The Experience of Student Visitors to DSW

sallies retreats

Editor’s Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike shares the experiences of some seniors from Salesianum School in Wilmington, DE, who have been on retreats this semester in Camden. As someone who has participated in all of these retreats, I can attest to the powerful impact the experience of serving in Camden has on the students.

Salesianum School, the Oblate high school in Wilmington, DE, has been a great partner with DSW since we began in Camden. Last year 12th graders came in small groups for service, prayer, and reflection. This year seniors have been here again in groups of around 20 students for Tuesdays and Thursdays in September and October. In February and March juniors will come for service retreats. In addition, we will host two weekend retreats, one in February and the other in April. The school community has also been generous in donations of money and (very practical) socks and underwear. Participating with DSW is one way for the school to demonstrate its commitment to Salesian spirituality and Christian service.Each service retreat begins with Mass followed by a morning service period where students go to one of three sites: our food service, New Visions day shelter, or working with Ken on the “peace garden.” As noon approaches, we tour part of Camden as we walk from the Cathedral in downtown to North Camden. Just in walking the 7 blocks, students get a picture of life in our city. We pass vacant lots, abandoned houses, graffiti-covered walls, all too abundant evidence of drug use and human desperation.
All this contrasts with the experience at the end of the walk: we join Holy Name School kids in recess. The middle school kids are very lively, friendly, and they enjoy the interaction with the high school students. Each group of Salesianum young men is made up of different individuals, but there is a sense in which the service has become a corporate project. The grade school kids meet new visitors each retreat, but they have come to expect good things from the “high school boys.” The same is true of the peace garden; last year’s seniors began it, transforming an urban desert into an ordered, flourishing garden. The Class of 2011 has taken up where they left off, working with Kenny and enjoying the comments and appreciation of all passers-by.
The retreat finishes with discussion of topics raised by the time in the city. As part of that we ask the seniors to spend a few minutes answering journal questions. I share some of these below, to give a picture of the reaction of these generous students to their time here.
Why is it important for me to be here for this service retreat today?

To see what it’s like to live poor so we understand it better.When I wake up everyday, I have food to eat, clothes to put on, and a bed to come back to at night. People here do not have these things. We all need to see these things so we can learn how to fix them.
I think that, now that I see what goes on in this city, it means a lot to the people just for us to be here. I think that we also need to see what life is like in the world we do not see.
It is important because it opens our eyes to a completely different world. This place just makes you want to help and to make a change. This is not how America should be and those of us who are fortunate enough should help make a difference here. People need our help, even id it is just to listen to their story.
I need to see how an area so close to me was completely different from my life. I helped people by listening to their life stories; about how they became homeless and why they use drugs.
To learn about the lives of other people who live so differently from the way I live. To walk in someone’s shoes who lives in Camden. To see how someone can fall to the bottom so easily. It’s a learning experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
Because some people don’t realize how bad certain areas are in this country. For myself, I have taken my life for granted and have not appreciated the thing I have like a home, clothes, and food. This has certainly opened my eyes.
It is important for me to see how poor of shape Camden is in and see if I can make a difference.
To give people in need something money can’t buy: time. Just to give them some one to talk to.
I think that the importance behind my reason for being here is simple. simple, meaning doing small things like talking to kids at the grade school or making sandwiches makes mw realize how lucky I am to have what I do. All the things I need to live my life. Then a realization opens my eyes even more, looking at the big picture not just seeing what’s in front of me but the people and what they go through every day just to get a meal. It’s the small things I can do that really show the difference

What will I take away from this experience of service and reflections?

The love that everyone around me has shown me and the gratitude I’ve received through my actions.I now realize all the bad things that can happen to you when you live on the streets. And it’s made me thankful for the family I have and all that they have given me. And I think that I can better understand why it is necessary to get a good education and to be successful so as to one day be able to give back to communities like this.
I have a feeling of how lucky I am for what I have been given. I want to help people and clean up our country. —Really showed me that I am blessed and shouldn’t take anything for granted.
Coming out of this mind-opening experience, I take away images of people sleeping on the streets and how using drugs will not solve your problems. The kids at the school were smiling the whole time we hung out with them, and I think we made their day a lot better.
To be the best that I can be in any situation I am in because I saw today what can happen if I don’t. It really made me feel how lucky I was to have a nice home, to go to a great school and to live in a great place that I do with a great family.
The love that everyone around me has shown me and gratitude I’ve receive through my actions.
Not every one is a lucky as the next person but they know that they still have their pride and their life. I can take away anything and everything from this opportunity. Respect, forgiveness, humility, gentleness, civility and more.

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