Imagine the results if 150 people agreed to work full time for a year, for no pay. Alverno College students take part in Community Day, April 25, where students, faculty and staff are encouraged to volunteer at one of dozens of sites organized by the school. An Alverno student tutors a local high school student. (Submitted photo by Blue Moon Studios)That is the equivalent number of volunteer hours those with ties to Alverno College served in their yearlong project, “Caring Counts: The Alverno College Volunteer Challenge.”

The brainchild of Alverno president Mary Meehan to commemorate the school’s 125th anniversary, the goal was 125,000 hours of service. They completed 306,579 hours.

“We had a planning committee for our 125th anniversary and I attended the first meeting. I suggested that we do something that would truly represent and celebrate our belief that the purpose of education is to build strong communities, and ultimately a better world,” she said. “Nothing seemed more fitting than to give back to the community through service.”

School has ‘collective huge heart’

While Meehan knew of a few other colleges that had done similar anniversary projects, they were all large universities. When she suggested the school could hit 125,000 hours, the committee was shocked, she told your Catholic Herald.

“I must say, I never doubted we could do it, because I know the power of the Alverno community and its collective huge heart,” she said.

Jessica Borkoswki, front row, far right, serves as walk coordinator for the Milwaukee Out of the Darkness Community Walk, an event designed to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention. (Submitted photo courtesy Jessica Borkowski)Suicides prompt student to become advocate for life

Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald

     MILWAUKEE — When Jessica Borkowski, an Alverno student majoring in early childhood/elementary education, English/language arts support, and president-elect of Alverno Student WEA, learned of the Caring Counts Challenge, the first volunteer effort she thought of was already dear to her heart.
     Borkowski, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Racine, lost a 16-year-old friend in 2000 to suicide, and in 2006, lost her 23-year old cousin. The suicides affected her deeply and she wondered how these two men could take their own lives. In her search for answers, she found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
     In the Caring Counts Challenge, Borkowski logged 240 hours for AFSP and served as the walk coordinator for the Milwaukee Out of the Darkness Community Walk.
     “We had 500 participants and raised over $33,000. The funds raised went toward AFSP’s work in preventing suicide and helping those who have lost a loved one to suicide,” she said. “This past year was the fifth year for the Milwaukee walk, all of which I have organized.”
     Losing her friend and cousin inspired Borkowski to reach out to others who had experienced the death of a loved one from suicide. She also wanted to raise awareness about suicide prevention and mental illness.
     “This experience has had a great impact on me,” she said. “My goal with the walk was to create a community for others who have also lost someone to suicide. I wanted people to know that they are not alone. I truly believe that the event does just that. I have met wonderful people through this event and have built great relationships.”
     In raising awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention, Borkowski has grown in her faith.   
     “I believe that by doing this work, I am truly practicing my faith,” she said. “I do believe suicide can be prevented, but more needs to be done to prevent suicide. The best way to prevent it is by recognizing and treating depression, bipolar disorder and other mental disorders, including addictions.”
     Borkowski explained that more than 90 percent of the people that die by suicide have an underlying mental illness at the time of their death, not always recognized or treated.
     “Depression, the leading cause of suicide, is among the most treatable of all mood disorders,” she said. “More than three fourths of people with depression respond positively to treatment.”
     Through her work with AFSP, Borkowski is working on forming the Wisconsin Chapter of AFSP to address the needs of communities across the state and provide resources where needed to prevent suicide and to support those impacted by suicide loss.

Anyone with ties to the college was invited to take part in Caring Counts. This included alumnae, the School Sisters of St. Francis, families of current students, faculty and staff.

More than 1,500 people documented their volunteer hours. Of those, 227 logged 125 hours of service or more, accounting for nearly 30,000 hours. More than 200 organizations, including schools, churches, food pantries and homeless shelters, were helped.

“We volunteered in food pantries, cleaned up Lake Michigan beaches, worked in schools as tutors, docents in museums, ushered at world music festivals, and, of course, churches,” Meehan explained.

