The following reflection is the WINNER of Catholic Volunteer Network’s annual Volunteer Story & Photo Contest and is now featured as the cover story of the 2021 edition of RESPONSE. Each year, we ask our member programs and their volunteers to submit stories and photos of their daily life to share and celebrate their experiences of faith-based service.
By Abigail Reeth, Young Adult Missional Movement, 2019-2020
Serving during COVID-19 feels a lot like mindfulness.
At my coworker’s command, the children sitting around the classroom table raised their colored pencils above their heads and waited for the next instruction.
“Now, pass your pencil to the person on your left.”
As the students in our after-school program scrambled to determine which direction was to the left, a few kids grumbled at the next colored pencil they received. My coworker, the children’s therapeutic specialist, held up a silencing hand. “Remember, during mindful coloring, you use whatever color you’re given. You get what you get, and you make the best of it. Right?”
Right. That has been my mantra for the past few weeks: You get what you get, and you make the best of it. At the moment, we’ve got a virus, but we’re making the best of it.
With schools closed for most of the spring semester, the after-school program at the homeless shelter where I work has become an “all-day” program brimming with academic and therapeutic activities. And we do the best we can.
We can’t exactly abide by social distancing standards, but we do our best. Our hands are chapped from washing and sanitizing. Our classrooms smell like bleach and disinfectant. Our celebrations after winning a game of dodgeball are now “elbow-bumps” instead of high-fives.
We do the best we can.When I graduated last spring, armed with the endless possibilities of my degrees in art and writing, I said I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to serve alongside others, to grow with others, and to seek justice. I wasn’t sure exactly what that vision would look like, but I was certain I didn’t want to teach. Yet here I am, helping elementary kids complete their school year while their parents work essential jobs to save money and move out of the homeless shelter.
Mornings with the kids are devoted to navigating the labyrinths of e-learning, trying to connect a second grader to a Zoom meeting with his teacher, reminding a first grader to stay in his seat and focus on social studies. After a couple hours of this, we all (students and adults alike) are more than ready to move on to games in the gym, art projects in the classroom, rounds of mancala, and therapeutic activities designed to help the children regulate their emotions in the midst of trauma. They already had more than enough trauma in the few years of their lives, and now they’re living through a pandemic. So we do the best we can.
And of course, we always practice mindfulness.
I like my coworker’s definition of mindfulness: Not worrying about the past, not thinking about the future, but focusing on right now.
This practice of focusing on the present has never been so relevant as it is during COVID-19.
It’s tempting to fantasize about the past: to relive the countless hugs I used to receive when greeting the kids at the end of their school day; to dream of the conversations I had with kindergarteners who could see Santa Claus riding a donkey when they stared at the clouds.
It’s tempting to stress over the future: to wonder if we’ll still take the kids on field trips to the movies or the zoo; to dread a child contracting the virus and shutting the entire homeless shelter down just as the country dares to imagine opening up again.
So instead, I practice mindfulness. I focus on right now. Focus on helping the six-year-old boy beside me identify numbers up to 100. Focus on turning the jump rope at just the right speed so four kids can all jump together while singing, “Ice cream, ice cream, cherry on top, how many best friends do you got?”
When I focus on these moments, on the kids drawing me pictures of Sonic the Hedgehog or telling me they’re thankful for family and for a place to stay, then I can almost forget to worry about how many times I just touched my face or if I’ll find soap and toilet paper at my local grocery store. When I think about now, about the children clamoring for a piece of candy or dozing at their laptops, I don’t change the frightening crisis around me, but I change my response to it. I take what I’m given and instead of stressing over it, I focus on right now.
Serving during COVID-19, I practice mindfulness.
And I make the best of what I’m given.
By Abigail Reeth
Congratulations Abigail – and thank you for sharing your story with our network! Abigail Reeth served with Young Adult Missional Movement (YAMM) in 2019-2020. Learn more about YAMM HERE.
Thank you for reading! Catholic Volunteer Network is proud to feature Abigail’s story in the brand new edition of RESPONSE, available here! Thank you to Abigail and to all the volunteers in our network who submitted their own stories of service. You can read these stories over the next few months as we publish them right here on the Catholic Volunteer Network blog.