Student Stories

The SSLP and the Surprising Gifts of Presence

By: Emily Garvey

December 8, 2017

When junior Bailey Kendall is asked to describe her Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP) experience in one word, her reply is “inconvenient.” Kendall spent ten weeks in El Paso, Texas, at Annunciation House, an organization that provides shelter to economically poor immigrants and refugees. Kendall commented, “What I mean by ‘inconvenient’ is that I learned how to be there for others, to be inconvenienced, to be ok with not having a schedule, not getting my to do list done, with being hospitable to others at all times.” Kendall was surprised how many stories she was privileged to hear when she took this attitude of presence. She has taken the stance to Athens, Greece, where she is studying abroad this semester, and where she also volunteers at a refugee camp. “When you ask questions and just listen, you hear the most amazing things from people.”

Neuroscience and Behavior major Grace Seibert spent the summer at Luke House, a community meal program that provides noon-time and evening meals to the poor in Madison, Wisconsin. “I thought I’d leave my SSLP when I clocked out of the shelter at the end of the day, but I was surprised by the fact that I took it home with me every night. I ended up talking about it with my family at the dinner table, and with my friends when I went out with them.” Seibert perceived solidarity and connection with the people she served. “I saw how alike we all are. And I didn’t get this from doing a whole lot. I was surprised that doing good work doesn’t involve being busy. It involves listening, being present, not getting a big to do list done.” Seibert is studying in Puebla, Mexico this semester and she practices the mindset of presence there as well. “I would never have had the experiences I’ve had here in Mexico without the SSLP and how it taught me to be aware and present for this once in a lifetime opportunity.”

It wasn’t the people at his SSLP site that surprised Kevin Lee, a Neuroscience and Behavior major. Instead, as he puts it, “I was amazed by the Notre Dame alumni families who took me to dinner, invited me to events, hosted me in their homes. That’s a unique part of the SSLP that I’ve told my friends they can’t get with a regular internship.” Lee has applied to do a second SSLP this summer, and he looks forward to the ways he can give back by being present for others. “Before my SSLP started, I was nervous about living with families I didn’t know, but it turned out to be the best experience. They treated me with respect, as an equal, I was made part of a bigger thing, and I now know how to do that for others.”

Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., author of Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, emphasizes the importance of situating ourselves wholly in the present moment because it inspires personal growth and connection with others. “We need to find ways to practice dwelling in the present moment. We need to find ways to establish ourselves in the here and now. If your anchor is not centered in today, then you’ll blink and miss the delight of this very moment, which is always with us and is the perfect teacher.” An attitude of presence can bring about all kinds of gifts, notes Boyle. Not only does it create a better understanding of solidarity, of suffering, of a wider community, Boyle also believes it bridges the distance between direct service and structural change. “I have learned that it’s never about ‘saying’ very much at all, but rather, receiving, listening, and valuing people until they come out with their hands up--feeling, for the perhaps the first time, valuable. Receiving them and allowing yourself to be reached by them is all that’s asked of us. Wage peace by listening.”

When you listen to others and live in the moment, “you learn to love the person right in front of you,” says Holy Cross College senior Ruby Briones, who spent her summer at Andre House in Phoenix, Arizona. Andre House provides assistance to the chronically and transitionally homeless. “I was surprised by the moments when I realized I was actually witnessing some of the scripture verses I’ve read--it was happening right in front of me.” Briones remarked that her SSLP experience led to a greater understanding of suffering, and disabused her of a romanticized notion of kinship.

The SSLP students were not surprised by their ability to dwell in the present moment—they were surprised by what happened when they did that for eight immersive weeks. Briones sees the SSLP as a valuable opportunity to receive the gifts of living in the here and now. “I would tell everyone to do a SSLP in order to experience what’s missing in their lives, and to know what it is to be human.”

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