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Bennies and Johnnies collaborate on spring break service trip to Colorado

While a lot of college students either travel someplace warm during spring break or take the time to veg out at home, a group from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University put their money where their mouth is when it comes to Benedictine Values.

Four Bennies, four Johnnies and a couple of alumni chaperones traveled by van to Denver, where they spent a week supporting social justice endeavors of the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers (CVV), a Catholic service program that currently – and not coincidentally – features two Saint Ben’s alumnae.

It’s the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic that CSB students have been able to engage in a spring break service immersion trip. For many years, Johnnies have been able to volunteer annually for similar duties at a Benedictine monastery and Catholic school in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, where CSB and SJU have developed a pipeline of international undergraduates.

“Before I enrolled here, I didn’t know we did stuff like this,” said Ana Dailey, a first-year psychology and Hispanic studies major from Cottage Grove, Minnesota. “I got real involved in campus ministry and heard some Johnnies were going to The Bahamas and I thought, ‘Wait, what? How come Bennies don’t get to go?’ I found out they’re staying with the monks and logistically it’s better if only men make the trip. But fortunately, this year I learned another group was going to Denver and I thought that would be cool, too.”

Dailey had been there twice before, as a tourist and for a dance competition. She loves the mountains and had experienced a service trip in high school.

“One of my mottos in college is to say yes to different things, especially if they’re out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Driving 15 hours with a bunch of people I didn’t know definitely fit that description. But it seemed like a good opportunity, and I’m grateful that I said yes.”

They left Saturday, March 4, and returned late on Saturday, March 11. In between, they focused on helping people facing food insecurity and homelessness. They distributed food and supplies at Mutual Aid Monday, an event held on the street near city hall and the state capitol that provides aid to people experiencing homelessness. Two other days, they arrived by 5:45 a.m. at Catholic Charities, where they separated and sorted donations in a warehouse, assembled about 700 sandwiches and power-washed the kitchen at the nearby Denver Samaritan House. They also worked one day at a Christian outreach center, helping to cook a meal and sort clothing. They slept at Casa Karibu Sze-Ming, a communal living space in east Denver.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Dailey said. “We didn’t know our daily schedule until the night before, so there was a lot of trust in God during the process. We didn’t know where we were going or what we’d be doing. But it was an incredible experience.”

CSB and SJU service trip to Colorado

A group of eight students and two alumnae from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University traveled to Denver during spring break to experience a service immersion trip in association with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers. Participants included (from left) Cesar Lopez-Rodriguez, Ana Dailey, Rachel Eiden, Fredi Ponce Parra, Phoebe Carstens, Jesus Moreno Gutierrez, Elias Wehr and (front row) Bella Brinkman, Maddie Lenius and Meghan Stretar. This photo was taken during some leisure time at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater.

CSB alums find opportunity in CVV

Maria Determan ’22 can relate to Dailey. Four years ago, Determan was in her first year at Saint Ben’s and among the last to take advantage of what were called alternative break experiences (ABE), co-educational spring service trips organized by CSB Campus Ministry. She went to Kansas City on a similar excursion and found it so rewarding it helped influence her decision to take at least a gap year with CVV. She and another former Bennie, her former campus roommate, Sarah Borgmeier ’22, committed to a 32-hour-per-week position. Their room and board are covered, and they receive a weekly grocery allowance and a small stipend. They also receive mental health services, medical insurance, travel to Denver (beginning of August) and home after completion of the program (end of June), bus transportation to work, a bike and any repairs, an education award and loan deferment assistance.

“I was fairly vocal when I was in school and figuring out what I wanted to do because some of my fellow Johnnies had this perfectly lined up opportunity,” said Determan, who graduated with a degree in theology and Spanish. “They could join the Benedictine Volunteer Corps (BVC) and go and live in another country or the United States in a monastery. You would get the spirituality and service benefits of something like that and it’s kind of a continuation of their college education. I was jealous. I loved Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s and, if there was an opportunity like that, I would’ve been the first to sign up for it.”

While SJU promotes the BVC and often recruits from among undergrads who experienced the spring service trip to The Bahamas, there has been no recent similar opportunity through Saint Ben’s. Johnnies often use their BVC experience to help prepare for graduate school, medical school or as a mode for spiritual connection before they engage in a career.

Determan learned of CVV because her cousin participated in it more than five years ago and she saw a significant transformation in him.

“I’ve wanted to do a year of volunteering for a long time,” she said. “I think it’s a cool opportunity to be able to give back. I’ve been on the receiving end of everything my whole life. And it’s one thing to talk the talk about service and justice. It’s a completely different thing to take a year of your life and dedicate it to walking the walk. I think it should almost be a requirement for people at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s to go on some kind of immersion outside of Minnesota. It gets you thinking about the path the world has laid out for us as young people: You go to school; you get a job; you pay off your loans; you get married; you have kids; you work, and you retire.

