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2005-2006 Annual Report

Faith in Action
Meet Four Catholic Volunteers in Florida

Ellie Grzywa, a Catholic Volunteer in Florida, serves as the children’s program assistant at the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless in Jacksonville. She cheerfully greets the
children each day and plans activities for them in the new children’s center.

The first question is always “Why?”
Both family and friends want to know why anyone would put off starting a paying career and give up a year of his or her life to be a Catholic Volunteer in Florida. For four volunteers now serving in Jacksonville, the answers are as varied as the young people themselves.

Ellie Grzywa, an Illinois native and recent graduate with a bachelor’s in agricultural science, wanted to do volunteer service before beginning veterinary school, and get a little help with college expenses. Grace Pasden of Tampa had worked in the corporate world in Atlanta, a stint she recalls as mind numbing and pointless. Eager for more meaningful work that might bring her closer to home in Florida, she applied to be a Catholic Volunteer. Doug Baron from Tennessee admits that along with the desire to help others, he looked forward to catching some rays in the Sunshine State. As for Anna Steele of Washington State, she had always been interested in non-profit work but wanted to find a position among people with whom she could share her Catholic faith.

While Ellie, Grace, Doug and Anna each had his or her own reason for joining Catholic Volunteers, all have found their year filled with unexpected challenges and rewards.

Established in 1983, Catholic Volunteers in Florida invites people to turn faith into action by volunteering for one full year with non-profit organizations that serve the poor and marginalized. To facilitate their yearlong commitment, volunteers are given a monthly stipend and meal allowance, as well as housing and health insurance. They also qualify for the AmeriCorps Educational Award Voucher, which can be used to pay existing student loans or to further education.

“No one expects to get rich in volunteer service, except in those things in life that matter most. You do it because that part of your heart where Jesus lives, craves service,” says Catholic Volunteers Executive Director, Richard Galentino.

Catholic Volunteers strives to match volunteers’ skills and interests with the needs of the community. Having served as facilitator assistant for girls in the juvenile court system in her home state, Anna was placed with Family Foundations and helps at-risk elementary students at Westside Full Service Schools. Doug is working as a support specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Jacksonville matching “Bigs” and “Littles,” while Grace and Ellie are assigned to the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless in downtown Jacksonville.

Grace didn’t know what to expect, but readily admits that nothing could have prepared her for the pressures of her new position as case manager. Shelter is a basic human need, so to be homeless is to necessarily be in crisis.

“You’re meeting people at their most difficult point. The Sulzbacher Center is an amazing place but the drama here can be 24 hours a day. It’s exhausting both mentally and physically, ” says Grace.

Ellie’s job at the center, while just as demanding, has perhaps more immediate rewards - the laughter of children. As the children’s program assistant, she works to provide a stable and nurturing environment for the children and their families. She also plans and runs activities for the youth program at the homeless center.

“My favorite moment of the day is opening the door to let the kids into this beautiful new activities building. They practically tackle me with hugs. It means a lot to me to be able to give them as normal a childhood as possible,” says Ellie.

Anna uses her training as a behaviorist to help elementary students who are having a hard time making it in regular classrooms. Behavior modification doesn’t happen overnight and she has seen some of her students take as many steps backward as forward.

“One child who I thought was making good progress got caught smoking in the bathroom. So we started all over,” says Anna. “He has finally begun to do really well in school and instead of acting tough, he gives me hugs.”

Doug enjoys his job matching “Bigs” and “Littles.” He even has a “little brother” himself and that relationship has enriched his life.

“His face lights up every time he sees me,” says Doug, “and that’s just the best part of my week.”

Grace, Ellie, Doug and Anna live in community together, an arrangement that can be both a blessing and a challenge. Coming from different parts of the country, working different schedules in demanding jobs and living with strangers doesn’t always make for instant friendships, but the spiritual connection helps. “Just having people your own age to go to church with is a great thing,” laughs Grace.

Doug is not Catholic, but he has found himself drawn closer to the Bible, to his own church and to God during this year. Even homesickness can have its upside. “Instead of turning to family and old friends, I have to turn to God,” Anna says.

During their year of service, the volunteers attend retreats sponsored by the Catholic Volunteers of Florida. Ellie appreciates these retreats not only as a respite from her work, but as a time of discernment. “The retreats give me a chance to reflect of the deeper meaning and purpose of what I’m doing. In the beginning, it was also a chance to think about whether I’m cut out for this kind of work. Being able to share and pray really helps.”

The four volunteers are also sustained by their relationship with Catholic Volunteer Alumni Mary and Ron Zamora, who live in the area and have invited them for dinner and helped them deal with the challenges of social work. One of those challenges is balancing compassion for those in need with the realities of social work. Grace believes that working at the homeless center has made her stronger about drawing boundaries.

“Some of our guests have years of “street” knowledge to my few months. I try to see Christ in them, but I also don’t want to be manipulated.”

Grace is now more aware of the real sacrifices - financial and emotional - involved in social justice work. But perhaps, the biggest thing Grace and Ellie say they have learned is to never make assumptions about people.

“This experience has opened my eyes in so many ways. You never know,” Grace says, “The homeless look like us. Sometimes it’s the loss of a paycheck, an illness or even bad luck, but you really never know who is homeless or why. ”

“I’ve come away with a new appreciation for the circle of support from family and friends that I have in my life,” says Ellie. “And this year away from them has made me realize that the circle remains strong no matter how much distance there is.”

For Anna, as for the others, this volunteer year has been more difficult than she imagined. Yet it is a year that has deepened her desire to do social work and helped her realize that “Each child is a gift and there’s something special to see in all of them.”

As for Doug, he feels that his Catholic Volunteer experience has been a leap of faith - in the right direction. “Before I never dreamed of working with a non-profit organization. Now I can see myself working with kids and moving into a deeper relationship with God.”

Catholic Volunteers in Florida offers adults the opportunity to faithfully serve the poor and marginalized through non-profit organizations - to live the Gospel as they build their relationship with God. For more information,visit or call (407) 382-7071.