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Baltimore Living

The Real Real World

Living And Working Together Isn't Utopia For Area Volunteers

Frank Klein
Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Francesca Anelli

By Kate Leventhal | Posted 9/20/2006

When tragedy struck, community took on a new meaning for Michael Amabile. He and four complete strangers all moved to a house on Guilford Avenue in Charles Village in August of 1999. They were volunteers for Jesuit Volunteer Corps: East, an organization that places individuals in service jobs in more than a dozen East Coast cities. The jobs can include teaching, prison outreach, HIV/AIDS services, shelter work, and community organizing. The volunteers don't just live together-they are expected to follow the four tenets of Jesuit Volunteer Corps: social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality.

Amabile worked at Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, and his house mates worked at places like Chase Brexton Health Services and St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. Most Jesuit volunteers are recent college graduates, but Amabile's roommate Clare Furay was somewhat nontraditional, coming to the program after serving four years in the Navy post-college.

Furay was a vivacious, attractive woman from St. Louis who wanted to dedicate a year to working with the poor while she considered applying to law school. The volunteers had barely lived in their house for two months when they had to go to a Jesuit Volunteer Corps retreat in Buckeystown, in Frederick County.

The retreat was to begin later in the day on a Friday afternoon in October so that the volunteers from far away communities such as Portland, Maine, and Raleigh, N.C., would have ample time to get there. Since the Baltimore group had only a short distance to drive and their agencies gave them the day off for the retreat, Furay decided to go for a run that morning, leaving her keys and wallet at home.

Around 11 a.m., Amabile says, they started to wonder what was taking her so long. By 1 p.m. the group started to worry and split up to search for her. Amabile walked over to Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, because he knew Furay liked to go to the library there to check her e-mail or read, but couldn't find her. When he exited the library, Amabile came across a security guard and asked if he had seen anyone that looked like Furay. "I asked one of the security guards-I don't know why," Amabile says. "He said, `Oh God, yeah. We've been looking for you. We have a Jane Doe woman who has been in a car accident this morning and we haven't been able to identify her.'"

The security guard took Amabile back to the house on Guilford Avenue, picked up his roommates, and drove the group down to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. There, four people who had been perfect strangers to each other eight weeks earlier had to identify Furay, who had been hit by a car on the corner of 33rd and Charles streets and was brain-dead.

In the fluster of time between arriving home and going to the hospital, Amabile ran into two of his neighbors-one who said he was a former Jesuit volunteer. The neighbors asked what was happening and if they could help, and when Amabile told them, they dropped everything and waited at the volunteer house to take phone calls.

Margaret Walsh, another former Jesuit volunteer in Charles Village, and several Jesuit priests met the group at the hospital and waited by Furay's bedside. Vinnie Quayle, the executive director of St. Ambrose-where Furay worked-met Furay's parents at the hospital and stood with them while they made the decision to donate her organs when her life support was removed.

"We saw volunteers by her bedside who no more than two months prior were total strangers to us," Amabile says. The difference between living in a community and living with a group of strangers who meet via web sites like Craigslist, he says, " is when the shit really hits the fan, who knows if they would be there for each other in the same way? I was obliged to be there, but it was more about the commitment to the community and the program."

Though Furay's death is a heartrending example of what can happen when one lives in an "intentional community," dozens of young people descend upon Baltimore every August with similar plans-to live with a group of people dedicated to serving the poor. As a city inflicted with widespread poverty, health, and social justice issues, Baltimore is a common placement for many volunteer corps. Some are government-sponsored programs such as Teach for America or Americorps, but many are religious. The faith-based programs may each have different expectations for their volunteers' yearlong stays, but a common thread among them all is living in community with others, exploring faith and spirituality, and working with the needy.

Most of the volunteers come from white, middle-class backgrounds and are thrust into hard-core urban blight, living among their clients in poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods. The Capuchin Franciscan volunteers, for example, live in a converted rectory on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore, a block from where David Simon's book The Corner is set.