Not hard to find time to volunteer

Alverno sophomore Elizabeth O’Hara, a member of St. William Parish, Waukesha, is pursuing a double major in professional communications and community leadership and development. Despite her busy schedule, she found time to volunteer with Lead to Succeed, helping high school students develop as young leaders. She also volunteered with Best Buddies, cleaned up a Lake Michigan beach in the rain, and volunteered with her father at a St. Vincent de Paul food program. She logged 42 hours during Caring Counts.

“Lead to Succeed is a really great program that works to help empower high school students to go out and make a difference,” she said. “The goal of the program is to have high school students work on a service learning project so that they can begin to develop skills that they can apply to the workforce.”

Each student collaborated with a project and was given a few college mentors to guide them. The first semester, O’Hara worked with Excel High School students in community volunteering projects, such as picking up trash, baking cookies for the elderly and collecting food for a local church.

“The second semester I worked with PLI (Professional Learning Institute) and Waukesha 4H, where we worked in raising water awareness amongst teens,” she said. “They created a water website for teens to help spread the world about how important it is to be informed about the world’s water situation, and ways we can help respect our water sources.”

Volunteering is integral to O’Hara’s life, as she learned to serve the community from her parents.

“I would feel weird if I wasn’t doing some kind of service,” she said. “The funny thing is, it didn’t seem very hard to make time for volunteer work.”

Helping with St. Vincent de Paul was eye opening and perhaps had the most impact on O’Hara.

“Sometimes I would go on a call with my dad to drop off food at a person’s house and I realized how blessed I am and with that blessing comes the call to help others,” she explained. “Sometimes while we were on a call, the family we helped would want to have a full blown conversation with us, where as others would say ‘thank you’ and that was it. It was very interesting to see, but was not surprising because this is how a lot of people I worked with on mission trips seemed to react. All in all, it was a very humbling experience.”

Efforts strengthened faith

O’Hara finds her Catholic faith strengthened as she follows the church’s call to service.

“Whenever I am volunteering, I see God’s face in the people I am helping and that is really beautiful,” she said. “Volunteer work has been such a humbling and rewarding experience and has strengthened my relationship with God. There are so many lessons that I have been taught through Christian formation, my parents, and going to Mass on Sunday. It is really neat when a service experience mirrors those lessons. Through service, I have learned about others, myself and, most importantly, who God is and how he works through us.”

Most importantly, for O’Hara, the call to volunteer is not solely the answer to a college project, it has changed her and formed her into a caring, giving person, who cannot turn her back on helping others.

“The work I did last year, and the years before, has been such a rewarding experience,” she said. “I will definitely continue to look for volunteer work and find ways to reach out and help our community.”

Regulars at St. Ben’s meal program

Alverno College students take part in Community Day, April 25, where students, faculty and staff are encouraged to volunteer at one of dozens of sites organized by the school. A student volunteers at the Urban Ecology Center. (Submitted photo by Blue Moon Studios)Students and faculty from Alverno volunteer and serve at the St. Ben’s Community Meal every third Thursday of the month.

According to Capuchin Br. Dave Schwab, the students and staff provide valuable service by serving on the food line, pouring beverages, cleaning and re-setting the tables and showing hospitality to the guests.

“I find that they are generous with their time and are very interactive with our homeless and hungry guests. Some of our values here at St. Ben’s are hospitality, compassion and joyful service and the Alverno volunteers epitomize those values each month as they provide this valuable ministry,” he said. “We serve an average of 340 guests per night and we count on volunteers to make everything run smoothly. I am very impressed with these young adults as they continue to respond to the Gospel call to ‘feed the hungry.’ They are truly living their faith in this concrete way.”

In the wake of the success of Caring Counts, Meehan is reminded that people can do anything they set their minds on, especially when serving others is at the core.

“We teach out students to set stretch goals, and through Caring Counts, we all came together as a community and practiced what we teach,” she said. “… Caring Counts gave me the evidence all scholars seek to confirm what they already know – and for me, this is proof that Alverno really cares about others. I could not be more proud of each and every person who made this gift possible.”