National Volunteer Week sheds light on the art and the act of volunteering – but a unique breed of volunteers goes above and beyond the call of duty
New Rochelle, NY - National Volunteer Week seeks to highlight the good works provided by volunteers and the organizations and causes served. Most people think of volunteering as a morning helping out at a soup kitchen, stuffing envelopes once a month at their churches, or delivering hot meals to the elderly once a week. All noble and commendable acts.
But, there is a unique breed of volunteers who are not always thought of – those truly exceptional individuals who care so much that they are willing to leave the comforts of home and actually live and work among the impoverished, sacrificing years of their lives. The Salesian lay missioners are one such group.
These lay missioners are everyday men and women from all walks of life, representing a varied range of ages, ethnic backgrounds and life experiences. What they all have in common is a desire to make a difference in the life of a child living on the fringes of society and the commitment to help make the world a better place.
Since it began in 1981, the Salesian Lay Missioners Program estimates that about 400 participants have given more than 400 years of service in the poorest communities on the planet. The time these lay missionaries dedicate just to training for their service is more than most people will volunteer in their entire lifetimes.
Their orientation alone takes four weeks, and consists of psychological testing, cultural cross-training and conflict management – among other essential skills necessary for being a successful volunteer in remote villages that bear no resemblance to the hometowns they come from.
“Our training goes beyond the typical teaching of culture shock and talks about what it may be like being the only outsider the people have seen and the potential personal emotions that go along with that,” says Adam Rudin, director of the program. “Volunteers spend an entire week of the orientation learning what it means to live and work as a Salesian missionary among the people they are there to help.”
Salesian Missions programs range from classroom education and feeding programs to agricultural and trade schools. Orphanages and shelters for homeless youth are also central to what Salesian Missions has provided to more than 3 million children in more than 130 countries around the globe. The focus of the work is on education – and providing the essentials such as food and housing so that it is a reality even for the poorest youth. Salesian lay missioners who dedicate a minimum of one year of service are key to helping make all this good work possible.
“We live with the people and are part of the communities we serve,” says Rudin. “We are with them day and night, sharing meals and stories. As they learn from us, we, in turn, learn from them.” He adds that all volunteers have conversational knowledge of the language spoken in the community. “A sense of humor and a spirit of sacrifice are also essential,” he adds.
While so much is sacrificed by the lay missioners, something must be gained or the program would not be growing (about 20 people volunteered this past year and the number is increasing each year).
“The experience has a tremendous effect on the people who volunteer,” says Rudin. “One wonderful aspect is that the experience is different for every lay missioner that serves; however, there are some common themes such as learning to appreciate what we have here in the States and learning the beauties and complexities of other cultures.” Rudin adds that the experience is enhanced by the absence of “noise” that invades our lives such as cell phones, the internet, radio and television. “The experience is extremely personal and life-transforming,” says Rudin.
It is clear that the lay missionary experience has a profound impact on those who serve. It is also clear that those who serve, profoundly care about the human condition, especially when it concerns the precious children of the world.
“As a Salesian lay missioner, my goal is not just to teach the children,” says Emily Growney who is currently volunteering at a school for children with disabilities in Barapani, India. “My goal is to love them and play with them and, above all, make sure they know that they are loved. By doing that, I am filled with joy.”