September 4, 2009

Be Our Guest / Gretchen Sneegas

Did Jesus volunteer at a soup kitchen? Why we should all give back in life

Being a good Catholic means more than just going to Mass once a week. My parents made sure I learned this lesson, and learned it well.

I was treated to a metaphorical buffet of volunteer work growing up. I could take my pick of anti-tobacco advocacy, tutoring elementary school students, trick-or-treating for UNICEF or helping out with my high school’s performing arts boosters. Not participating was simply not an option.

Shortly after graduating from college in May 2008, I made the decision to postpone applying for graduate school. Instead, I decided that I wanted to devote at least two years of my life doing community service. I knew that I would never have another chance to make this commitment.

I started by applying to Americorps National Civilian Community Corps or NCCC for short.

NCCC is a community service program for 18- to 24-year-olds. In return for 10 months of service, you get room and board, health insurance, a living stipend and an education award of nearly $5,000.

With a team of your peers, led by a team leader, you complete six to eight week-long projects in your region. These projects cover a broad spectrum, ranging from educational to environmental, from construction to disaster relief.

I am now halfway done with my Corps year. In that time, I have done things that I will never have the chance to do again.

I have rebuilt homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, salvaged flooded houses, demolished vacant buildings and played with dozens of children. My work has taken me from urban Baltimore to laid-back Georgia, from the mountains of West Virginia to the beaches of Mississippi.

And, of course, I have learned a variety of new skills. I can now use a hammer, sand, and mud and spackle with the best of them.

After mentoring at-risk youth in a Boys and Girls Club, my ingenuity has grown by leaps and bounds. Living in close quarters with my team of eight people has developed my tolerance, patience and flexibility. My upper arm strength has increased exponentially. Also, I can now say I have thrown a toilet down a flight of stairs. Who else can make that claim?

In all seriousness, however, I have learned a great deal in the last six months about myself, about people in general and about this fantastic country that I live in.

But more than being a learning experience, I consider it a living experience. It’s an experience in starting each day anew, in accepting change with an open mind and an open heart.

That, I think, is what the spirit of volunteerism is all about. And no, you don’t have to be a 22-year-old recent college graduate to partake.

There are volunteer opportunities wherever you look. Americorps hosts a variety of programs. Some, like NCCC, are geared toward a younger crowd.

Senior Corps, on the other hand, is for those age 55 and older who want to give back to their community. You can research Americorps online at

You can also research local volunteer opportunities in your community through United We Serve at

(Gretchen Sneegas is a member of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis. She is also a member of Americorps NCCC, Class XV. Anyone interested in learning more about NCCC can log on to

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