This post was written by Renee Zingaro. Renee is an athletic trainer who took some time off to volunteer for the Vincentian Mission Corps. She learned some important lessons along the way that she wanted to share with all of us at Woman, Live!
We volunteer to make a difference always underestimating just how much the difference was meant for us.
I heard that five years into a profession a person can hit a roadblock. It’s can be a period of deciding whether to stay and take a break or switch professions, altogether. I’m an athletic trainer and five years on the dot I started to experience these feelings. My current job created a stressful situation for numerous reasons. Eventually, I got to the point that I did not want to go to work.
In my mind, I had two choices: find a new job or volunteer for a year. Why volunteer? I’ve always had the desire to go on a mission trip or do some sort of volunteer service, but I always had an excuse why I couldn’t go: ‘I’ll go next week.’ ‘I don’t have the money to go on that mission trip.’ ‘I just don’t have the time.’ (Ever feel like that?) I knew I wouldn’t make an excuse if I devoted if volunteering was my job for an entire year.
I didn’t have enough money saved to pay off school loans AND pay for a mission trip. Additionally, I’m not good at fundraising. Consequently, I knew I could not do anything which I had to pay for.
Though going overseas was not entirely out of the question, I wanted to stay in the States. I applied to a few positions via AmeriCorps and was accepted to the Vincentian Mission Corps.
The Vincentian Mission Corps is based in St. Louis, Missouri. Its mission ‘is to provide young adults with an experience of living in a community and working with the poor in the spirit of St. Vincent DePaul and St. Louise de Marillac’. I lived in an apartment complex in the city with 14 other people and we all had various jobs. Mine was at an outreach department for a local hospital system. Our main goal was helping the low income and uninsured connect to different services that could help them. My jobs varied and I got to do a little athletic training in an inner city high school, which was nice for me.
I went into this position thinking I was mostly going to work in a health clinic that accepts uninsured patients and not only was I going to help people who were in need, but I was going to learn so much about general medicine that I would be a much stronger athletic trainer when I return into the profession the next year.
I worked in the health clinic one day a week. I was so disappointed. But, God had a bigger plan in store. I am still sorting through everything and what I am to do with all this information I learned to this day, but I would like to share the a couple things that I have come to terms with:
1. No matter who the person is – lending an ear could be all they need or want.
I learned so much by listening. The people I liked to talk to the most were in an overnight shelter I went to once a month. The stories these men had were all over the spectrum…but they all followed the same path: small talk and then it typically went into deeper topics. Do you know how I knew they appreciated the time I spent there? They clapped when I left. Not only the people I spoke to – the entire shelter (that was still awake) clapped. I was beside myself when it happened the first time and I couldn’t figure out why that happened. Then I realized, these are men who are probably passed by numerous people every day, rejected by jobs (along with people), and for some, have a criminal records, and most do not have good family relationships and here I was spending time with them, listening to their stories and laughing with them. I enjoyed listening to what they had to say and learning how to play spades and dominoes and just spending time with them. I learned that a presence of a person means much more than you think.
2. Equality. This lesson came from more than one place but the story that sticks out most was when I was working with the high school athletes.
I worked in the high school that was considered the ‘dregs’ of south city St. Louis. Entering the year I was helping, the proficiency rate was at 36%, there was a nursery in the school so girls could attend if they have a baby, enrollment went from over 600 to under 500 by the end of the year, there was not even a working clock and that is just a little bit about the school. I went to some home games and provided coverage for a couple sports, but since it was low on the list of things I needed to do, I didn’t make it there often. But it was enough that when I was in the school some of the athletes would ask if I was coming to their next game. When I realized I was done working with them, I had a bit of a breakdown. All I could think was this was a group of kids who have people walk in and out of their lives and here I was doing the same thing. I have been around enough that they knew I provided care for them at games and now I was gone. It wasn’t until I was talking to a friend that it made sense what I just did. My friend asked, ‘Did you treat those kids any different than another athlete you would work with?’ Slightly offended I said, ‘Of course not!’ She said, ‘That is what you did for them. You showed them that no matter who they are – you provided the same care to them as anyone else.’ I learned to act the same towards everyone. Everyone has different things happening in their life, but you can control how you act towards them and that can be the constant. You may never know how or how not appreciated that is, but that is okay, knowing that you aren’t treating someone differently, because they may go to a school that has a 36% proficiency rate, is the important part.
3. Love. This connects with listening and equality.
There were times where I met with people that were…let’s say, rough around the edges. It was hard for me to bite my tongue sometimes as I am known for speaking my mind, but I had to remind myself, that there is probably a reason for the demeanor and my place was to show God’s love. That could be through a smile, saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when I really wanted to say was ‘shove it.’ But for everyone who I may have wanted to shake and say ‘No, just stop – that is not right,’ there were many more who made my time worthwhile. I am thinking right now of a program I helped organize. It was called Adopt-A-Family. It is like the Christmas tree idea but it supports an entire family at a time. I contacted several local social service agencies and they would provide three families who they felt needed the help during Christmas time the most. Those families would fill out a sheet with request of Christmas gifts and I would send that to the hospital and different departments would buy what they could. The clients would come to my work building to pick up the gifts for them and their families. One lady came and we packed her car and then I realized that she left her driving directions in the building. Not wanting her to get lost getting home, I ran to her car which was still parked outside the building and knocked on the door. I opened the door to find the woman crying, overwhelmed that strangers helped her and her family. On impulse, I climbed in her car and gave her a hug and told her ‘Merry Christmas.’ She wasn’t the only one to express disbelief that strangers were helping them out so much. The lesson learned here was love and compassion can go a long way. Something as small as helping someone have presents for Christmas shows that other people love them enough to help them in their situation. Spreading God’s love is a blessing in itself.
I am so happy that I took the time to do this volunteering position as it has changed a bit inside of me. The love I now have for this population and the things I learned while living in this community, I wouldn’t have if I only worked in the health clinic.
Cliche, but true…
I helped people, but in turn, they taught me lessons that I knew in my head, but now know in my heart. And for that – I clap. I clap for all of them…for their strength and for the enlightenment they bring to the volunteers that they may never realize — I clap.
Renee currently lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and works at a local high school as an athletic trainer. She attended undergraduate school at Messiah College and graduate school at California University of Pennsylvania which she majored in athletic training. Renee enjoys sports, but also likes to bake, cross stitch and travel.