Monday, December 21, 2015

Open These Doors

Current Dominican Volunteer Alandra Scott ministers with the Dominican Leadership Conference at the United Nations in NYC.
The Benincasa lay intentional community
         In the Benincasa Community we focus on all four pillars, but study has been particularly important for the community during this season of Advent. We were discussing study and how to frame social justice actions around the fruits of our contemplation and study. We ended up concentrating on a very hard to ignore injustice happening in New York City: the evident number of people who are experiencing homelessness.

As we began running the Blessed Sacrament Parish soup kitchen, studied and discussed, we felt called to action. We learned that the Archdiocese of New York is one of the largest landowners in Manhattan. With the amount of vacant space in the city there is enough shelter for all those who go without. I was surprised to find this out. In addition the archdiocese closed 40 parishes on August 3rd, 2015 just before Julie and I moved into the house. This was the archdiocese’s second round of church closings.

We looked into what parishes had been closed, why they were closed and what the diocese was doing with empty churches and convents. We found they were selling many of the properties for profit. Some space had already been sold to NYU, to transforming a homeless shelter into an arts and acting center, and into luxurious condominiums in Nolita. Pope Francis expects the Church to use its properties to serve the poor. He states; “Empty convents and monasteries should not be turned into hotels by the church to earn money… [The buildings] are not ours, they are the flesh of Christ, which is what refugees are.”

After learning all of this and spending time planning, we decided this was the direction to take for the first action. We invited others we thought would have interest and began brainstorming. We decided to call the action “Open These Doors,” and it coincidentally coincides with the Jubilee Year of Mercy when the Holy Father will open the Door of Mercy (the Holy Door in the Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican). The Door of Mercy will be left open for the duration of the Holy Year.

We found a list of the closed churches from the NY Archdiocesan website and created posters which read “Open These Doors for Refuge” with a QR Code that sends users directly to the website we created! We went to each closed church, put a sign on the door and took pictures of it. The action is mainly a social media campaign meant to draw awareness to the facts we had come to be cognizant of surrounding homelessness. We run a twitter feed, instagram and the website. On the website are facts about homelessness in New York City and a letter addressed to Cardinal Dolan alerting him to our action and a call for justice.

Photo from
On all social media facets we put up three pictures daily throughout Advent. First, we post the door with the address; second, a quote; third, a question or a call to action. The action concurs seamlessly with Advent, so was dubbed “an Advent action insisting that the church open all its vacant spaces for refuge.”

It has been and continues to be exciting to bring our study to life in a way that can hold large systems accountable to justice. As a community, we are continuing to transform our study into the New Year!

Follow the Advent “Open These Doors” action at

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nicole's Light

Grace Urankar (left) is a second-year Dominican Volunteer serving in San Francisco.
Any Dominican Volunteer will tell you that ministry is not easy. As our mission statement dictates, a DV “searches for new frontiers for the faith.” We are asked to bring the light of Christ to the darkened corners of our world. Completing this mission in ministry placements while living in intentional community demands a form of relationship that is both deeply fulfilling and exhausting. It is something both awful and beautiful that few people experience in this lifetime.
In the quotidian routine, ministry can be very frustrating. It’s frustrating to feel like the people you serve are doing the best they can, and you are giving so much of yourself, but no one is “making progress” or “moving forward.” In my ministry last year, I saw many students work hard all semester only to remain on academic probation after a bad exam. I saw my students, despite being engaged in class, repeatedly neglect to do their homework. Most of all, I saw myself drag along as a first-year teacher, often in a panic about what the next day would hold. But in many ways, these frustrations are only setbacks; they are opportunities to remain hopeful and shine light. They are not the ache of true disappointment.
My first disappointment in ministry happened in January. Several of my students were absent from school for two days in a row. For some, this comes to be expected behavior, but for Nicole, it was not. I looked forward to seeing her in class again; I thought of her routine disorganization but otherwise friendly presence. The following week, I found out that Nicole’s parents were in a custody battle. Although her mom wanted her to stay at our school, her dad enrolled her in a school near his home, some 20 miles from ours. The previous Friday was recorded as her last day of school. I never knew she was leaving, and I never got to say goodbye.
Nicole was not the best or brightest student in my class. She often lost both her homework and her focus; her tests made me wonder if she heard anything at all in class. But Nicole might have had the biggest heart of anyone I knew. She never got angry or displaced her frustration on me, as many students did; I was even more impressed by this after learning about her challenges at home.
Nicole’s ability to love was shown to me distinctly only a few weeks before her departure, when we had a transfer student join our class after the Christmas break. Our new student, Camila, was cold, closed off, and adamant about not participating -- understandable defenses to a new environment. But Nicole brought her out of that, shining the light of Christ in the darkness, offering hope and love to Camila by offering to work together with her at the board. When I checked in on them later, Camila was writing, talking, and laughing. Thanks to Nicole, Camila finally became engaged relationally and a member of our class.
I wondered what Nicole would need to survive at her new school, and if anyone would reach out to her in the same way that she reached out to Camila. I prayed that she wouldn’t lose her spirit or her will to succeed. Most of all, I hoped that despite the difficult changes in her life, she would continue to shine her light.
In mid-September, Nicole stayed behind after class. After a few pestering questions from me, she broke down in tears, saying that our school was too hard for her and she couldn’t keep up. I talked her down, offering some solace, and tried to illustrate that our entire staff was on her side. I remember that moment as my first real experience of ministry at my placement. Nicole showed me what it meant to be vulnerable and to share in relationship. She made me realize that I have the capacity to bring hope to the hopeless and preach the good news of Christ in the smallest ways each day. I was able to shine some light into her life, but, if anything, I must thank Nicole for allowing me to witness to her.
To lose Nicole was heartbreaking, and one of my first lessons of love in ministry. I think of Nicole once in awhile, and her memory is tinged with the sting of never telling her how much she meant to me. This Christmas, I offer prayers for her and her family, so like the newborn Jesus, her light may shine to the world in the same way it shined in mine.
It is so easy for us to lose focus, to forget what really matters. It’s tempting to turn inward rather than continuing to reach out to others. Nicole did this so beautifully, and I hope I can honor her by doing the same. This Christmas, may we each share the light of Christ through our kindness, our hope, and our love.
Merry Christmas, and let your light shine!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Resurrecting the Blog!

