This past weekend I had the opportunity to experience Mercy Volunteer Corps Transition Retreat for the first time. As a staff member, I assumed going into the weekend that I would be focused on logistics. The days leading up to the retreat were filled with tasks: food shopping for snacks, printing photos and banners, and even laying out clean linens on each volunteer’s bed. I felt useful and a sense of accomplishment as I watched our task list dwindle.
As those next 24 hours unfolded and I saw many of the volunteers for the first time since Orientation in August, I felt the energy in their smiles, in their laughter, and in their warm presence. I was eager to hear about their stories and adventures but it wasn’t until the retreat began that I realized the depth of their experience.
As I listened to their stories this weekend and watched as they remembered their year of service with both laughter and tears, I could see the change within each of them. Each had beautiful memories of their experiences. They told me about how they spent weeks trying to get just one man suffering from homelessness off the streets of Philadelphia and the indescribable joy they felt as they watched him start to move into a life of happiness and success. They told me about the success of starting a new street clinic that offers mammograms to women without medical insurance living in Savannah. They told me about their time attending rallies, marches, and advocacy days and how these experiences connected them with communities that shared their passions. The volunteers shared their stories from Navajo Reservations to major metropolitan cities, and just as each of the volunteers had beautiful memories of their experiences, equally they had frustrations.
They spoke about the frustration of the process and procedures someone suffering from homelessness has to endure. They spoke about the ignorance in denying someone medical care. They spoke about cultural insensitivity, social injustices, and failing systems. This is when I remembered something from my own experiences: volunteering is hard.
As I continued to watch and listen those next few days, I started to realize how incredibly resilient Mercy Volunteers are throughout their year of service. These stories, both beautiful and frustrating, did not dishearten them. They did not pack their bags and leave or ignore those in need of service. They stayed and they served. With every frustration and enraged voice, I saw a fire within them. These Mercy Volunteers use everything they have witnessed this year to create change. They have brought passion and light to some of the darkest places in our society.
While I went into this weekend eager to help guide them through this transition, I realized that they too have caused a transition in me. They helped remind me of the importance of change. This group of Mercy Volunteers, like so many before them, really will transform the world. They are so much more than volunteers. They are advocates, justice seekers, and crusaders for people who live on the margins of our society, and I feel both blessed and privileged to have shared a piece of their journey.
Elizabeth MacNeal, Communications Specialist for Mercy Volunteer Corps