An interview with Colleen O’Connor, an exiting Lutheran Volunteer in St. Paul, MN.
I wanted to get a perspective from a current service participant who is preparing to move on in life, as the term of service wraps up. And I wanted to get the perspective on a non-AmeriCorps program, since there are so many!
Tell me about your program – Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC). How is it different from AmeriCorps or Peace Corps? Why did you choose it?
What makes LVC different from many AmeriCorps programs is that LVC is meant to be a holistic, whole-life program. LVC isn’t just about our job; it encompasses the rest of our lives, as well. I live with other volunteers in an intentional community, participate in retreats and social events, and am asked to explore social justice, community, spirituality, and simplicity. In some ways LVC is definitely more restrictive because I can’t always do whatever I want with my out-of-work life.
I am asked to spend weekly time with my housemates, attend trainings and retreats, and not have an outside job or class for credit. But this is also why I chose LVC, because I wanted to live in community and really get everything possible out of this experience.
There are other similar programs (such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Mennonite Volunteer Service), but LVC is one of only two such programs in the Twin Cities, and I knew I wanted to be here. The other (the St. Joseph Worker program) is all women, and I preferred a co-ed program.
What were you doing before you became an LVC’er?
I graduated last May from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN with a B.A. in Sociology. During college I interned at St. Stephen’s Human Services, volunteered at The Bridge for Youth, and led seven service-immersion trips for college and high-school students. These experiences all helped expand my passion for social justice and my skills to work for it. On my service trips I met many full-time volunteers across the world. They gave me a new vision of what was possible, and out of that grew a strong desire to be a full-time volunteer myself. I knew for most of college that I wanted to do this when I graduated.
What do you/did you do as an LVCer?
I work at an affordable-housing organization, where I am both a Volunteer Program Associate and a Resident Connections Coordinator. I really enjoy the variety that having a dual role brings. A single day might include leading a large group of volunteer painters, mediating a resident crisis or conflict, recruiting volunteer tutors, helping a resident access a food shelf, or any other tasks. As I said before, I also have some additional LVC commitments beyond my position: community time with my housemates, retreats, reflections, etc.
How you’ve been preparing to move on from your term of service. When did you start preparing?
Leaving LVC requires many kinds of transitions. I am leaving my job, my home, my housemates, and my program. In most AmeriCorps programs, the end of the program is just like the end of a job. But because LVC has encompassed so many realms of my life, leaving LVC means starting fresh again. In a lot of ways, it’s as significant as the transitions many people make when graduating from high school or college.
At work, I have been trying hard to leave behind good structure and documentation. I was my host organization’s first LVCer, so many procedures and policies relevant to my job haven’t really existed before. I have created some of these so that it’s easier for the next person in my position to learn the ropes. This has been a year-long process of learning and evaluation. More recently, I have been saying a lot of goodbyes to my residents and volunteers. It’s sad for me, but I have absolute faith that my excellent co-workers will be able to serve these residents and volunteers well in my absence.
I am also preparing to leave LVC itself. I started working on my job search in May, and since then have been continually researching the possibilities, applying for jobs, going on informational interviews, networking, etc. Given these tough times I haven’t found a job yet, so I’m reevaluating my efforts and the career path I would like to take. Until I have a steady income I can’t commit to a lease anywhere, so for the time being I am moving back home with my parents when I leave my LVC house.
LVC has been helping its volunteers transition on to the next stage of life. We had a closure retreat and have also had closure activities and discussions as a house community. They have been helpful for reflection about my experience and preparation for what is next.
What was hardest about your service corps?
The most challenging aspect of LVC was definitely living in an intentional community. We are more than just roommates: we make an effort to integrate our lives. For instance, we spend weekly community nights together, reflect on vocation, social justice, and spirituality, create a house convenant to guide our year, and share a food budget and meals. Some communities mesh really well and leave as best friends. Some are full of dysfunction and tension.
Mine was somewhere in between, due mostly to a challenging mix of personalities. Most days it wasn’t especially fun for us to all live under the same roof. And because of how LVC structures its program, it was harder for us to find outside sources of support, respite, and fun. We have each found them, but it wasn’t easy.
What was the most rewarding part of your service experience?
I have learned so much about myself this year! Living in a simple, sustainable manner, working through the challenges of my living situation, and having an amazing, fulfilling job have all led to a lot of growth and self-discovery. I’ve had the opportunity to explore and clarify a lot of my values, to learn where and how I thrive, and to challenge myself to find a more sustainable existence.
If you could get into a time machine and give yourself advice on your year (just roll with it), what would you tell your pre-LVC self to do/not do?
This is a hard one for me to answer! I have no regrets about choosing to do a LVC year — it’s been a wonderful experience.
What advice do you have for others who are just starting or are looking at doing a term of service?
There are so many service programs out there, and they are more diverse than you can imagine. Don’t worry if the AmeriCorps or Peace Corps don’t sound like the right fit for you, because they don’t have to be. I highly recommend looking for opportunities through the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service (you don’t have to be Catholic or Christian for many of the programs) or Idealist.org.
You can find something in your hometown or across the world, something for a few months or many years. Your talents are needed, whether you’re an accountant or an engineer or a social worker or an artist. People of all ages, backgrounds, and family statuses can find the right opportunity. It’s never too late.
Also, don’t be afraid to try a term of service! It can seem like an intimidating new experience, but you will gain so much growth and discovery if you just go for it. You’ll meet amazing people and gain skills that will serve you well in the future. Especially in this economy, a service program can provide exciting work, top-notch training and experience, and a reliable income that many jobs can’t. Service can also be a great way to transition to a new city or career.
Most programs only ask for 1-2 years of your life, so don’t dismiss service as something you don’t have time for right now. If you aren’t ready for that length of commitment, explore short-term service opportunities as a way to get your feet wet.