Above the doors at Marist are signs that read “Enter to learn Christ” and “Leave to serve Christ.” Nowhere is that dictate more lived than through the school’s Senior Service Outreach Program that places senior students at local organizations to provide daily service.
The program was started in the late 1970s by Br. Larry Lavalee, FMS and was inspired by the charism of the Marist Brothers’ founder, St. Marcellin Champagnat, and his commitment to the least favored. Today it is designed as a double-period course where seniors serve at places that focus on four main groups: people with intellectual disabilities, the elderly, grade school students, and hospital patients. Students enrolled in the class perform a variety of tasks, but with a focus on developing compassionate relationships. They also complete journals to reflect on their experience and faith development. It is an alternative fourth-year religion course to more traditional classroom courses.
David Daniels ’18 said he wanted to take the course because it was an opportunity to get off campus and put into action what he learned in his previous religion classes. Although initially nervous about working with senior citizens, Daniels came to enjoy his time and friendships at Smith Village in Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood, where he transports residents to the fitness center. “Working here has helped me be more loving and caring because I can see God in each of the residents each day as they are so caring for me,” Daniels explained. “Smith Village has definitely brought me closer to God by always seeing the good in people and knowing not to judge others.”
For classmate Mary McKenna, being assigned to Park Lawn in Oak Lawn gave her the opportunity to have hands-on experience working with people with special needs, which helped her decide to major in special education in college. McKenna helps clients as they work on tasks, gets to know them, and participates in mental strength activities and crafts. “I never thought any differently about people with intellectual disabilities, but after working at Park Lawn, I have a completely different perspective on them,” she said. “I have learned that they are the most delicate, loving, and accepting people in the world, and they continue to choose to be happy every single day.”
During the 2017-2018 school year 102 seniors were in the program. Religion teacher John Hyland and school chaplain Deacon Andy Neu ’78 visit sites daily to check in on seniors and see them in action. Neu said he gets to see students at their best, and sees them grow in maturity and gratitude. “Every day they face challenging situations in ministering to severely disabled individuals and those who need companionship,” Neu explained. “From the nursing homes to the grammar schools they are called upon to address loneliness, disappointment, learning disabilities, communication obstacles, behavior abnormalities, and our students succeed! Transformation occurs in them and in the well-being of the people they serve.”
Hyland agrees, adding that he has watched students initially be nervous in their assignment and doubtful about their decision to take the course grow to be comfortable and involved in their site placement.
Marist requires four years of courses in Religious Studies. Seniors may select from seven courses, including Senior Service and Peer Leadership courses.