Dennis Klemash directs the Capuchin volunteer programs in Baltimore and Washington and says that most of the volunteers who join are "zealous heroes-they come to make a difference." The neighborhood is rough, he says, but the Capuchin corps never has a problem filling its Baltimore slots. "It's sometimes so daunting, it's a rush," Klemash says.

"I was prepared to live in Baltimore City and to live a lifestyle that is not the same extent as the Capuchin friars but is similar to their spirit," says Francesca Anelli, who has been a Capuchin Volunteer since the beginning of August. Anelli says volunteers have to "re-gauge" their thinking, and the more time they spend in their neighborhood, the more comfortable the volunteers feel because they connect with more people. "Sometimes our fear of the unknown makes us uncomfortable," she says. "But you have to stretch yourself in a new place so you can separate what is rational fear from what is fear of difference and the unknown."

The Capuchin Friars encourage the volunteers from the start of their service to shop and attend mass in the neighborhood, and to see how people live in an honest, face-to-face way. "These guys are going to grow up to make decisions that will affect the poor," Klemash says. "We want them to meet the poor." The majority of Baltimore's faith-based volunteer programs are Catholic, a phenomenon that grew out of dwindling numbers of vocations-fewer priests, nuns, and brothers. "Religious orders had to find out what's the new approach?" Klemash says.

The answer was to partner with young people for shorter periods of time. "They can't give lifetime commitments, but they can give a year," he says.

St. Ambrose Housing Aid has had a Jesuit volunteer working for them for about 26 years and a Lutheran volunteer for about 10 to 15 years, Vinnie Quayle says. "They're cheap labor," he jokes. "They're young and they have energy."

The volunteers at St. Ambrose traditionally work for the organization's homeownership program, helping low-income families who are trying to buy a home or whose homes are threatened by foreclosure. They have their work cut out for them, Quayle says, as many of their clients are single moms who are victims of predatory lenders.

St. Ambrose has to pay around $10,000 a year per volunteer, which covers his or her rent, food, health care, bus fare, and spending money, which ranges from $85 to $100 a month. "We also make sure they're fed on occasion and have a couple of beers once in awhile," Quayle says. Volunteers at St. Ambrose don't live in complete hardship-they are given access to the organization's vacation home on Delaware's Fenwick Island at least once a year.

Having a volunteer means a lot to the clients and the staff, Quayle says. "I think there's something innately attractive about a young, dynamic, enthusiastic person who's just been out of college a year or two. How can you not be in awe of someone who gave a year to a volunteer corps?"

Emily Franzwa finished her year with Lutheran Volunteer Corps in mid-August of this year. Originally from New York state, she is staying in Baltimore to work full-time at the agency where she volunteered, the Don Miller House, an assisted living facility for adults with end-stage AIDS in North Baltimore.

Franzwa says she chose to do service work after college "because it was a good time in my life to do it, because I have no obligations to anyone, no money, property, or ties." While not Lutheran, she chose the religious organization partly because of its emphasis on community.

But community had its ups and downs. Franzwa's house was located on Harwood Avenue in Govans, and the Lutheran volunteers had mandatory community nights, most of which were spent at home. "We mostly played a lot of games-because, of course, we had no money," she laughs. The nice part about it was living with other people who did service work, she says. While she provided direct care for adults with AIDS, she says, it was interesting to have a neighboring volunteer who worked at Project PLASE, an organization that advocates for the homeless. But Franzwa acknowledges that she and her house mates didn't always get along. She even kept a written list of their "Real World" moments. One of their house "crises," she says, involved whether or not a person who made plans for the night should involve the whole community, because that's what the year was about. Some of her roommates advocated for the year to focus on authenticity, she says. "So someone would say, `I don't like so and so, so I don't want them to come.' . . . That's authenticity."

Franzwa laughs at the incident, but she also notes that the service year is about establishing boundaries as well as building relationships. She compares her volunteer year to living with family-there will always be a certain unsaid bond and everyone will ultimately advocate for each other, but they're not always best friends. "If you're going to be locked up in a room with your brother, you're probably going to get a long," she says. "But otherwise, you're not going to call him up and invite him to the movies every night."

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