By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — They needed the money, of course. What university student doesn’t look hard for a summer job?
But the jobs that 21 students got under a Bishop Sullivan program earned them more than a paycheck. It brought them face-to-face with a side of life they don’t always see.
“I go to Rockhurst University so we learn all about the Jesuit core values, and one of them is finding God in all places,” said Liz Leroy, who worked at the Mattie Rhodes Center.
“I had never been able to connect to that specific value before,” she said. “But I have learned more about that in this internship. You see a child struggling to read, or struggling with math. Then when they learn to say a word they’ve been struggling with, they are so excited.
“I saw God in all the children here,” Leroy said.
The Bishop Sullivan Center has been providing “internships” for years, but this year with a grant from the Catherin V. Merrill Foundation, the center hired 21 Catholic university students and dispatched them to seven different social service agencies — the Sullivan Center and its St. James Place in midtown, the Mattie Rhodes Center, Operation Breakthrough, New Hope Ministries, the Urban Ranger program and the Upper Room program.
The jobs are designed to provide not just a paycheck but to reinforce and deepen the lessons learned in the classroom as well.
In videos posted online by the Bishop Sullivan Center, the students told the center’s Maria Antonia that the jobs were not what they expected, everything they expected and more than they expected, all at the same time.
At the Sullivan Center, Viri Hildago handled the intake and scheduling for Project ElderCool which has provided window air conditioning units to the elderly disabled and poor for 16 years and has been credited by city health officials of preventing countless deaths from Kansas City’s summer heat.
“I get to know people’s problems and what they have to cope with,” Hidalgo said. “I’ve never worked in this kind of environment, and all the money I earn will go to my tuition. I am very proud of that.”
Francisco Sanchez and Christopher Morales installed those air conditioners in homes.
Sanchez recalled one elderly woman with dementia.
“God has given me the opportunity to help this woman and give her an air conditioner so her room could be a lot cooler,” he said.
Claire Burkemper may never take strawberries for granted again.
She worked at Hope Faith, which provides homeless people and families with a place to go during the day.
Burkemper worked as the garden intern, tending the agency’s plots of fresh vegetables and fruits.
“My first day of work, we picked a bushel of fresh strawberries,” she said.
“Later that afternoon, I was eating my lunch and explaining to a couple of homeless people what I was doing this summer. They were talking about how they never get fresh fruit, and they loved fresh fruit,” she said.
Burkemper got up from the table, went to her work space and brought back the strawberries.
“They just . . .” she said, her voice trailing off. “Eating those strawberries, their faces just lit up.”
That experience was among many that Burkemper found was enriching her own faith.
“It’s a struggle to see people struggle,” she said.
“It’s hard to watch suffering, and to put names and faces to it. It’s no longer a socio-economic problem. It’s my friend, Wilie,” Burkemper said. “It humbles me every day. I never take anything for granted anymore.”
Maria Garcia remembered making just a couple of phone calls from Hope Faith to help get a disabled man the first home he had in years.
“He was close to tears,” she said. “It only took me a couple of moments to get some addresses. Something I didn’t think was all that helpful was so helpful to him.”
She admitted being apprehensive when she started at Hope Faith.
“I’m not going to lie,” Garcia said. “I was scared and frightened and I didn’t know what to expect. As time went on, I realized that the smallest things I could do to help others could really impact them.”
John Meyers worked right alongside the young men doing manual labor in their Urban Rangers summer jobs, which has taught scores of teenagers the discipline and work to maintain their first jobs.
“I’m tired every day, but I enjoy being a leader for these guys,” he said. “I’m in college, and I’m trying to send them on that path.”
“We live on two separate sides of reality,” said Hudson O’Neill of the teens he helped mentor at Urban Rangers. “It’s been humbling to see these kids and what they are going through, and the struggles in their lives.”
Same with the interns sent to the Upper Room, a program headquartered at St. Louis Parish in Kansas City that provides tutoring year round to children who are struggling in school.
“A lot of times, we talk about people who are underprivileged and poor, and they need our charity and they need our help,” said Christina Alvey.
“Sometimes, they do, but that doesn’t mean you treat them differently than any other person.”
“I saw how they improved,” said Upper Room intern Yesenia Beltran. “That’s what I wanted to do — make a difference, even if it was a small difference. They made a difference for me, too.”
The interns at Operation Breakthrough, which provides day care services to young children from infancy, found that great joy comes in small packages.
“A lot of times, these kids need extra support and extra structure, and it was really life-giving to be able to provide that for them,” said Chanelle Zack.
Zoey Sweeney discovered that the children at Operation Breakthrough would give back as much as they were given.
“I can help those in need, but they also help me,” she said. “It sounds cliché, but they have really taught me a lot.”
“I’ve had to pray every night about what I’m supposed to do with the privileges I’ve been given, how can I live in solidarity with the poor at the same time,” Zak said.
“I might not be able to make a huge difference in everyone’s life, but like (Blessed) Mother Teresa said, you do small things with great love,” she said.
Shayla Weiser said she found her calling. She spent the summer meeting, listening to and assisting the clients at St. James Place who come for food, or help in finding a job.
“I realized I want to do meaningful work. I want to go into something that will help people, whether it is an organization like this or helping people in another way,” she said.
“It’s been neat to see how God can work through me to brighten someone else’s day, and that’s been a big way I’ve seen my faith grow,” Weiser said.
“It’s recognizing that I can do a lot in this world for God if I let him take control and do what he wants to do with my life,” she said.