Here we go! We are going to resurrect the blog! It was dormant for a little time there due to transitions within the organization. But now it's back! Please stay tuned as there will be new posts coming soon from wonderful current Dominican Volunteers.

Happy Advent to you and yours from Dominican Volunteers USA!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Alumni Spotlight: Jessica John

  We are excited to introduce you an interview with the chair of our annual auction committee and a Dominican Volunteer alumni Jessica John. Jessica served as a volunteer at St Pius V school in Pilsen as a Physical education teacher and reading specialist. Currently, she works at the University of Chicago Medicine as a Benefits and Wellness Specialist.

What were some of the unexpected hurdles and benefits of your volunteer experience with DV USA?

Becoming a Dominican volunteer was an experience that helped to shape the last 12 years of my life. I really thought I was coming to Chicago for a year and then I would go back to Las Vegas (where I grew up) and figure out what to do with the rest of my life. But that year changed all that! During my DV year I learned more about my Catholic faith than I had learned during all of my years of attending CCD classes.  I learned how to be a housemate, a neighbor, and a fellow human on this journey to understand our place in the world. I was taught about the Catholic social teaching, because the sisters I lived with were living them day in a day out (without trying!). I made friends who I consider my soul companions, helping me to find God and understand God more and more each day. I learned about heartache, about love, about compassion and about really hard truths. I learned that life is not fair, but it is still worth living, and that when we pay attention...God works...sometimes in really weird ways, but God is there.

What motivates you to be the chairman of the fundraising committee of DV USA?

Because I had such an important experience with DVUSA, I wanted to make sure my kids were going to have the same opportunities to volunteer (someday). Becoming a co-chair in 2010 was fun. Brenda Butler and I were excited to show off our party planning skills. We had a great celebration (and earned a little money too!) The next year was Mike Chapuron's first year as the ED and he was an amazing leader and persuasive! Year after year, I just kept doing it and became better and better at it. Don't think for one minute that I did it alone, though. I had amazing, dedicated committee members who worked their butts off to make these auctions successful.

 Since you are a wellness specialist, what’s in your playlist during workouts?

This is a great question! I only listen to music when I'm on the treadmill or elliptical - so I usually need a lot of motivation to keep going. My playlist has songs from Beastie Boys, Eminem, LMFO, Mumford and Sons, Shakira, and I usually finish up with Stevie Nicks.

What makes you really happy?

Well, here is a short list of the things that make me really happy:

Making the first footprints in the snow after a heavy snow fall, summertime baseball games, long bike rides to new coffee shops, deep conversations about God and God at work in our lives. Seeing people do something they didn't think they could do, and seeing how proud they feel, and flirting with bartenders. These are just a few of my favorite things.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Meet A Dominican Volunteer- Shani Toor

Shani Toor ministers with Siena House in the Bronx. She builds community with the women and their babies who are living at the shelter. She shares community in the Bronx Lay Community. As her volunteer year comes to end, she answered our questions about her year in Dominican Volunteers program.

