day Care Center, Christopher Homes’ Rouquette Lodge and the summer program at the non-denominational Faith Bible Church.
This summer, volunteers will have options of visiting the elderly at PACE Greater New Orleans and working at the Samaritan Center food pantry and backpack program in St. Tammany.
“I think it’s really worked with the requirements that the high schools have for these service hours,” Murphy said.
In 2018 alone, 42 high school students representing 17 high schools were SERVE volunteers. They contributed more than 1,000 volunteer service hours.
The organizations who receive the volunteer hours every summer say this extra help is invaluable.
Second Harvest’s Michelle Rosamond, community outreach coordinator, has been working with high school volunteers for years. She said having them here for a whole week better illuminates Second Harvest’s ministry.
“It’s always great working with high schoolers,” Rosamond said. “They have more energy physically and sometimes emotionally. When they are here the whole week, they really dive into the work without hesitation and take ownership into what they are doing. It becomes more meaningful than just having to do hours at school.”
Past volunteers, now adults, have fond memories of being a SERVE participant.
“I got a lot of intrinsic reward out of that program,” said Bret Guepet, a recent LSU Law School graduate and a graduate of St. Philip Neri School and Brother Martin High School, who worked with SERVE for three summers beginning in ninth grade. “I like to help people. It made me feel good, and I felt like I was bonding with kids who were less fortunate than I. Every summer, it was sad to leave.”
Once all service hours are completed by the teens, the volunteers gather for a structured day of reflection led by Catholic Charities Justice and Peace director Kevin Fitzpatrick. There, they can share their individual experiences.
“The reflection day has helped them think about what it means to be Catholic – to put their faith in action,” Murphy said. “It teaches them, as Catholics, that ‘this is our role. It doesn’t have to be huge to make an impact.’”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.