by Nick Derda
Nick is serving as a legal coordinator at Bread for the City, a social services agency in Washington, DC.
“When we get there we'll discover
All of the gifts we've been given to share
Have been with us since life's beginning
And we never noticed they were there”
--Emma’s Revolution, “Swimming to the Other Side”
Volunteering, a year of service, a break, the gap year. Call it what you will, taking a year off between undergrad and grad or professional school is now a staple buzzword among recent college grads. It’s most frequent victims are the overly motivated resume builders, the social justice kids unapologetically obsessed with systemic inequalities, and the just plain confused. I entered the Loretto Volunteer Program as a combination of all of these misfits. I expected to see some poverty, to finally figure out what a vegan was, and to have late night conversations peppered with the jargon of power, privilege, and oppression now ubiquitous among humanities majors and aspiring hipster radicals. This year was supposed to be another bullet point on my resume, a stepping stone, free time to write personal statements and to study for the GRE. But here’s a shocker: It hasn’t been any of those things. Insert any sappy simile here about life being like a road, a path, a highway. This year has been about growth: personal, spiritual, and social. Now midway through Loretto, I’m not the Nick that I was when I entered.
I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty details of my work. I know it’s hard to believe, but entering stats into spreadsheets and combing through medical records with bad penmanship is not that interesting. Clients are though. Whether it’s the grandmotherly woman who calls me every few weeks just to shoot the breeze or the man living with mental illness who asked me why he can’t just be “normal,” it’s the clients that make me want to come to work every morning. Like most liberal kids who took a sociology class in college, I thought I knew what poverty was. Combine two parts capitalism, one part racism, a hint of mental illness, and a dash of gentrification. And presto! You have cyclical poverty. But that’s not the whole story. Living in poverty isn’t about recognizing that you live in an unjust society. It’s about feeling depressed that you can’t get a job and then self-medicating with alcohol. It’s about being tearful and thinking you’ve failed when you have to pawn your children’s Christmas presents to pay the electric bill. It’s about constantly waking up during the night, worrying that you’ll be evicted the next day. This is poverty. This isn’t a sociological theory or an amorphous conversation about structural violence. It’s real life. Somehow to my amazement, people survive. They smile, they laugh, they live. Poverty is people. It’s resiliency in the face of suffering.
Lose your faith in humanity. Cry. Get a hug from a client and see that the work you’re doing really does matter. Rinse. Repeat. That’s a day in my work life. In my personal life the challenges are no less daunting. Yeah, this is about to get personal (sorry, not sorry). Anxiety, self-loathing, and messed up self-images. Cry me a river, Justin Timberlake. These have been the defining elements of myself since before I can remember. Self-love? What’s that?!
Now take a melancholic man from the Midwest who looks like he’s one of the weirdo underdogs from Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” music video. Place him in a supportive community. Add a hint of optimism, the terrifying realization that he’s a human being deserving of love, respect, and happiness. Stir in some progressive nun goodness and you get me: the kid who is learning to assume best intentions, leans into the discomfort, and cries when he feels sad. Yes, to the outside world this combination of emotional instability and social worky aphorisms is a hot mess. But inside, I’ve never felt better. In fact, this is the first time in my life that I’m actually allowing myself to bash back, to get angry, and to feel like something other than a worn out doormat.
Being in a community where I’m forced to think about myself and my needs and being around co-workers and friends who want to know the real me (whoever that is or isn’t) is just one of the many unexpected benefits I’ve encountered this year. I walked into this year thinking it was a cop out, a way of hiding from the fact that I always do what other people expect instead of what I want. But Loretto isn’t a wonderland for the tragically wayward and emotionally confused (though they will most definitely find a niche here—“all are welcome” as the song goes). It’s not a stepping stone, a new chapter, or a bridge. It’s real life. It’s where you learn to love and be loved, where you see that you’re not messed up, unworthy, or damaged beyond repair. It’s where you realize that all these gifts you never knew were there were always there…hidden behind anxiety and feelings of never being good enough (to borrow from the ridiculously sentimental epigraph to this reflection). Yes, my friends, this is indeed real life.
You better cue the cheesy music, cuz this is about to get real. Forget about everything that you thought about the gap years, the service work, the time off, and the education grant. This isn’t about liberal do-gooding, resume building, non-profit networking, or thinking about social service versus social change. It’s about finding yourself, confronting those parts you hate, and re-discovering the parts you love.
At risk of sounding sappy: I love myself, I love life. This is finally my chance to flourish. LET LORETTO BE LORETTO FOREVER.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.