“I know for many of you today, the highlight was missing my class,” jokes Mr. Mohan ’82 to a chapel full of juniors. “But when you leave this chapel today I want you to look for my picture in the hallway from the Class of 1982.
I had a great head of hair. I was thin. Wild-eyed.
The whole world was ahead of me. Much like you guys today.”
Also much like the Class of 2021, the 1982 graduate-turned-history teacher Mr. Mohan once dedicated time during his school day to a community organization.
“My service project was at a day care in Florissant Valley where I remember a little girl who wouldn’t talk to me. I thought she hated me.” Later when parents arrived, the girl’s mom told a young Mr. Matt, “You’re all she talks about.”
“I didn’t see it from her,” notes Mr. Mohan. “You may not know it, but trust this. You’re making a difference in their lives.”
A signature program of De Smet Jesuit, the junior year of service sends forth young men every Monday afternoon to volunteer in the community at approximately 80 dedicated organizations serving the disadvantaged, special education, health care, the elderly, and those with autism. Stemming from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that produced a renewal in the Catholic Church and increased awareness of social justice issues, the Society of Jesus later declared at its General Congregation 32 in 1974-1975 that Jesuit ministry worldwide would consider justice work an integral part of the promotion of faith.
This included the ministry at De Smet Jesuit, which developed its service program in response to these movements.
“How can we preach the gospel if we don’t simultaneously help people live better lives and reach out to the marginalized?” explained Fr. Schroeder ’00, S.J., as he set the historical context for the Class of 2021.
“This isn’t about your college application,” he adds. “Reconciliation with God demands reconciliation of people with one another. We integrate this into the academic year. We make this the centerpiece of your junior year.”
First Training Day Launched
When asked if they were nervous or felt unprepared, many students raised their hands. Thus, the reason behind the day’s training session. Mr. Hawkey ’96, Director of Junior Service Projects, worked with Fr. Schroeder, S.J., Chaplain; alumni faculty; and community professionals to design a training day that would better prepare students who are asked to serve outside their normal neighborhoods and their comfort zones. “We want to give you tools to help you with whatever you may encounter at your junior project sites,” Mr. Hawkey told the students.
“We talk a lot about being a man for others,” he said. “Here you guys are actually going to live it out.”
Juniors spent the first half of the training day in prayer and general sessions with alumni faculty including Fr. Schroeder, S.J., Mr. Mohan, and Principal Kevin Poelker ’98.
“No matter where you head for your junior project you have two opportunities,” said Mr. Poelker in his welcoming address. “The opportunity to serve and the opportunity to learn. In the end, this is about building relationships. You have the opportunity to praise, to reverence, and to serve God and the opportunity to learn something about yourself and how you serve the world.”
Students later met in small groups divided by their fields. Representatives from Visiting Nurses Association, Special School District Early Childhood, St. Louis Public Schools, giant Steps for Autism, and a Learning Consultant spoke to the students about what they could expect at their various sites and cautioned that they may see things that are awkward or upsetting. Students were encouraged to ask questions and were reminded that the regular staff are trained to handle the various situations.
Seniors also shared their experiences, answered questions, and gave advice.
“The most important thing is to be present,” said Ryan Moore ’20, who worked at an elementary school last year. “Connect with the kids.”
Brendon Sei ’20, who also talked to juniors designated to work in elementary schools, added “Find that kid who doesn’t have as many friends or who is dealing with anxiety, and you will become the highlight of their day. On days off they will miss you.”
Seniors who helped children with autism last year reminded juniors to be patient and have fun. “Take initiative,” said Deniko Smith ’20. “And challenge yourself.”
Into the Mission Field
After lunch students dispersed to their project sites for the first time to fill out paperwork, meet their supervisors, and introduce themselves. Next week the entire student body will pray over the Class of 2021 during the Missioning Mass, and juniors will then depart campus for their first full official afternoon at their project.
Back in the chapel Mr. Mohan wrapped up his testimonial with more lighthearted humor. “Just remember, what would the alternative be today?” he says with a smile. “You’d be here at school listening to me lecture.”
Joking aside, Mr. Mohan stresses, “Trust me when I say this. They notice. They see you. They hear you. That’s an indescribable feeling when you find out in fact that you are making an impact on someone’s life.”