CHS graduates find calling as FVM volunteers

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By Jo Ann Johnson

The first encounter Matt Johnson had with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry was not motivated entirely by charitable intent. “Actually, it was for a pretty selfish reason,” he candidly admitted. “I had to earn community service points at Canton High School, and my friends were going to this inn in Philadelphia on a weekend trip sponsored by St. Gerard’s. Why not have a weekend to hang out with my friends and earn the credits, too?”

CHS alumni Andrew Staiti (left) and Matt Johnson (right)

CHS alumni Andrew Staiti (left) and Matt Johnson (right)

Johnson, a 2002 graduate and star athlete at Canton High, got something completely different from his plan to just hang out with friends. The trip was to St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, a soup kitchen of sorts for the homeless and needy of Philadelphia. There, as he provided meals, side by side with not only his friends but volunteers and clergy, Johnson experienced the joy and satisfaction of serving others. “I fell in love with helping people,” he said. “I asked myself where I wanted to be in the world. It was about being useful.”

The son of Robert and Susan Johnson, Matt returned to the inn again during his high school years, then went off to Westfield State and majored in communications. Midway through his college experience, the call to continue being useful to others led him to find the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry and apply to become one of their volunteers. He was accepted into the program at their St. Francis Inn site. He was allowed to remain one year with the proviso that he would complete his college career before he could decide if he wanted to come back to the FVM program. He returned to college, graduated, and went right back to St. Francis Inn. His overwhelming goal to be of service to people in need drew him back into the program.

Fellow CHS graduate Andrew Staiti (’10), the son of Richard Staiti and Jo Ann Johnson, also recognized his desire to help people in high school. In his sophomore year, he organized a scholarship run in memory of a student from King Philip High School who had died tragically. But he wasn’t able to find other outlets that satisfied his charitable intents until he learned of the opportunity to join the St. Gerard’s youth group weekend trip to St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. He traveled with his father and a group of young parishioners from St. Gerard to serve the homeless warm food and companionship.

“It was a completely worthwhile experience,” Staiti noted. But at that point he was not able to commit himself to living a life completely devoted to service. He went on to Stonehill College, and it was there, in his sophomore year, that he volunteered for My Brother’s Keeper, an organization headquartered in Easton that provides food, clothing, and household furnishings to the needy in the Brockton area as well as adopt-a-family programs at Christmas.

Staiti was shocked at the poverty he witnessed. “I grew up with everything I needed and more, and it was disturbing to see how many people couldn’t afford food or clothes or even a Christmas tree, and certainly not presents,” he said.

He quickly warmed to the opportunity to provide these things to those in need. He continued his work with MBK through his senior year, when a strong call to continue this type of service gripped him. He researched several possible volunteer programs, and at last decided upon FVM, into which, after a rigorous process of applications and interviews, he was accepted. He learned quickly that he would be expected to give up his comfortable lifestyle and instead become truly integrated into the way of life of the people he would serve. He was assigned to Camden, New Jersey, to a small, poor Hispanic parish, St. Anthony of Padua.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s commitment to serve the needy grew into a position as associate director of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry. His job includes recruitment, and he spends a significant portion of each year traveling to dozens of colleges and universities across the U.S. to spread the word of service to others via the FVM program. Just recently, Johnson and Staiti visited Boston College, Stonehill College, St. Anselm College, and the University of Georgia to promote service in FVM. (While the age of volunteers is not limited, most of the volunteers are recent college graduates.)

Johnson has had considerable success — every year a large cadre of individuals apply to become part of this small but devoted program. Because there are a limited number of slots available for volunteers, the pool of applicants is carefully whittled down to those who the administrators, priests and brothers involved in FVM believe best demonstrate the appropriate commitment and belief in the mission and the philosophy of the FVM’s.

“We truly believe that to serve the poor, we must live among the poor,” Johnson said. “That is not easy, but it is very important to give up our “comfort” items. You can’t legitimately provide direct service to and earn the trust of the poor unless you are living as they live.”

