My time as a full-time volunteer here at Franciscan Outreach Association is almost over-my year ends June 30. I’ve become a more compassionate person, learned the ins and outs of human nature, and see the effects poverty has on people day after day of living in it. But the most important source of my personal development here has come through living in intentional community.
On June 1-2, this year’s community went on a retreat to Plano, IL, to reflect on the relationships we have built through communal living. We stayed at LaSalle Manor, a beautiful and well-kept retreat center with a lake, trail, log cabin, swimming pool, and friendly staff. The peaceful atmosphere made it the perfect place to be alone with our thoughts and each other.
Over the course of those two days, we talked about the memories from this year that we wanted to stay with us. We had a lot of free time to explore the grounds and soak up the sun. We ate meals comprised of neither USDA-issued food nor donations of expired dairy! We spent some time writing about our work with guests.
But the most enriching parts of the retreat were the times we shared our favorite community experiences.
We brought objects that reminded us of our year here. One person brought the enormous steel bowl he eats cereal out of every morning, like Peter Bretter in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Another volunteer brought one of the milk crates that we use here for all manner of furniture. I brought a quirky note that another community member had slipped under my door asking if I wanted to go to a dance club.
We also talked about our favorite memories from this year, where we thought everyone would be in five years, who would be arrested in five years, etc. It’s easy to forget how many good memories we all share. A lot of those memories were of unexpected events, good things we thought wouldn’t happen to us. Many were also events that were sour when they happened but comedic in retrospect.
Our last activity was “personal affirmations”- we went around in a circle and said what our favorite personality traits were of every volunteer in the community.
I hadn’t realized before joining this community how important other people are in defining what you do and who you are, and in fact, what a good thing that is. Other people’s expectations and understanding of you are as important in shaping your actions and thoughts about yourself as your own impressions of who you are. And if you’re only paying attention to the impressions you’ve made of yourself, all your actions are supported only by your ego. But when you let other people be your mirror, you’re lending importance to people outside yourself. You’re learning how you can reach out more often and effectively-skills you need when helping people.
I can’t begin to explain how much this community has meant to me. Upon arriving here, I had been shy all my life. I would skip events I desperately wanted to attend because I didn’t know anyone or convinced myself people wouldn’t want to talk to me. And yet, when I moved here, I liked and got along with everyone. We would hang out on the fire escape for hours, cook food, and go out together. And while after an entire year, I often feel like I know my roommates too well, reflecting at the retreat reminded me why living in community has been the best experience of my life: Committing to other people always yields returns greater than what you could have gotten by yourself.
That lesson, as much as the shared memories, is what I’m most glad to be taking away from my volunteer year at FOA.
Click here to see pictures of the 2010-11 Volunteer Community, including more retreat pictures!