Despite the growth of volunteer opportunities available to college graduates today, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps remains one of the most popular destinations for young Catholics looking for spiritual growth and a chance to serve.
Caroline Proulx is one of seven young people — two men and five women — living in community in Anchorage as a Jesuit Volunteer during the 2013-2014 year. She’s one of two JVs serving at Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis (AWAIC), and in her job as an advocate at the shelter she works with women who have experienced domestic abuse.
“I wanted to do something to help better the world,” said the 22-year-old. “I really wanted to do something to give back.”
Proulx graduated with a double major in sociology and history from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. Studying right across the street from the University of Notre Dame, Proulx was eligible to play in the Fighting Irish’s marching band and received coveted free football tickets to Notre Dame games.
When she graduated, she looked into many volunteer opportunities, but liked the Jesuit Volunteers because of its Catholic foundation, and because the “core values” appealed to her: spirituality, social justice, simple living and community.
When offered a position in Anchorage, Proulx accepted.
“I had to come to Alaska,” she said. “When would I ever get a chance to live here again?”
Jesuit Volunteers promises a “transformational experience” working with people on the margins. Proulx exemplifies those who have realized that promise.
“I’ve really learned so much more about myself than I could have learned anywhere else,” she told the Catholic Anchor. “I’ve definitely relied more on my spirituality in this position. It’s grounded me. This is difficult work, helping victims of domestic violence, and my spirituality helps me put it into a larger perspective rather than get lost in the trauma I see.”
Another Anchorage Jesuit Volunteer, Erin Gibson, is one of two who work at Covenant House Alaska. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Gibson majored in psychology with minors in anthropology and Catholic social teaching.
Interested in social work, she weighed going to graduate school or joining the work force, but many positions asked for two years of experience. What better way, Gibson thought, to get some great experience in social services than to join the Jesuit Volunteers?
“I went to a service fair at Notre Dame, and JVC appealed to me because of the Jesuit tradition. I like the Jesuit emphases on reflection and the spiritual exercises,” she said. “And their emphasis on getting out into the community and getting your hands dirty.”
Unfortunately for today’s Anchorage volunteers, there are no longer Jesuit priests serving in Anchorage to help them with their spiritual formation. Nevertheless, the community meets for a spirituality night weekly, with a different volunteer leading the experience each week. Although the program accepts non-Catholic volunteers, all seven of Anchorage’s group come from a Catholic background, but, said Proulx, all are at different points in their spiritual journey.
JVC provides three retreats a year, at which all 27 Jesuit Volunteers serving throughout Alaska come together to reflect. An October retreat focuses on community living. Another in February emphasizes social justice and a third in June examines the spiritual life.
“We had over 20 people sleeping on the floor of our house,” when one of the retreats was held in Anchorage, said Proulx, who describes the events as “like all your extended family coming together.”
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps has its roots in Alaska. It was in 1956 that the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, in cooperation with the Sisters of St. Ann, brought the first crop of volunteers to Copper Valley School near Glennallen, where Jesuit priests ran a boarding school for Native students.
By the 1960s, Jesuit Volunteers began branching out, moving into the Pacific Northwest to serve Native Americans as well as the marginalized in inner cities. The idea quickly caught on, inspiring other volunteer groups and even influencing the development of the Peace Corps. By 1974, the Jesuit Volunteers had spread internationally and to other regions around the U.S.
By 2006, the various Jesuit Volunteer Corps went through a process of reflecting on joining forces and creating one structure that would serve the U.S. and the international Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps in the Northwest, with its rich history and founding tradition, was the only group to decide to remain autonomous. It continues to serve the Pacific Northwest and all of Alaska, and its application and interview process is entirely separate from the national organization.
Although the Alaska group goes back a long time, volunteers came to Anchorage for the first time in 1985. Marti Pausback, a Colorado native, was among that group of four who pioneered Jesuit Volunteers in Anchorage and describes her year volunteering as “life-changing.”
Like many Jesuit Volunteers she never left Alaska, and today she and her family are active members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage.
Pausback said her JVC experience “invited me to go deeper in my spirituality. JVC set the tone for my life.”