The volunteers live in poor neighborhoods in less-than-luxurious accommodations. They are given small stipends, health care, assistance with their college loans, if needed, and monthly “house money,” which they must budget to pay for bills and repairs and food. This is not a familiar task for most of the volunteers, but something they must learn in order to fully understand the financial difficulties of the working poor, those on limited government assistance, and the homeless.

The essence of the mission of the FVM, which can be found in its entirety on its website, is inspiring. “In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan Volunteer Ministers live simply and embrace three core values: community, direct service with their brothers and sisters, and expressed prayers. The ministry provides a setting for volunteers to grow in faith, love and hope by serving the poor and working for social justice. We provide a setting where gifts and talents are exchanged with the people of God in a loving and joyful Franciscan spirit, always being aware of how much we can learn from and are blessed by the poor.”

The program arose from the interest of a group of students at Siena College (a college run by the Franciscan order of priests and friars) who wanted to serve in a program that espoused Franciscan values. Ironically, the first FVM’s served in Boston from 1987 to 1988. (St. Anthony’s Shrine in downtown Boston is a Franciscan institution that serves the needy of the city in innumerable ways, but FVM’s are no longer assigned there.) The FVM’s have locations in very poor neighborhoods/areas of need in Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington, Delaware.

St. Francis of Assisi is best known as the patron saint of animals, but his life is notable for his renunciation of his privileged upbringing in order to serve the poor and afflicted. He is also famous for the Prayer of St. Francis, which most people recognize by its opening lines, “Make me an instrument of Thy peace.” It is in his life’s work with the sick and poor and his insistence on living among and like them upon which the FVM mission is grounded.

In Camden, volunteers work with Francis House, founded in 1996 to be a refuge for individuals with AIDS and HIV. They serve their guests by providing food, clothing, warm companionship, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and other simple social activities. (Sadly, Staiti and his co-volunteers, Grace Kincaid and Tammy Kinney, will be the last FVM’s to work in Francis House, unless fate and the generosity of others intervene. Due to lack of funding, the 19-year-old “home” for many will close its doors in September.)

Volunteers in Camden also serve multiple parish needs and work with students at St. Anthony’s parish school sponsoring leadership groups, after-school programs and tutoring. Some also participate in social justice programs that are diocese-wide. In Philadelphia, the primary obligation of the volunteers is preparing and serving food and providing companionship to the innumerable individuals who would go without in the absence of St. Francis Inn. In Wilmington (which is not operational this year for lack of sufficient numbers of qualified and committed volunteers but promises to open again next year), the service is to migrant workers, prison inmates and again, various needs of the two parishes with which they work. It is a comprehensive program of service to those who cannot adequately care for themselves, or who need the guidance of dedicated individuals who truly care about their welfare.

Johnson and his wife, Lauren, who is a dentist, live in New Hampshire. His frequent recruiting trips keep him away from home often. He also makes many trips to Philadelphia (the home base of the FVM’s) to join all the volunteers in meals and masses and in quarterly retreats in upstate New York. He is very much a hands-on administrator and spends as much time with his recruits as possible. “Being an FVM shaped my life,” he said. “I want to be a part of theirs and their journey in FVM.”

“We need to look into the face of poverty and recognize the hardships before we can truly address and work to remedy the problem,” he continued. “It is heart-breaking to see how difficult it is for so many people to try to make ends meet, to send their children to good schools, and to avoid the cycle of poverty that traps so many. Our volunteers need support and encouragement as they engage in this sometimes overwhelming service.”

Johnson and Staiti continue their commitment to serve their FVM communities, and each has been changed forever by the experience. Both credit the trips to St. Francis Inn sponsored by St. Gerard’s as the jumping off point for their lives of dedication. Johnson will carry on with his work as a tireless advocate for the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry; Staiti will end his year in Camden this summer. He is currently deciding whether he will serve a second year in Camden, come home to work in a similar program in Massachusetts, or found a ministry like that of Francis House.

Whatever comes next for these two admirable young men and hundreds of other FVM volunteers, they have already been the change they wish to see in the world.

If you would like to help to sponsor an FVM or one of its ministries at St. Anthony’s of Padua or Francis House in Camden, or St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, visit www.franciscanvolunteerministry.org/support.html, or contact St. Anthony’s or St. Francis Inn directly. Every little bit helps!

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