Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Jesuit Volunteers bring desire for service to ministry in Spokane

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Oct. 20, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Jesuit Volunteers serving in Spokane this year are, from left, Bill Tierney, Jeanette Myers, Matt Hartman, Katie Bilbrey, Martha Koenig, and Margaret Shafer. (IR photo from Catholic Charities)

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) began in 1956 with a few members in service to the native people of Alaska’s Copper Valley, in south central Alaska. Sponsored by the Oregon Providence of the Society of Jesus, today the JVC maintains a presence in remote areas of Alaska, throughout the Pacific Northwest, and all major cities in the U.S. Jesuit Volunteers also serve in all kinds of social justice work in developing countries, in places as far flung as Peru, the Pacific Islands of Micronesia, South Africa, and Belize.

The JVs first came to Spokane in 1970, and new JVs arrive late each summer, often from distant parts of the U.S. This year, six came to work at four Catholic Charities agencies: the House of Charity, St. Anne Children and Family Center, Bernadette Place, and St. Margaret Shelter. The new group spoke with the IR recently, at the JVC house on Mission Avenue, in St. Aloysius Parish.

Jeanette Myers hails from Crescent, a small town in the west central part of Pennsylvania. She graduated last spring from Gettysburg College, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, where she majored in English. Myers works “eight hours a day, five days a week” at Bernadette Place, an assisted living facility for 12 women with developmental disabilities. “We help them live kind of an independent life,” said Myers.

The most rewarding part of her work, Myers says, “is just hanging out with the women. I do anything from putting on fingernail polish to dancing, because they love to dance, or listening to them talk, or watching movies with them. Also, it’s really rewarding when the women’s faces light up when they see me, or they recognize me when I walk in.”

Margaret Shafer is another English major. She graduated last May from another Jesuit school, Santa Clara University in California. She attended college far from home, however, as she comes from Rye, New York, a stone’s throw from New York City.

Shafer says that she especially enjoys the staff she works with at St. Margaret Shelter. “I’m learning a lot from them, and they’re very committed to St. Margaret. I learn from the way they interact with the residents. I need to learn a lot that way, because the most challenging thing is finding the line between being a friend to the residents and being also an authority figure. It’s a tough balance to have.”

Katie Bilbrey comes to Spokane from Mobile, Ala., where she majored in early childhood education at Spring Hill College, also a Jesuit institution. For three summers during college, she worked at an eight-week migrant Head Start program, which gave her an appreciation for volunteering. As a college student, she traveled with a group to Belize to build a house for a young mother and her child. She also worked in an AIDS clinic. “I just have this passion and this love to help little ones who need help,” she says.

Bilbrey’s education and experience are put to work at St. Anne’s Childbirth and Parenting Alone (CAPA) program. “It’s rewarding to see the faces light up of the women and children that you are actually helping,” she said. It can be tough, however, seeing how many young mothers need so much. “We at CAPA alone can’t do everything, and there is so much need.”

Matthew Hartman is from Media, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. He graduated from St. Joseph University, a Jesuit college there.

“As soon as I heard of JVC, I immediately realized it was the right thing for me at this time,” said Hartman. “My mom’s spirituality – she’s a deeply religious woman, her involvement in our parish and in the church – is the background in my life that led me to make this choice. That was a very positive influence that kind of trickled down into me.”

Working at the House of Charity, Hartman helps at the front desk, where people check in. “They can leave their bags and take care of their mail,” he said. “One of our toughest jobs is on the sanctions council board, where we have to deal with people who show disrespect to the House of Charity and there have to be consequences. We help come up with the consequences that help regulate the house. One of the bosses sits in with us, but ultimately he lets us talk it out, and he just kind of guides us towards an answer. But if we say that we want somebody to be out for a month, or give a permanent ban, if we feel strongly about it he’ll let our decision stand.”

Hartman also is in charge of six “in-house clients,” men who show that they want to make a change in their life. “They help with janitorial duties, and they live upstairs all year around. They also help with laundry, and they help with our winter sleeping program. I help manage them, and that’s a tough job, too. Justice is normally black-and-white, but everything we do has to be guided by compassion, so there’s a huge gray area, and we have to use our own discretion.”

On his own time, Hartman participates in the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life (SEEL) program, which gives participants experience with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Bill Tierney, from the Tri-Cities area, is the only Pacific Northwest native in this year’s JVC group. He graduated from Seattle University in 2004, where he majored in English, with minors in philosophy and psychology.

When he was a freshman, Tierney was inspired by some graduating seniors who were joining the JVC. After graduation, he worked for one year at Seattle’s Center for Service as a member of AmeriCorps, then joined the JVC himself.

Tierney also works at the House of Charity, where he helps run the clothing room. “You give people clothes when they need clothes, you give them a meal when they need something to eat, you give them a shower when they need a shower. And you try and do that in a spirit of compassion and understanding. It’s sometimes challenging. The people make the place, so if I can be a smiling person and happy person and a person that people want to say hello to when they come in the door, life is good!

“There are people who suffer from mental illness, and alcoholism, and drug abuse,” he said, “but if you can see past those things and see who they are, I think you get a better understanding of that individual. There’s not another place I’d rather be than working at the House of Charity. It’s a good place.”

Martha Koenig graduated from Washington University in her home town of St. Louis, Mo., in 2002, with a major in advertising design. For three years she worked as a graphic design art director. She describes being in the JVC as “quite a change.” About a year ago, joining the JVC was not on her radar at all.

“But I went to China, just on a trip, with my family, traveled to six different cities, and just seeing a totally different way of living knocked me over the head. It took a while to process. I didn’t come back and immediately say, ‘I need to do something like JVC.’ It was a process of thinking, ‘Okay, there’s a totally different way of living out there, I need to step outside of how I usually do things and maybe help someone who hasn’t had it as wonderful as I have.’ So that’s what I’m doing.”

She works at St. Margaret Shelter, where she does “daily operational things, answering the phone, letting people in, listening to the moms’ stories, checking in with their kids, making sure they’re doing okay, getting them in touch with the resources they need to get back on their feet, whatever that means for them. They come from all different circumstances, from domestic violence to drug abuse or addiction, to just low income.”

Asked about what she enjoys most about her work, Martha replies with a shy smile, “Seeing a mom and realizing how much I am like her, and how she’s like me. Realizing the humanity about it all is a really neat aspect of it.

“The most challenging part is to be reasonable with all the decisions made, because there are some very technical rules about living at St. Margaret which can be annoying sometimes,” she said. “It’s hard to weigh out each situation and come in with an open mind and an open heart, all the time.”

Gathered together for group discussion, Spokane’s new JVs reflect on the experience of living in community. Not one had ever lived with people they had no choice about living with. Yet they all agree that they are feeling “pretty lucky.” – they enjoy one another’s company.

“When we have the chance, we’re always eating dinner together,” says Hartman, “or we’re going out. We just get together naturally.”

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