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Learning from Young and Old

by Eileen Borczon, Oakland ’14
Xavier University ’14
Senior Homeless Case Manager, St Mary’s Center

Spending a year doing post-graduate service is choosing to live in a way that counters cultural norms. As a Jesuit Volunteer (JV), I live in community with three other JVs. Each of us works at different social service agencies serving the needs of the most vulnerable people. We pool all of our money to pay for rent, utilities, groceries, and transportation. We talk about spirituality, social justice, and simple living. We create an intentional community where we place the needs of others before our own and live in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, something that can be difficult to do. It’s quite different from how I have lived my entire life, but even on the most difficult days, the blessings and gifts that I have gained have made those difficult days worthwhile.

As a JV, I work at St. Mary’s Center, a senior services agency that serves people ages 55+ in Oakland, CA by providing hot meals, justice and advocacy programming, case management, health services, and a lively community of people that care deeply for one another. My primary role is as a case manager serving seniors who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness. Our team assists clients with finding affordable housing, providing counseling and support groups for substance abuse and mental health disorders, money management, and continued support to clients so that they stay permanently housed.
In just a few months, I have seen how necessary these services are for the community. One of my first days at work, I was shocked when a client revealed in an interview that he had been homeless on and off for about 40 years… 40 YEARS! I haven’t even been alive for 23 years and I can’t even imagine how 40 years of unstable living feels. Many of the seniors that I work with have had lives peppered by some combination of poverty, hunger, injustice, disease, trauma, tragedy, violence, addiction, prejudice, discrimination, and more. Our efforts are often the last chance for people who have never know stability to know what it is like to feel safe, comfortable, and healthy – basic human needs.
I love working with seniors because they are so lively, so joyous for a new opportunities, and so grateful for each day that they wake up feeling well. I’m happy when I spend time with them, but one day a week, I work as a teacher’s aide in the St. Mary’s Center preschool. Wait, a senior services organization has a preschool? Let me explain. The community expressed the need for a preschool for low income families in the area, so St. Mary’s Center delivered. The preschool is a sanctuary for the students it serves. It provides a safe outdoor play area, free from the crime and drug riddled atmosphere just outside the school’s doors. The teachers work with the kids on colors, numbers, letters, building friendships, and preparing them for the challenge of full-time school. The kids are full of energy and excitement for learning, but it is clear that the kids don’t have perfect home lives. There is lots of evidence that education is one of the most importance pieces in breaking the cycle of poverty. If kids can be supported by a few people that want them to succeed, they can achieve a life of opportunities and possibilities. With early intervention, I hope that these children I know that love creating art, reading books, playing make-believe, and digging in the dirt for bugs never have to know a life that includes being homeless for 40 days or 40 years.
One year is a long time, and, at the same time, only a blip on the timeline of my life. This year is as much about putting good into the world as it is about personal growth. I feel capable of talking about issues of social justice in our society with a greater awareness of what life is like for those at the margins of society. I have been able to take time to discern the next steps that I want to take in my life. I’ve been able to evaluate what things in my life bring me closer in relationships to God and others, and what things take away from that connection. Each day I learn new things about myself and the world around me. No matter where I head next, I am confident that my time as a Jesuit Volunteer will provide me with irreplaceable experiences and a strong foundation of values that will remain with me long after the last day of my JV year.