Bon Secours expands its volunteer ministry for recent college graduates

June 1, 2019

Participants plumb the spiritual in themselves and in their chosen vocations


Chris Dethlefs graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in mathematics and an acceptance into medical school at the University of Nebraska. Rather than jump immediately back into studies, though, he committed to a year of faith-based service where he could focus on patients as people rather than diagnoses and explore healing as a vocation.

"I wanted to work on the relational aspects of care, practicing empathy and compassion, before the stresses of medical school would consume my time," he said.

Chris Dethlefs plays bingo with a patient at Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital in Richmond, Va. Dethlefs is using his time in the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry program to work on the relational aspects of health care before beginning medical school.

Dethlefs works with patients in a special unit of Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital in the East End area of Richmond, Va. The unit cares for people whose conditions require them to spend a month or more in the hospital. He takes patients for walks, plays cards with them, talks a little and listens a lot.

Dethlefs is one of five young adults who are extending the mission and charism of the Sisters of Bon Secours in Richmond through the congregation's Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry program. The lay formation program, which is open to recent college graduates, has been in continuous operation in West Baltimore for two decades. The congregation expanded it to Richmond in 2018.

In Baltimore, as in Richmond, five participants are welcomed in August each year. The volunteers receive a monthly stipend of $325, housing and health insurance.

"It's a nice next step for someone who has been paying attention to their faith and listening to a call of service," Shannon Curran, director of Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, said of the program.

In each community, participants share a house, groceries, a community car and their innermost thoughts about spirituality. They pray together daily, go on religious retreats as a group and commit to the volunteer ministry's five pillars: grow spiritually, learn through service with others, develop community, live simply and practice God's justice.

They live in the economically challenged neighborhoods where they work in the sisters' ministries of health care, social service and education.

"I jokingly describe the ministry as compassion boot camp," Curran said. "It prepares them well for life in general, but those headed into health care get a strong foundation in mission and the sisters' charism of compassion, healing, and liberation."

Ministry origins
Sr. Nancy Glynn, CBS, started the volunteer ministry program in West Baltimore in 1999 and worked closely with volunteers until 2014 when she was asked to lead the Sisters of Bon Secours in France. Olivia Steback, program manager of the volunteer ministry, said to this day, sisters visit regularly with the volunteers to participate in prayers or share meals.

The congregation opened its first U.S. hospital in West Baltimore a century ago. The sisters and their health system became anchors there, investing in social services and community stabilization on an ongoing basis. Last summer, the Bon Secours Health System merged with Mercy Health to create Bon Secours Mercy Health. The system is selling the Baltimore hospital and plans to use sale proceeds to expand its outreach ministries in Baltimore. Likewise, in east Richmond, an area known as the East End, the congregation and its health system have a deep commitment to bettering the health and well-being of the community.

Curran said the volunteer ministry took many years to prepare for its expansion into Richmond because it wanted to do so "in an intentional and thoughtful way," that would make the service experience a transformative one for participants. "We built up staffing and recruitment to expand breadth and depth," she said.

Commitment to service
Volunteers must be unmarried, recent college graduates between 21 and 30. Many participants are graduates of Catholic universities. There is no requirement they be practicing Catholics. After their year of service, many volunteers go on to medical school or nursing school or pursue an advanced degree in public health. Some earn degrees in social work or education. All are committed to find work that has meaning and offers fulfillment beyond a steady paycheck. They want to be of service.

The recruiting process spans almost a year. After candidates express interest, a member of the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry staff conducts a preliminary phone interview. About 30 to 40 prospects each year complete a written application, which includes an essay, biography, resumé, references from a mentor and a peer they have lived with and a professional reference, as well as a transcript. Candidates go through two additional interviews to discern whether this ministry or another service opportunity is the best match. Following acceptance, volunteers are placed in a year-long position that matches their interests with the needs of the system's health care and social service ministries.

Fiona Shorrock, for example, graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2018 with a degree in health and human sciences. After her year as a Bon Secours volunteer in Richmond, she plans to become certified as a physician assistant and earn an advanced degree in public health.

She is assigned to the Bon Secours Care-A-Van mobile health clinic. It travels to churches where staff provide health screenings, vaccinations and free primary health care for the uninsured.

Shorrock helps patients complete intake forms and she keeps children entertained while they wait for their appointments. She holds their hands during vaccinations and gives them stickers for being brave. She explains the procedures to parents and tells them how to follow up or otherwise comply with the caregivers' recommendations.

Shorrock said she felt an immediate connection to the program in her initial interview. "The ministry felt personal, that everyone there cares about the mission and the charism." Through the subsequent interviews, she said, "I appreciated how involved the staff was in getting to know me, my passions and what I was hoping to get out of it."

Each volunteer is matched with a supervisor at his or her placement site. Additionally, a site leader, who does not live with the volunteers, serves as a mentor and facilitates reflection and community life. Dethlefs called the Richmond site leader, Steve DeLaney, "an awesome role model and friend who has helped me grow in the program. I hadn't expected such a close relationship with a staff member. We meet a couple times each week, and he guides us through work and community life issues."

Living in community
The volunteers draw close to each other, living "in a community, as a community," Curran said, sharing rooms and household chores, living a few blocks from the facilities in which they serve.

"Living in community is always the biggest surprise," she said. "We talk in depth with them. They think that because they had roommates in college, they can handle it. They find it's quite different. They share food, money and a vehicle. They're expected to talk about things that are hard about living with each other. They're used to avoiding conflict, and we instead encourage them to communicate directly and lovingly with each other."

The honesty pays rewards. Invoking the English translation of Bon Secours, Shorrock said, "We're here to be 'good help' to the patients and to each other at home. There are frustrations that we are encouraged to face in a loving and direct manner. We're asked to go beyond being roommates and love each other through our faults."

Dethlefs and Shorrock spoke to Catholic Health World when they were more than halfway through their volunteer year. Both said they already have gotten more from their service than they expected.

"I don't know if it's changed my plans, but it's informed my plans," Dethlefs said. "It's been a rich time to practice the relational aspects of care that aren't always emphasized in medical school. It's helped me develop a more mature approach to my time in med school."

Shorrock added: "This has intensified my desire to connect to public health issues and the role providers can play. I enjoy getting to know and hear the stories of the patients and clients. It's only made me more excited for my future."

Gina Fleck, recruiter for the volunteer ministry, referenced the writing of Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, saying, "Volunteers are always surprised how much they live out the Gospel of erasing the margins by going to the margins."


Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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