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The City Journals

Service impacts Juan Diego students as well as those they help

Feb 19, 2019 03:43PM ● By Julie Slama

During a week dedicated to service, Juan Diego Catholic High School senior Katie O’Brien helps at Blessed Sacrament. Here she helps a kindergartner with her writing. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When school resumed in January after the holiday break, 17-year-old Katie O’Brien didn’t return to Juan Diego Catholic High School, but instead went to Blessed Sacrament where she attended pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

While many students may switch schools, it may seem odd that O’Brien returned to a school that serves students through middle school.

The early January week, O’Brien, like 212 of her senior classmates, volunteered, serving 30 nonprofit agencies around the Salt Lake Valley as a substitute for classes that week.

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a while so this is an opportunity to help in some of the most fun and most tiring classrooms while getting a chance to learn if teaching is what I really want to do,” O’Brien said. 

The classrooms she was helping in were the 3-year-olds, pre-kindergartners and kindergartners, where O’Brien would get on the floor to read one-on-one with them, individually help students with flash cards or even lead an indoor recess dance activity.

“She’s been fabulous; it’s like they have a private tutor and they want to be with her,” said Shelley Luna, who actually taught O’Brien when she attended the Sandy school. “She’s able to help them learn the concepts we’re teaching; then, she emphasizes it through activities such as leading a letter or counting game.”

Juan Diego Catholic High School senior Katie O’Brien returned to help her former teacher, Shelley Luna, with her kindergarten class at Blessed Sacrament during the first week of January. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

 That week, kindergartners were learning about the book “Stone Soup,” and even had brought their own vegetables to create the dish in a slow cooker in their classroom. Along with Luna, O’Brien encouraged the class to list examples of action verbs they did to make the soup before she read the story. 

“It’s super cool to be where I attended pre-K and kindergarten, where I learned everything and now I’m teaching that alongside my teacher to these cute kids,” O’Brien said. “I love their energy and fun, awesome personalities. I love watching them learn and making sure they’re on the right task, answering questions.”

O’Brien was joined at Blessed Sacrament by a couple other Juan Diego seniors who were teaching in the older grades. Other places, in addition to the school, where students volunteered included senior living centers, Boys and Girls Club, schools serving students with disabilities, food pantries, Youthlinc, Utah AIDS Foundation, National Ability Center and other nonprofit agencies. 

Philanthropy has been long woven into Juan Diego’s curriculum with its school motto “Spiritus Donorum,” which means “Spirit of Giving,” said Juan Diego Director of Campus Life Dave Brunetti. 

For the past four years, Juan Diego students have volunteered the first week after the holiday break to give meaningful service instead of just checking a box that they had served the community 100 hours, which was the previous service requirement.

“Some traveled the world on humanitarian missions; for others their service was not always such a reach out of their comfort zones,” Brunetti says. “While raking leaves in the neighborhood was an important act of kindness, we wanted our students to come in contact with those most vulnerable members of our society. It’s one thing to prepare students for college and career, quite another to teach them to care and to act on that care to another.”

Brunetti has said this experience can not only be listed on college applications or resumes, but also it leads to students volunteering beyond their week to serve the rest of the year and possibly lead into internships or employment.

“We want students to put aside their day-to-day ‘stuff’ and to be conscious of another human being and to be of service,” he said. “The more they know, sense, have the taste of serving, the more they may volunteer, reach others in the community, teach Catholic social justice. At the same time, they are learning life skills in scheduling, meeting responsibilities and organization.”

Brunetti said agencies appreciate young people serving as volunteers, especially when they are in need, as many church youth or service groups like to give time when the holiday spirit moves them. Winter months are difficult for volunteer-driven charities when inclement weather dissuades many retired volunteers from serving, he said.

“Pope Francis urges all of us, not just Catholics, to be merciful, and be bold in our compassion for others,” he said. “We want our young people to realize how very difficult life can be for some, and how much they can impact a person who is struggling and feels forgotten.” 

For O’Brien, whose arms weren’t large enough to engulf the bear hugs given to her by pre-kindergartners at the end of the week, it was a most rewarding and satisfying experience.

“There definitely was not enough time to spend with them,” she said. “I’m so attached with these amazing kids. I’m 100 percent supportive of volunteering to give service. It’s life-changing. When I picked what I wanted to do, how I could give back and help people, I had no idea how it was going to impact me as well as help these cute kiddos.”