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The Top 5 Things I’ve Learned from My Service Year So Far

1. I Can Conquer Rush-Hour Traffic

The first day I drove home from work, it was a good thing no one else was in the car. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic, I was fuming that it took me 30 minutes to drive the mere 4.1 miles from my placement site to our MVC house. As a small-town girl from rural Michigan, if I said I was 30 minutes away from somewhere, I meant that I was 30 miles from that place, too. Not so in Pittsburgh.

However, after adjusting to the initial shock of my new commute, I have grown to find out that my drive home is the perfect time for me to unwind from work. I now hold a personal karaoke and dance competition in my car every day, which allows me to relax and just maybe puts a smile on another driver’s face in the process.

2. Hanging with Sisters is Really Fun

MVC orientation was the first time in my life that I have ever interacted with religious Sisters. I grew up hearing stories from my aunts and uncles who had attended Catholic School that made their teachers (who were Sisters) seem stern and unapproachable. After two short months of being surrounded by these amazing women, I have found them to be anything but. The Sisters of Mercy always guarantee a good laugh, a warm smile, and a genuine gratitude for all. Despite having accomplished countless works of Mercy themselves, the Sisters always make it seem as if the work we do at our service sites is the most phenomenal thing they have heard. Their generosity is boundless, and they enfold all they come across with a love that fills your spirit. I wonder at the countless role models I have in the Sisters, and find that just sharing time with them leaves me feeling inspired and at peace.

3. Unexpected Lessons in Life Skills

At my service site, we help newly arrived refugees begin their life in the United States. That means finding affordable and adequate housing, sitting in many government offices, and waiting for the bus…a lot. The learning curve has been large and at times feels never-ending. For example, just as I’m figuring out what it takes to rent an apartment, I turn around and have to explain a 13-page lease via an interpreter to a client who is even more unfamiliar with the U.S. housing market than I am. Thank goodness for Google and compassionate family members who take my inquiring calls at all hours of the day when I am looking for advice.

4. No One Will Ever Follow the Perfect Plan Perfectly

Something I’ve learned to expect and accept from my service so far is that nothing will ever go according to plan. And you know what? That’s ok. Working in refugee reception and placement has shown me that no matter how much you plan or how prepared you think you are, something will end up changing. Your plan will be edited, altered, or completely thrown out the window, and you just have to think on your feet and act with as much grace as you can muster. I have learned little safeguards along the way, such as always carrying $2.75 (the cost of a bus ride in Pittsburgh) in cash in case a client or I run out of fare on our transit cards. Yet even more importantly I’ve learned that taking a deep breath, sending up a prayer for patience, and seeing every day as an adventure allows me to be calm even amid an unpredictable whirlwind. (But seriously, take the $2.75, too.)

5. The Definition of Service is Slippery

Over the last couple of months, I have discovered some expectations for my service year that I didn’t even know I had – things that I had hoped for about Pittsburgh, my spirituality, my service site, etc. that I hadn’t been able to voice prior to arrival. One of the most challenging realizations for me has been questioning what exactly being a volunteer means. I boldly thought I understood the term perfectly, as service has long been a part of my life. However, I have recently been discouraged because at times I feel more like a volunteer while walking dogs at the local animal shelter once a week than I do at my service site every day. People always enthusiastically comment on how fulfilling and rewarding my work must be, but I find myself feeling quite empty at times. Through reflection and guidance from the two wonderful women I am lucky enough to call my community, I am exploring the term “service” more, and the different ways that it can be lived out. The answer, well, I’m not fully there yet, but the journey of finding it has already deepened this meaningful year.

Alyson Barra: Pittsburgh, PA

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