Why did you decide to become a Dominican Volunteer?
I loved the fact that I would be serving a grossly under served population. I have always wanted to work with mothers and babies so it seemed that dedicating a year of service with DVUSA would give me that opportunity as well as the structure and security of community living.
What was the most surprising thing during your volunteer time?
The most surprising thing for me during my volunteer time was how much I fell in love with the women and children I work with. They bring me so much joy, As I am writing this response I find myself fighting back tears by the thought of leaving them but they will forever be in my heart and I will always remember them.
What was the one thing you wish you could change?
Community life was very difficult for me in the beginning because I didn't fully understand it but now that it is so close to the end I am really enjoying the time that I spend within community.
What was the most important lesson you learned in your volunteer time with DV?
I have learned to accept all things in the form that they come to you because although it may not come in the way you want it to, every lesson is important.
Do you have any special moments you would like to share with us?
Recently, this year my mother was diagnosed with a Glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of brain cancer. It is by far the most devastating news that I have ever received but this program and all of its affiliates have been so unbelievably supportive throughout the whole process. I have felt loved.
How this year changed you?
I am sure it has but I wont know in what ways until I leave NYC and get a chance to look at this year through from an aerial prospective.
 What would you say to volunteers of 2015-16?
Enjoy yourself and go with what is in your heart

Monday, July 13, 2015

Meet A Dominican Volunteer-David Gayes

David Gayes currently serves as an English Language teacher at the Tolton Center in Chicago. He also serves at Casa Juan Diego, an after school program. At the end of his first year of service as a Dominican Volunteer we asked him to share with us his experience with the program.

Why did you decide to become a Dominican Volunteer?
I attended Dominican University in River Forest Illinois. My major was in Spanish Studies and my two miners were Theology and Social Justice & Civic Engagement. At my university, I was shaped by the importance of service, social justice, and the Dominican way of life. I knew I wanted to put them into practice and serve my community. Dominican Volunteers USA offered a way to do that and a way to grow.
What was the most surprising thing during your volunteer time?
When I came to my ministry to teach English as a second language With the Tolton Center in Chicago I didn't know what to expect. The people that surprised me most were my students. I was surprised at how welcoming they were to me as a new teacher. I was moved by their willingness to share their powerful and profound life experiences. And I was impressed by their strong desire to learn and embrace United States culture. 
One story illustrates my students’ generosity. After teaching for only a few weeks, one of my students gave me an apple, a symbol for a teacher. I was moved by this simple gesture of love, and appreciation from my students.
What was the one thing you wish you could change?
 As an English as a Second Language teaching assistant, I serve many immigrants and people who are undocumented. Through their stories and experiences, I receive a firsthand look of the injustices of the United States immigration system, as well as the many obstacles my students must overcome. I wish that I could do more to fix this unjust and broken system. I remind myself that teaching English is a needed service that makes a substantial difference in in the lives of my students.
How this year changed you?
 One year into the program, I now have a better understanding of struggles people go through in learning English and American culture. I have cultivated long-lasting relationships and friendships with people different than myself both in my community, and in my ministry. I have learned so much from Sister Beth Murphy, and Sister Martha Marie Kirbach, two sisters who dedicate their lives to serving others.
 What would you say to volunteers of 2015-16?
I would say keep an open mind. You are embarking on a life-changing journey in your community and your ministry. Be open to wherever that journey may lead you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Food for Thought

Rebecca Morgenstern ministers with Dominican Sisters Family Health Services as a traveling nurse throughout the Bronx and Manhattan. She shares community in the Bronx Lay Community.

Rebecca (second from left) shares community 
with Shani Toor, Jimmy Hannigan, and Kelly Litt.

Almost every time I make a home visit to one of my patients, something that I discuss with them, or educate them on, is a healthy diet. The vast majority of my patients are on a special diet, such as a “low sodium diet” or a “Diabetic diet.” Sometimes the specific prescribed diet is a result of a health condition that already exists, and sometimes it is to prevent the individual from developing a health condition once warning signs are present. Even if a patient is on a regular diet, discussing a healthy and balanced diet is part of my plan of care for each individual.

Recently, I was discussing diet with a particular patient of mine in the Bronx whom I will call Beth. Beth is diagnosed with many diseases such as morbid obesity, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, and hypercholesterolemia, or high cholesterol.  Ideally, Beth should be very conscious of the amount of sugar, fat, cholesterol, and salt that she eats.

Knowing that Beth’s diet largely consists of snacks or junk food, I asked Beth what her favorite snacks are.

“I like cookies. I eat them a lot. Also…I eat a lot of potato chips and popcorn,” she said.

“What kind of popcorn do you eat, Beth?” I asked.       

Beth replied, “I like the Movie Theater Butter popcorn that I make in the microwave.”

I said, “Okay. Remember, we’re going to start by making small changes in the food you eat, Beth. Would you be willing to eat the ‘Light’ or ‘97% Fat Free’ popcorn?”

“Yes, but they don’t sell that in the store here,” Beth said with a disappointed look on her face.

