“Umm, hello” I muttered awkwardly, “My name is Janine and I drew a picture of food because I am hungry and haven’t eaten dinner yet.”
I am convinced that the person who invented the icebreaker only did it knowing that one day someone like me would mumble a comment like that. And, right now he is looking down on me from heaven, or up from hell, which is a much more likely resting place, and laughing.
I took a look around the circle and saw that we were divided into two distinct groups. There were those wearing a bright cheery smile. This was my group of people; the tutors. We were made up of a handful of Loyola students eager to begin the activities. The second group seemed nervous, unhappy, and genuinely disinterested in what any of us had to say. These were our tutees. After we were divided up, two tutors per tutee, I found myself listening to a 14-year old girl recount the list of activities she would much rather be doing than sitting and talking with me. This was how my first day in the Choice Program began.
The Choice Program works to tutor juvenile offenders and other troubled youth. It assists approximately 500 youth each year and is located throughout Baltimore and its surrounding counties. Each Thursday we spend three hours eating, talking, tutoring, and playing sports at the FAC all in the hopes of acting as a positive influence on youth. On my first day, however, this goal seemed well beyond my reach.
When I felt distressed I turned to Kolvenbach’s “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education.” Kolvenbach believes that service is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be a challenge. And, day one of the Choice program was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. Service itself is hard enough, but trying to serve others who do not want your help is something entirely different.
After speaking with my youth for about an hour she began to open up. I learned that she came from a broken home and was two years behind in school. She also had a history of aggressive behavior and had been expelled more than once for fighting on school property. But these paled in comparison to how she viewed herself. She battled with terrible self-esteem and was constantly putting herself down.
Following the meet and greet portion of the evening we moved to the FAC to play some one-on-one basketball and soccer for about an hour. After a while I discovered that not only was my youth good at sports, she was an athlete in the truest sense of the word. We were all able to build up her confidence by cheering her on. By the end of the night, she really seemed to be enjoying herself and once she let her guard down she was all smiles.
In Kolvenbach’s essay he states that justice is “the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” Unfortunately, the program only meets for three hours each week so it is impossible to rescue these youths from their broken homes and troubled backgrounds. But Choice is able to offer an escape from the stressors of their everyday life. It gives them a judgment free environment for them to learn at their own pace. And it offers tangible role models that they can come to for advice or just to have someone listen.
My service experience this week has taught me that service will not always be easy, but it will always be necessary. Although I will not be able to help the Choice youths as much as I want, each week I will be able to spend a few hours getting to know them and providing a safe environment for them to discover who they are and what their true potential is. Service, it seems, often gives you the questions and your actions are the way to find the solutions.