Passionist Volunteers in West Virginia

by Patricia Yoczis

The Passionists are offering an opportunity to spend an inspiring summer vacation in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of West Virginia with free room and board. Photo: Passionist Perspectives, July 2005

"Individuals and especially families with children are welcomed to spend two weeks or longer," said Mrs. Katie LaCarrubba, director of the Passionist Volunteers, a program sponsored by the eastern province of the Passionist Congregation, South River, New Jersey."

100 Join This Year

From mid-June through August of 1996, more than 100 people have accepted the invitation and are scheduled to travel to West Virginia. They include a prayer group from Long Island, New York; a Catholic Youth group from Greenville, North Carolina, and members of St. Clare's parish in the Bronx, New York -- including their pastor, Father Tom DeLucci.

According to Mrs. LaCarrubba, who is in her sixth year as director, people have traveled from more than 18 states, such as Washington, California and Wisconsin, to volunteer in the summer program. The backgrounds of the volunteers are varied and have represented professionals, retirees, athletes and students, among others.

Volunteers work in groups, in constant communication by two-way radios and beepers, with the health and safety of the volunteers as a priority. Their ages have ranged from a few months to 80 years old.

Children as Volunteers

"Children in the family are considered full-fledged Passionist Volunteers and participate on a per project basis in home repairs and other activities," she said. "Children always give joy to the elderly who are visited in nursing homes or the homebound and join the summer activities with the local children. Plus, an infant's smiling face has the ability to brighten the workload of adult volunteers."

"We play as hard as we work," said Mrs. LaCarrubba. Picnics are held in the beautiful mountains and we celebrate the joy of life in everything we do."

Passionist VolunteersShe says the return rate for volunteers is high, with families at 100%. A fourteenth family will volunteer this summer. The Passionist Volunteer program allows families to give children another perspective of their faith and share a sense of values.

Remedy for 'Give Me'

"Parents bring their children to get them out of the 'give me' stage," said Mrs. LaCarrubba, who with her husband John, has brought their children -- Jonathan, 10, and Taylor, 8 -- to the summer volunteer program. "many parents are surprised by their children's spirit of cooperation and didn't know they had it in them. Photo: Passionist Perspectives, October 2003

Since the 1970s, the Passionist Volunteers have served the needy in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the focus of this year's program. Volunteers work mainly in Preston County, an economically depressed, mountainous county with an area of approximately 640 square miles.

Only a few thousand of the county's population of about 30,000 people are Catholic. The Volunteers serve everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or lack of it.

"Volunteers do not go to evangelize, but to be a presence to the poor who are the crucified of today," said Mrs. LaCarrubba. "We do not go to transform people, because we are the ones who are transformed. We do not go to teach, but to learn from the people."

The people in West Virginia "enhance our spirit, strength and belief in God as we see Christ in the poor and in the volunteers."

Volunteers are accepted from all faiths and live in housing in local parishes where they share communal chores. They participate in daily reflections on their shared experience at the end of the day's activities, while supporting one another and gaining awareness of each other's needs and insights.

One volunteers, she said, made her aware during an interview that he was an agnostic, but would have no problem with the daily reflections or liturgies.

During his stay in West Virginia, the agnostic and a Passionist priest visited a recent widow who suffered yet another death in her family.

Photo: Passionist Perspectives, July 2004

"The two men went to help the widow with house repairs. But when they arrived, the woman was so distraught that the priest asked the woman if she wanted to pray."

Mrs. LaCarrubba said the three of them prayed for two hours.

On returning that evening, the agnostic was overwhelmed and moved to say, "I've never experienced that kind of prayer before."

The episode led the man back on the path of returning to the Catholic church.

Help for Discerning

Many volunteers participate in the Passionist summer volunteer program as a form of discernment, including seminarians and priests. Father Robert Joerger, provincial of the eastern United States Passionists, was a Passionist Volunteer as were several other priests. Since 1981, Passionist Father Jerome McKenna from the eastern province has been in West Virginia and works with Passionist Volunteers.

"There have also been vocations to the married life," she said, "though matchmaking is not part of the Passionist Volunteer program."

Qualities Needed

The qualities, Mrs. LaCarrubba said, that are needed for a Passionist Volunteer include a sense of humor, flexibility and an openness to whatever the needs of the day may bring.

"We try to have activities planned, but there may be a crisis at the local community center or an unexpected call for help or the weather changes plans."

Volunteers have to be open to different cultures and lifestyles. The hardest thing for volunteers to overcome is facing the degree of poverty they find in West Virginia.

The flood of 1985 brought devastation to West Virginia, especially Preston County, and wiped out industries, hundreds of jobs and homes. Subsequent floods made recovery nearly impossible.

"People live in a land rich in agricultural and natural resources, such as coal and timber, but are exonomically depressed, rank low in education, health care, housing and income, with rampant unemployment. A majority of West Virginia's land is owned by absentee landlords from other states or countries."

Passionist Volunteers "never tell the people in West Virginia what they should do, but ask the residents what they want done."

Residents in one place told Mrs. LaCarrubba, "We don't need people to build houses, but a children's summer program would be all right." A recreation program for children started but had to include a daycare program for infants and toddlers since many seven- and eight-year-olds were responsible for younger children.

"Parents came to the crafts program and even grandmothers joined in as they watched what we were doing. We gained credibility when we returned and many residents recognized the volunteers."

An adult literacy program was started when the residents were ready. "one woman admitted she couldn't read, but was embarrassed to come because she thought she was unacceptable due to personal hygiene. Her home didn't have running water," said Mrs. LaCarrubba.

"She saw how her sister was treated by the volunteers and joined the program. Now, the woman said the best thing about reading is being able to read her own name and mail."

A man who works for a garbage collection company receives time off one afternoon a week, courtesy of the company, to participate in the literacy program.

A 'Thank-you' Dinner

The volunteers held a dinner of thanksgiving for residents who helped make them welcomed.

"Some people who came had never sat across the table from their neighbors.

"One man found out that a woman living nearby needed wood cut and he offered to do it for her. It was a start in building a strong foundation for the local people to be empowered to their needs and the needs of others."

Empowerment is what the Passionist Volunteers seek for the poor and those suffering from injustice.

"We need to break the prejudice that keeps the poor poor. I believe nothing will change for those in need until we who have, recognize the poor as peers. Our attitude must change and we must realize that we, as volunteers, are the ones being helped."

Passionist Volunteers affect this change, not only by direct service, but by mere presence. "listening and talking with people who are shunned and forgotten makes a world of difference. Poor people in West Virginia or at home then have a face that is difficult to forget."

Mrs. LaCarrubba urges volunteers to keep a journal of their experience in West Virginia and write home to at least one person while away. A reunion and evaluation weekend is held in the fall to help volunteers share ideas and feelings and to enjoy a celebration of food and friendship.

"Volunteers are different when they return home," she says. "They identify with the poor and often have a hard time defending a summer's vacation in Appalachia with the poor. People think it's a crazy thing to do. But it isn't crazy to have an opportunity to make a difference and see the face of Christ in the poor and marginalized of today."

Patricia Yocsis is a free lance writer who lives in New Jersey.

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