“When you take an intentional break from that, it shifts everything,” added Determan, who is considering grad school or engaging in nonprofit work – possibly on the border with Mexico. “I feel privileged to do this work. I live simply and intentionally because I make $100 a month. My bank account looks like I’m deceased. This isn’t easy and accessible for everyone to do. But a lot of programs like this have loan deferment and, when you think about grad school – I just talked to Boston College and they will give 75 percent off tuition to someone who has done a service year like me. And there are other schools like that, too.”

Making sandwiches

Maddie Lenius, a junior theology major from Chaska, Minnesota, and Phoebe Carstens (right), a graduate student from St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana, who attends the Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary, helped prepare more than 700 sandwiches one day on the trip to Colorado.

Johnnies connect with ‘Boss Lady’ from Catholic Charities

Unlike some of the others who went to Denver, Fredi Ponce Parra had never been part of a service trip before. But he was eager enough to jump behind the wheel of the 12-passenger van when they left for Colorado.

“Service is important to what I do and my faith,” said Ponce Parra, a junior political science major at Saint John’s. “Whether it’s advocacy or politics or research and policy, talking with different communities and doing volunteer service work, it’s really important to me. Going to a different community was eye-opening, too. Where we are in Collegeville and St. Joseph, we don’t see these issues. Even in St. Cloud, it’s not as noticeable when people are struggling. In South Minneapolis, where I’m from, it’s pretty evident there are issues with homelessness and housing. I’ve seen those issues since I was a child, and my family faced food insecurity for a while, too. So, participating in something like this is something I’ve wanted to do and never had the chance or sought it out before.”

He and the other Johnnies developed a rapport with one of the supervisors from Catholic Charities. The second day they appeared, she greeted them with plenty of chips and salsa.

“Her name was Diane, and she was in charge of the area where a few of us were sent to help move things around among the racks where they keep the donations they get,” Ponce Parra said. “We called her the ‘Boss Lady,’ and really did develop a strong connection with her, even though we were only there two days. Her drive and passion to be there, and her hospitality really impacted us … We were sad to leave.”

Ponce Parra, whose parents are originally from Mexico, is considering a career in public policy, possibly in a government or nonprofit role. After his trip to Denver, he’s thinking about perhaps taking a year for volunteer service after he graduates.

“I’ll remember most the people and the dedication they have to the work they do,” he said. “At the end of the day, no one’s making you do something about homelessness or food insecurity. They just do it anyway. There were people we worked with who had full-time jobs, and yet they were volunteering six hours a day … I hope we continue to offer these trips. It’s the least we can do.”

Lifting and sorting donations

Jesus Moreno Gutierrez (left), Elias Wehr and Cesar Lopez-Rodriguez helped move and sort donations for Catholic Charities. Moreno Gutierrez, a sophomore biochemistry and biology major from Eden Prairie, combined with Wehr, a sophomore global business leadership major from Edina, and Lopez-Rodriguez, a junior accounting major from St. Paul, to lift and stack heavy goods.

Students dignified people with difficult or unfortunate stories

Meghan Stretar ’17 (SOT ’21), an elementary education major who taught seventh-grade math in St. Paul before returning to earn her master of divinity from the Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary, helped lead the trip to Denver during a break in her work as assistant director of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Program.

She said the group went to Mass on Sunday and doubted whether anyone on the trip had seen a Black Lives Matter sign in a Catholic church before. They also visited museums, including one that highlighted the history of Indigenous people in the region, and their stop at Red Rocks was an uplifting counterbalance to the exhibits they’d seen about events like the massacre of Native Americans.

“I’d never been to Denver before, and I thought it was a mountain city with a lot of tourism and some pretty wealthy citizens,” Stretar said. “I know had I gone there on a vacation, my experience would’ve been completely different. It would’ve been real easy to stay in the car and see only what you wanted to see. But we had the opportunity to see Denver through the eyes of nonprofit organizations and people who work in those settings. They’re people doing really difficult work to support marginalized communities that would be easy to ignore … I think it provided a framework for how to have an impact in the world. We talk here about radical hospitality. But that’s an abstract thing compared to what it’s like when it’s real and you’re doing things that might not be so comfortable.”

Stretar and some of the Bennies folded and sorted clothing donations one day and were thankful for the companionship of a man who had a Bluetooth speaker with which music made their tasks a little lighter. He introduced himself as Raymond Johnson and, only at the end of the day, mentioned they could learn more about his story if they Googled his name and “restorative justice.” Later, Stretar and the others learned he’d been in prison the past 26 years for killing a boy in a drive-by shooting in 1995. And the mother of that boy has forgiven him and now accepted Johnson as her son.

On another day, they cooked with a migrant from Mexico who’d come to the U.S. decades ago. He told them his story in Spanish, but some of the students on the trip were bilingual and could interpret for the rest.

“I think through a week like this, people realize how fast paced their life has been or they see how blinded they’ve been to things outside of school,” Stretar said. “It makes you lean into your values in a way you otherwise wouldn’t. When you embrace it fully, I think the students really learned what value looks like. What I hope they got out of it was that they learned how their encounters with other people were just like those they could have back in their own city, wherever they are from.

“Sometimes it’s like when your room is really messy and it starts to smell,” Stretar added. “You don’t realize how bad it is because you live there, but other people can smell it. Sometimes it’s easier to open our eyes to the unsavoriness of another city. Then, after you’ve seen tent cities there, it might be easier to acknowledge them when we find them closer to home. What’s important is that you don’t look away, even when some of those things are difficult to see.”

Denver food line

One of the first activities for the group from CSB and SJU was to help with Mutual Aid Monday, distributing food and other necessities to people on the street between the Denver City Hall and the Colorado State Capitol buildings.

Bennies get chance to address need through volunteerism

After Margaret Nuzzolese Conway moved to St. Joseph from Boston in 2016, she and her husband, Chris, an associate professor of theology, led an ABE trip to Denver.

“It was an especially fun and empowering experience for us getting to meet and work with nine Bennies on that experience,” said Nuzzolese Conway, who later became director of SJU Campus Ministry. “It has continued to evolve. To say we value these types of experiences – both gender-specific per the missions of the schools and the distinct campus ministries, and co-educational to represent the integrated aspects of the institutions – is an understatement. There’s a huge need.”

Both on the part of the volunteers and those they serve. Homelessness and food insecurity in America have become epidemic. According to the most recent statistics from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were almost 600,000 people experiencing it in the U.S. in 2020. Where there were 17 homeless people per 10,000 in Colorado, Minnesota had 14. New York totaled 47 per 10,000 and California had more than 160,000 people – 41 per 10,000 – living on the streets or in shelters. And, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one out of every 10 households in America was food insecure in 2021.

“I’d never had a direct connection with people who are homeless, and that was very powerful,” Dailey said. “I was very intentional about looking them in the eye and calling them ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am,’ trying to give them respect and dignity. I was handing out burritos at one point and a woman asked, ‘Can I have an extra one for my husband at home?’ I’m like, ‘Of course. Here’s two extras.’ We had so many, and it was such a small thing, but maybe it meant a lot to her.

“Other people came through the line, and they would point at things. I speak a little Spanish, so I would ask them what they wanted. And it was so cool to see the joy on their faces when they realized someone could speak their language. A lot of them were recently arrived from Guatemala or Mexico or Venezuela. A couple of the Johnnies on the trip were fluent, and they had really deep, personal conversations with them. It was cool to bridge that gap and help make their day.”

Dailey said she found it valuable to have a co-educational experience, and to learn different perspectives. And both campus ministry departments hope to continue to offer an experience like the one to Denver.

“I got so much out of this,” she said, not even minding so much that she returned to a campus with more snow than when she left – and lost an hour to the change to daylight savings time. “I got to know an amazing group of people that now I can say ‘hi’ to around campus. We had a lot of really beautiful conversations because we would have reflections every night. We talked about things that are important, and we had a lot of fun, too. It wasn’t all hard work. It was a cool bonding experience with the other people who went. But the service work was so impactful to me, to see the dignity of every person we met. I learned lessons about the importance of solidarity, community, and love in solving some of the big issues our society faces. Whatever your past experiences, they don’t define you. Just because someone has been incarcerated or been homeless or has moved across borders, they still deserve the same love and have their basic needs met just like I do.

“As Christians, we’re not supposed to just say we love everyone,” Dailey added. “Faith is supposed to be a verb that we show to other people. I think it’s incredibly important for Bennies to have opportunities like this, whether it’s for spring break or a longer volunteer experience like CVV. If you don’t have an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and have a service experience, you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Bennies in ColoradoSJU junior Fredi Ponce Parra (left) joins Maria Determan ’22, Meghan Stretar ’17 (SOT ’21), Bella Brinkman, a senior sociology and pre-public health major from Wayzata, and Sarah Borgmeier ’22 near where they spent spring break in Denver. Determan and Borgmeier, former Bennie roommates, are spending this year working with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, which can be an alternative experience for women similar to what Johnnies can get through the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. The campus ministry departments for CSB and SJU plan to continue to provide spring break service opportunities for students next year and beyond.