The unique and unprecedented experience of being a JV during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown me the importance of connectivity, presence, and unwavering support through solidarity. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned expert on mindfulness and meditation, once stated, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Learning to surf the waves of being a Jesuit Volunteer, let alone being a Jesuit Volunteer during the times of COVID-19, has been nothing short of humbling, heart-wrenching, and life-giving all at the same time.
As a member of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, I serve as the Graduate Support Assistant at St. Andrew Nativity School in Portland, Oregon. In this role, I wear many hats. Much of my day is spent helping our current students with tasks like navigating the high school application process. Trust me, it’s trickier than it would seem. I also get the opportunity to spend lunchtime and recess with the students, in addition to the daily Study Hall periods that I proctor.
The myriad of roles I fill at the school have allowed me to develop strong and sincere connections with both staff and students. Additionally, I engage in wrap-around care with our graduates and families, continuing to support and advocate for them even after they have left the halls of Nativity.
What makes Nativity so incredible is that it is the only tuition free, private middle school in the state of Oregon that exclusively serves low-income students. Centered on the notion that education is a tool for empowerment, Nativity strives to elevate marginalized communities in hopes of breaking the systemic and often generational cycles of poverty. Now, with over 300 graduates, our data shows that 96% of Nativity students go on to graduate from high school and 80% go on to attend college.
What I find even more impactful than those statistics are the deep relationships and authentic connections Nativity fosters. Along with many of my coworkers, I often find myself at our student’s events, celebrating with them when they won their basketball playoffs, crying with them after a moving choir performance, and laughing with them about the latest TikTok they watched. We as a staff truly pride ourselves on being a source of connection and stability for the people we serve.
However, maintaining a sense of stability during the times of the COVID-19 pandemic is complicated. There is an inherent tension in attempting to be a source of stability and certainty for others while your own life also feels so chaotic and uncertain. I am no longer stationed in the warm and welcoming Graduate Support office that I am so fond of. Now I find myself serving indefinitely from Mac House alongside the rest of my community.
While I am no longer physically at the school, I am still able to connect with those I serve virtually. I have been able to speak on the phone with parents, Zoom regularly with my coworkers, and even Google Text with my students (thank you, technology). I have been privileged to help many of our students officially enroll to the high schools that they have spent months researching, applying to, interviewing for, and dreaming of. Witnessing their goals finally come to fruition, even in times of unparalleled disruption, has maintained in me a sense of optimism and purpose.
However, I also feel as though I have entered into a process of grieving and mourning for what my service experience was just a mere couple weeks ago. I miss commuting to and from the school by public transit. I miss seeing the hallways filled with over 80 energetic and lively middle schoolers. I miss having recess duty and losing miserably at games of four-square. Mostly, I miss seeing the students every day. I miss their unyielding positivity and optimism that I believe we all could use in times like these.
But right now, we are asked to do nothing more than be safe and reliable points of contact for the people we love and serve. We are called to be sources of radical connection for people, even if the ways in which we have previously connected have shifted. Afterall, isn’t that what solidarity is all about?
I am grateful to be serving at Nativity, a school that genuinely cares for the people it serves and the mission we strive for, even in the most unusual circumstances. While these are most definitely uncertain times, I am certain that we can continue being sources of certainty for each other and that we can surf these waves together.