Community service has always been a graduation requirement at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School. Through their developmental Salvatorian Service Requirement, students are obligated to complete service days and volunteer hours each semester. Divine Savior Holy Angels senior Morgan Doyle feeds a young girl at St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care on Jan. 16. Doyle and her fellow seniors from DSHA spent two weeks in January participating in a service immersion project. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

Over the past year, however, staff and faculty members have been working to develop a comprehensive capstone experience for seniors. The result is Vocare, a two-week service immersion project that debuted in January. 

Starting on Jan. 14, 152 seniors took two weeks off from school to be placed in volunteer positions at more than 40 agencies in the Milwaukee area, including St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, Journey House, Highland Community School and Care Age of Brookfield.

“We really believe that (Vocare) exemplifies all of our qualities in a graduate, which are leader, communicator, critical thinker and believer,” said Kathleen Cullen, director of campus ministry at DSHA. 

In Latin, Vocare means “to call” or “to draw forth.”

While developing Vocare, DSHA staff members met with faculty members from Marquette University High School, where a similar program has been in effect since the 1972-73 school year. Marquette’s Senior Shared Life also requires seniors to spend two weeks immersed in community service.

Program director and Marquette teacher Terrence Kelly said Senior Shared Life, over the past four decades, has helped Marquette University High School students “put a face” to issues they learn about in school or read about in the news.

“I think for so many of our guys it gives them an awareness of some realities – you know, they talk about some of these issues, some of the societal problems, in their classes, but then, rather than just having it be theoretical, … they go out and they see it in person. They see the people. It’s not just numbers or statistics. It becomes a human experience.”Anissa Gladney, a senior at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, Milwaukee, helps clients of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care play Bingo on Jan. 16. Vocare is a two-week service immersion project started for DSHA seniors this year. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

The Vocare project began with a sending-off prayer service on Jan. 14, which centered around the message of Matthew 25:40: “Whatsoever you do for the least of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.” 

The girls were then sent forth to spend two 40-hour work weeks with various Milwaukee agencies. On the weekends, they gathered at DSHA to participate in reflection sessions where they discussed the previous week. On Jan. 27, the seniors returned to the DSHA campus for a welcome back prayer service. 

At the service, senior Abbey Beck shared stories from her experience at St. Ann’s Center for Intergenerational Care. 

She related the story of a client named Randy, with whom she worked on her third day of Vocare. Randy had a difficult time recognizing colors, and she helped him with a painting activity. She was initially startled by his inclination to say “I love you” to complete strangers, but one night after work came upon a quote by Thomas Merton that made her think of the situation in a new light.

“The quote was: ‘Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can,’” she recalled. “I believe we are all called to love as Randy loves – freely and openly.” 

Maddie Organ spent her two weeks volunteering at Goodwill, working with adults who had cognitive and physical disabilities. 

“(In the beginning) I thought it would be nice to have two weeks out in the ‘real world.’ I was really prepared to serve,” she said. “As the weeks progressed, however, I saw the experience in a new light, because I soon learned the greater capacity I had to receive. The people I met had a sense of hope and enthusiasm that I never would have predicted given their circumstances; they never let their impairments affect their determination.”

She said the experience made her aware of “a population … that is underserved and overlooked.”

“Sometimes people choose not to see the problems that surround us in this world, but the Vocare experience put each of us at the heart of the issue. It was our job to do as much as we could to try to improve them,” she said.

Fatima Castillo called Vocare “an eye-opening” experience. While working at an urban school in Milwaukee, she was confronted with unfamiliar issues of poverty, violence in the lives of children and parental indifference to a child’s academic career.

Forming a personal connection with the students helped her to feel like she had the power to enact change, on even the smallest level. 

“The last day I went in an hour early and left an hour late. I didn’t want the day to end,” she said.

Five DSHA students were placed at Northwest Catholic School to help in the classrooms of the lower grades, and principal Michelle Paris was pleased with the way the program went, calling the girls “very prepared, very professional, mature and respectful. They did an excellent job.”

She hopes that Northwest will partner with DSHA on Vocare in the coming years. She sees it as a way for her own students to be inspired by strong academic role models, but also as a way for the seniors from DSHA to experience the realities of urban education.

Maria Gates, who served at Northwest, echoed Paris’ sentiments. At the Jan. 27 prayer service, she reflected on the “greater, more important” meaning of Vocare.

“Yes, we were sent out to different places in Milwaukee to help the less fortunate,” she said. “But, I think more importantly, Vocare gave us an opportunity to know ourselves more holistically. We were all forced to break away from what we know and immerse ourselves into a completely different lifestyle.”