This week’s blog is offered by Erik Thomas (Saint Mary’s College, class of 2016), who reflects on his visit to San Miguel Middle School in the South Side Back of Yards neighborhood of Chicago, which will be his home next year as he joins the community of Brothers and Volunteers who teach there. He writes of a budding love affair with place and apostolate.
Love, Faith, and Family in Chicago
The first semester of my final year here at Saint Mary’s, I decided to apply to the Lasallian Volunteer Program, which takes recent graduates and places them, usually, in Brothers’ schools across the nation, as teachers, ministers, or helpers in other ways. Many of these schools are in underprivileged urban neighborhoods that are plagued with violence and drugs. At first the program can sound very intimidating, and recently the application rate for the program has even declined, but despite the riskiness, I felt a calling to try an avenue different from what I studied and what I was comfortable with. I applied and I got in! Things happened very fast from there. Before I knew it, they gave me a call from D.C. that I had been invited to visit a middle school in the South Side Back of Yards neighborhood of Chicago. I was a little hesitant at first, because I didn’t really want to work in a middle school, but I liked the idea of living in Chicago, so I ran with it. Little did I know this quick four-day trip would change me like it did. Once I arrived in Chicago at Midway, I was excited and a little nervous about meeting my potential community and school. The principle of San Miguel School, Tad Smith, picked me up at the airport and he greeted me with a big smile and warm words. When we pulled up to the house I was overwhelmed at how charming and huge it was! It has 12 rooms or so and looks like something out of a movie. Once I got inside Brother Mark and the LV group also greeted me with open arms and dinner. I fell in love with the house and the members of the community that night.
The next day I was up bright and early to visit the school that is conveniently located right across the street. San Miguel Middle School is on the third floor of an old Catholic Church and is nothing short of wonderful. Walking down the halls, I could see the art and colors that students had decorated the place with. When it came close to 8 am, all the staff and faculty lined up to greet students as they came up the steps to the school. These kids had the biggest, most genuine smiles on their faces as they ran into class. They love being at this school and the teachers and staff feel the same way. To them this place is home. I could feel the love myself as the kids started warming up to me. I felt a sort of warmth in my heart that I never knew I could feel in such a short visit. They called me “Mr. Thomas,” which I was not used to at all. Before I knew it, these kids had me playing soccer and dodge ball with them, and I coached a game of softball for the 8th grade boys during which I realized how competitive I am! I also spent time reading with them during class. These kids changed me so much in just the two days that I spent with them.
When it came time for class to come to an end on Friday, the kids all asked me, “Mr. Thomas, are you going to be back next week?” And I sadly had to explain to them that I was still in school myself and had to go back. Leaving the school at the end of the day on Friday was very hard to do. As I write this, I am honesty getting a little choked up because all these kids really transformed me in such a short time. I am proud to say I get to go back in August, and I can’t wait to have my life transformed by the love these kids have to offer. Everyone thinks doing service is to just serve others, but in reality these kids are serving me. They bring me a joy that I can’t really explain. It has to be felt. I cannot wait to get back and start the next part of the wonderful journey that is life, and I give all the thanks to God for blessing me with this new family that I have found in Chicago.
Photos by Erik Thomas