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Many Catholic students fill 'gap year' with faith-based service

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A growing number of students have been taking a timeout from academics for a year to gain hands-on learning experience in the world outside the classroom.

Some call this a “gap year,” which may take place either before entering college or later. Often students will take a break after earning a bachelor’s degree, while discerning graduate school or next career steps.

The Catholic Volunteer Network has been promoting a year of service — specifically faith-based service — for more than 50 years, long before gap years became part of the college lexicon.

“A gap year is a time to explore the world around and within you and to get fired up about what’s really important to you,” says the not-for-profit Gap Year Association, which seeks to expand participants’ access to college credit and federal financial aid.

The appeal of gap years has created a booming industry of travel programs, books and resource guides, and gained more steam last year at the height of the pandemic, when many students decided they didn’t want to start their college experience tethered to Zoom. About 20 percent of incoming freshmen last year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., deferred enrollment because of the pandemic, said the university, which has endorsed the idea of gap years.

At the same time, a growing movement is working to shift the focus of gap years from personal enrichment to civic involvement and national service. The Service Year Alliance, formed in 2016, aims to make a year of paid, full-time service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.

The Catholic Volunteer Network has been promoting a year of service — specifically faith-based service — for more than 50 years, long before gap years became part of the college lexicon.

Founded in 1963 by a Catholic priest in New Jersey whose sister had spent a year doing volunteer work with a religious mission group, the network’s original vision was to create a “Church Peace Corps.” Today, it’s the leading membership organization for Christian volunteer and mission programs, said Yonce Shelton, executive director. About 70 percent of program volunteers are under age 25, and 90 percent identify as Catholic, he said.


‘NOT INTERNATIONAL TOURISM’

Many of the thousands of students who sign up to volunteer each year learned about faith-based service opportunities at college career fairs or a campus ministry; 58 percent of volunteers went to Catholic colleges. But students also often hear about the programs by word of mouth. “A priest, or mentor or somebody on campus has a good experience and tells people about it,” Shelton said.

Most of the programs in the network focus on attracting those 21 and up to work for a year or two after college, though some accept students under 21. Although some organizations send volunteers overseas, “this is not international tourism, and it’s not meant to be that,” Shelton said. “We provide visibility for the field of faith-based service to try to get the message out.”

A series of “Choose Service” videos on the network’s website show young people serving in a variety of settings, from education and health care to inner city social service, prison ministry, farming and environmental work. Many share their reflections on a blog on the site. 

A searchable database and newly updated printed directory, RESPONSE 2022, include volunteer opportunities with more than 100 organizations, from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest to The Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky and the Red Cloud Volunteer Program on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. About 85 to 90 percent of the programs are Catholic ministries, Shelton said. 

COMMUNITY AND SIMPLE LIVING

Most programs focus on the values of community, simple living, social and ecological justice, and spiritual reflection, Shelton said. Most also provide volunteers a small stipend, as well as room and board.

One program that’s part of the network is L’Arche USA, which has 18 communities nationwide where many young adult “assistants” live in family-style settings with adults with developmental disabilities, called “core members.” L’Arche has two homes in Arlington, which are part of L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C.

Yuko Gibson, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2014, used her two years working as an assistant in Arlington as a gap experience before starting medical school.

Gibson said her time with L'Arche was one of the most joyful and formative experiences in her life. “There was much less emphasis on what I was able to produce or do and much more emphasis on getting to be with people and just slow down,” she said. “Church was an important part of our weekly rhythm and one of my favorite parts of being at L'Arche was going to Mass with core members on Sundays,” she said. Several L’Arche community members attend Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington.

Shelton said COVID-19 brought many changes to the network’s member programs, but about 85 percent were able to pivot quickly during the pandemic to keep their programs running and continue to accept volunteers.

“Realizing how a global pandemic is shaping the very essence of who you are is hard. But discerning what these changes mean for your relationship with God and how you may feel called to respond is important,” Shelton said.

Find out more

Search Catholic Volunteer Network’s faith-based service opportunities or get a copy of the new RESPONSE 2022 directory at catholicvolunteernetwork.org/.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021