Courtesy JVC Northwest
Alex Benson, a Jesuit Volunteer, teaches at a mission in Hays, Montana. 

Courtesy JVC Northwest

Alex Benson, a Jesuit Volunteer, teaches at a mission in Hays, Montana. 

Maria Watson recalls sitting alone in meditation. Like college students often do, she was contemplating her future after graduation and whether or not to spend a year in service. 

As part of a retreat she was participating in, Jesuit priests instructed her and her fellow retreatants to sit with a pen and paper. Written at the top of the paper was, “What do I really want out of life?”

“You underline really because that’s really important,” says Watson with a laugh.

Then the retreatants wrote down everything that came to mind. After 20 minutes, Watson read what was written and repeated the process again.

“I discovered a lot of consistencies in my interests and my passions that were all in relation to Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest and doing a year of service,” says the 22-year-old.

Watson grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and graduated from Creighton University in Nebraska last August, at which time she began serving with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.

The Jesuit Volunteer movement began out of Alaska 60 years ago when Jesuit priests and women religious from the Sisters of St. Anne began recruiting young men and women to work in a local school for native Alaskan and European-descent children. Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest incorporated in the 1970s and inspired Jesuit Volunteer Corps programs throughout the country. 

“They are incredible, amazing young people who have decided to give a year or more of their life to work with others and to walk with others,” says Jeanne Haster, executive director for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.

In the current service year, which runs from August 2016 to July 2017, there are 148 volunteers. Of those volunteers, 142 are working as AmeriCorps volunteers. This lowers the cost for the partner agencies and allows volunteers to be eligible for an education award to put toward student loans or furthering education. Volunteers are not asked to raise money, but they are asked to commit themselves fully to the year and live out the four values of the program: spirituality, community, simple living and social and ecological justice. 

Watson’s job, referred to as a placement, is working for the transitions program through Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School. Here, she helps young adults with needs like tutoring, job applications and financial aid support.

As part of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, Watson lives with seven other housemates also serving with the program but in different placements. Like the rest of her housemates, Watson spends a typical work day serving in her placement position and eating dinner in community. Two housemates are responsible for making dinner each night.

“Our dinners turn into hours and hours of sitting around the table and laughing and telling stories to each other,” says Watson.

“It’s a priceless opportunity to be able to share an experience living in community with other people who share the same values of serving others and spreading love and being compassionate.”

Twice a week, the group spends a night taking advantage of the many documentary screenings, speeches and events that sweep through Portland. And once a week, the housemates have a spirituality night when they explore different kinds of reflections.

“We do like to reflect as a community — reflect and share,” says Watson.

Watson says that serving in Portland is exciting because there is such a strong Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest community and network of former alumni.

Barb Buckner Suárez and Roberto Suárez are just such alumni. The couple met during their mutual service year with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in 1992. They were married four years later and have never left Portland.

For Barb, the community aspect of the program has been everything.

“We found our tribe of our seven best friends,” she says.

They still go to St. Andrew Parish in Portland, where Roberto served the Hispanic community as part of his placement. The parish is also the spiritual home to many other alumni from the program.

While the community has been important, the social justice element of volunteering with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest resonated most with Roberto. His current career path in higher education is still driven by this passion.

“It’s a challenging year on many, many levels and yet what Jesuit volunteers find is that they need to find the resilience within themselves,” says Haster. “They find their strength. They find what they have, what they’re made of in this year. And they do it within a community.”