“How about rice cakes, Beth, can you buy some of those next time you go grocery shopping? Those are a tasty snack and they’re a lot healthier than potato chips.”

“Nope,” Beth said, “They don’t have those either.”

This conversation is just a glimpse into a situation that I frequently encounter in my ministry. 

Rebecca prepares to care for clients in their homes.

Think about food. Food is universal. Food is a reflection of our cultural and familial traditions. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation and bring comfort to us. Food is used in celebrations and is offered as a gift to those we love and care about. Eating certain foods can change our mood and can resurface memories that were formed long ago.

Food is powerful. Think about how the economy, politics, and many wars have revolved around food or crops. Food not only drives the world in many ways, but it drives our bodies. Food nourishes us and provides the fuel we need to live our day to day lives. Many say that food also nourishes our minds and spirits. I am constantly amazed by the effect that food has on one’s health. A few examples of some of the diseases that are directly related to a poor diet include obesity, hypertension, and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.

My heart hurt when Beth told me that she was unable to buy certain foods that are usually common, at least in other parts of the country. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to get my patients to be willing to change their diet at all. Beth was now at a point in her life in which she was starting to understand the impact that her poor diet was having on her health and told me that she wanted to start making some small changes in her diet. My heart hurt not only because Beth is unable to purchase these healthier snacks, but because I know that if she lived elsewhere she would easily be able to.

Granted, Beth does have access to some sort of grocery store and a variety of foods, which makes her more fortunate than many individuals in the world. The Bronx has an abundance of convenience stores that mostly sell unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks. There are very small grocery stores around the Bronx that have small sections of out of season and often overly ripened produce. In the warmest months, one can also often find produce carts and stands on some street corners.

But compare this to another New York City borough, Manhattan. There are four Trader Joe’s grocery stores and at least five Whole Foods stores in Manhattan. There are zero in the Bronx.

Let me offer a personal example. The closest grocery store from the Bronx Community of Dominican Volunteers in which I live is half a mile away. My community members and I are able to walk to the store with a cart or carry bags home as we need to. Imagine an individual with impaired mobility or severe respiratory issues attempting to make a one mile round trip, which is filled with steep hills, to a grocery store. For many individuals who live in the Bronx, such a journey is an unrealistic concept. However, they are able to walk down to the corner convenience store to pick up some packaged snacks that satisfy their hunger.

Rebecca collects items for her visits with clients.

The United States Department of Agriculture states, “Food deserts are defined as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. This has become a big problem because while food deserts are often short on whole food providers, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, instead, they are heavy on local quickie marts that provide a wealth of processed, sugar, and fat laden foods that are known contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic.” As you can imagine, living in a food desert presents a variety of complex challenges and effects on one’s health.

After personally facing the challenge of living in a food desert of some sort for the past nine months, as well as the challenges my clients face in healthy eating, I found myself asking the question, “Why is the Bronx a food desert?” Some theories suggest that land-use policies and lack of demand lead to the existence of food desserts. For example, individuals on a low-income budget would be unable to complete their weekly grocery shopping trip at a store such as Whole Foods. So, those stores do not exist in poor areas. Then I wondered, “Why can’t existing grocery stores have a larger selection of fresh produce?” There are many possible answers to this question. Again, it seems demand drives supply. If people are not purchasing produce but are purchasing packaged junk food, grocery stores will stock those items and reduce the amount of produce available. If we do not provide education regarding nutrition and healthy, balanced diets, many individuals will not be aware of the importance of what they eat.

So what can we do about the availability of healthy and nutritious food options, or lack thereof? First, I believe that it’s extremely important to educate yourself on this issue. It’s also important to support the education of others, such as providing nutritional education in high school health classes. We can encourage programs such as WIC (Women, Infants, Children) and SNAP (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to provide education on nutrition and increase the amount of vouchers provided for produce and other healthy foods. We can ask farmers markets to accept food stamps as a form of payment and we can volunteer in community gardens. I encourage you to write letters, attend town hall meetings, and vote on legislation regarding the availability of healthy foods.

Food is a complex issue, and surely the answer to this issue will be as well. I am encouraged every time I see a father helping his daughter to eat a banana on the way to school in the morning and every time I see a mother include her son in grocery shopping for healthy foods. I gain hope from the people who are devoting their time and energy to this issue, ranging from the elderly man volunteering in his community garden to First Lady Michelle Obama’s dedication to health and fitness programs. I challenge each of you to take some time to learn about the food you eat and the availability of healthy food in your community. I encourage you to plant an extra row of vegetables in your garden this Spring that you can donate to your local food bank. I invite you to become an active participant in this journey. I think you’ll find it rewarding, and you’ll certainly discover the opportunity to be of service to others.

Here are some links for more information: