The Jesuit Volunteer Corps was young — and so was I — when I first arrived at a remote Alaskan village to teach school at a Jesuit boarding school for Native Alaskan students as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
There were no cellphones yet, and the internet did not exist. In the village of St. Mary’s, and in other villages on the far-flung Alaskan tundra, there was no television reception. A phone existed for the village — just one — and it was in one man’s home for general use.
St. Mary’s, a commercial hub, had an airport a few miles away where jets landed a couple of times a week, weather permitting, bringing mail and supplies. No road system existed, and still doesn’t for most of Alaska’s Bush country.
When our contingent of volunteers arrived, a Jesuit brother met us at the airport and loaded us on a flatbed truck for the bumpy trek to St. Mary’s. I grew up on a Nebraska farm, so I know what lonely stretches of land look like. But nothing prepared me for miles of treeless tundra with no evidence of human habitation.
When we arrived at the village, culture shock hit. The volunteer’s women’s dormitory was surprisingly modern, but as I gazed out of my second-story window, watching the Andreafsky River wind its way toward its confluence with the mighty Yukon, I panicked.
We had a school nurse, and the village had a minimally trained health aide. I’m going to get appendicitis here, I surmised. There will be a blizzard and the jets won’t fly and I will die here.
I ended up staying three volunteer years, some of the happiest of my life.
This was in the 1970s. Rural Alaska has changed in the years since. The discovery of oil on the North Slope swelled state coffers and brought modernization and new village schools. The boarding school at St. Mary’s closed in the 1980s.
But the Jesuit Volunteer Corps lives on, and adventures and challenges endure for those who want to give a year of their lives to service.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps started in Alaska in 1956 in another Jesuit boarding school. By the 1960s, the organization had spread throughout the Northwest and beyond. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps became a template for subsequent volunteer groups, including the Peace Corps.
Gradually, regional Jesuit Volunteer Corps organizations grew up — the Midwest, East, South and Southwest joined the Northwest. These coexisted as separate agencies until four of the regions and Jesuit Volunteer International merged, with headquarters in Baltimore. All Jesuit Volunteer Corps share the four core values: spirituality, simple living, community, and social and ecological justice.
Ignatian discernment is the heart of Jesuit spirituality, and after long, prayerful discernment, Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest decided to remain autonomous, rooted in the region and its long history.
It has found a happy partnership with AmeriCorps, a national program. In 2010, Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest was awarded a three-year National Direct AmeriCorps award, which has been renewed in three-year increments since.
Most members of Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest are also AmeriCorps members, and receive an education award at year’s end. This helps more young people from diverse economic brackets afford to serve for a year and lowers the cost for agencies needing volunteers.
AmeriCorps funding is threatened by the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, which include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s early. But budgets are moral documents, so we’ll be watching.
Meanwhile, Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, national Jesuit Volunteer Corps and other Catholic volunteer organizations offer a chance to experience what I did when I climbed off that flatbed: service, spiritual growth, community, challenge.