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If you want to know something about a ministry, you can look at its history and goals – and do everything the logical way…But if you want to really know…then ask the people who experience it.

“Lady, what would my life be like if I was your son?” three year old Tavan Williams* asked me. “I wasn’t old enough to be anyone’s mother, but his words brought tears to my eyes.

 ‘Your life would be different,’ Kelley, a teen from Kokomo, Indiana answered, “But maybe not happier.” Kelley was serving as a teen volunteer at Visions Day Care Center, one of the sites associated with Franciscans for the Poor in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Although people can be ‘beat up’ by circumstances, they make the best of it”… “One man told me: ‘You have to have dreams and hope -- and never give up!’”… “Poverty exists right under our noses. We just overlook it, or look the other way”… “I look at stuff a different way now.”

These are pretty typical comments volunteers make about their experiences. And this is why Sr. Marie Clement Edrich founded the program to begin with: to give young people an opportunity to meet ‘the poor’ upfront and personal – and to understand that ‘they’ are you, your friends, and your family! “It was an eye-opener,” Robby Dixon, a teen from Kokomo, IN said. “…these are regular people who are just down on their luck. They are you, your friends, your family.” Una volontaria prepara un vassoio di cibo al CHIPSUna volontaria prepara un vassoio di cibo al CHIPS

Franciscans for the Poor provides short-term opportunities for individuals and groups to serve – and to meet -- the poor in the Greater Cincinnati Area. They do so by offering weeks (or even weekends) of structured activities emanating from a former Convent -- Tau House – organized by the director, Marci Peebles, and working in over 24 service sites throughout the Tri-State area.

An overview…

If there is one thing volunteers learn, it is that there is no such thing as ‘the poor:’ that’s an abstraction. There are only individual people who have lost everything, or who were born with nothing – some even less than nothing! And they learn also that ‘the poor’ are not hopeless or faithless or feckless! They are people, many of them extraordinarily resilient and tenacious, who have dreams and hopes – and with just a little help, a future – just like you and me. And they can be found everywhere, if you Hope in U.S.A. look with eyes that have been opened. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages.

Abbraccio reciproco alla casa di riposoAbbraccio reciproco alla casa di riposo They also learn that it is, indeed, more blessed to give than to receive, which is why one young woman said, “After 5 days here, I don’t want to go home!” A typical day with Franciscans for the Poor starts with Mass, if the volunteers so desire (not all are Catholic), followed by breakfast, reflection and the morning’s ‘launch’ – which prepares them for the worksite they will be visiting that day. Then it’s off to the day’s worksite until mid-afternoon, followed by a little downtime before the day’s ‘dinner crew’ prepares supper. Then everyone helps to clean up and the evening program starts – which may consist of a guest speaker, or a visit from a local charity.

The volunteers spend one evening with the Sisters at St. Clare Convent. After the evening’s program, the group gathers in Tau House’s ‘prayer space’ for shared reflection on the day’s activities. Then it’s ‘lights-out’ at 2100h, as volunteers rest up for another busy day on the morrow.

A transformative experience…

How does one describe an experience, no less a transformative experience? Experience as a general concept comprises knowledge of something gained through involvement in or exposure to that thing.

Generally, it refers to ‘on-the-job training’ rather than book-learning. At Franciscans for the Poor (FFTP) volunteers meet, touch, see, hear, smell and work among  those whose lives are so different from their own that they couldn’t even imagine it any other way. One volunteer, Chelsea Pratt, noted: “Where I live, the lawns are broad and neatly trimmed and the houses are large and wellkept. Here, some of the houses are torn up and they were very small and close together and had no lawns. There were so many different kinds of people walking along the streets; I’d never experienced that kind of diversity…”

To understand, people must see it.

At the core of a transformative experience is a lifelong change in perspective. The mission trip – preparing for it and experiencing it – starts the process, but it is followup that confirms any changes. For long-term effects on those who go on short-term mission trips, researchers found post-trip follow-up by team leaders is essential  – which is one reason why FFTP holds a yearly ‘Adult  Weekend’ for team leaders. La preghiera é parte essenziale dell´esperienzaLa preghiera é parte essenziale dell´esperienza

“Our adult weekend here is  always a great joy. Thank you again for opening up the Tau House for us! I love the place which is ideal for this type of ministry.” However, individuals may create their own ‘follow-up’ – some by coming back again and again, and others by staying in contact with people they meet.

Consider this young man’s story:“I sat, staring glassy-eyed at the floor, wondering why I was there. It was high summer, and the heat was still on. As the sweat beaded on my forehead, I listened to some old guy, Jim, drone on about gardening and knitting and other topics of little interest to me. Paying no attention, I lifted my gaze from the carpeted floor to the walker, to the therapeutic compression socks, to the grey pants and shirt. And, finally, to the big glasses that obscured his face - definitely not someone I cared to know. He and I were two people from different places and different generations, with absolutely no need to meet or know o each other’s existence. In the reflection of his glasses, I saw the not so subtle boredom of my own face mirrored back at me. I was stuck in an assisted living home, in the middle of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the middle of a church mission trip, in the middle of summer. Jim’s needles clicked together as he knit. ‘I make Christmas stockings for each baby born in my family,’ he explained. Jim held up a small, red square of yarn, “This is my twentieth.” I couldn’t help but smile: this was something I definitely would not do! Then he switched gears, going on a tangent about baking apple pies, my mouth watered. “Did you top it with Cool Whip?” I asked. “No!” he said indignantly. “We cranked our own ice cream.” For more than a half hour, Jim recounted his childhood memories of collecting empty milk bottles. I don’t know what happened, but for a moment, behind the wrinkles, I saw a man who loved his family fully and still savored life. And I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind being this man in seventy years.’ The clock in the dining room chimed, signaling lunch and the end of our conversation. I had been listening to Jim for three hours. The trip ended, and I found myself at home with my friends. It would have been easy to forget an old bespectacled man with socks up to his knees, but I immediately wrote him a letter. A week later, an envelope, addressed in slanted script turned up in my mailbox. He asked about my college, and told me to have fun at least three times. I responded and eagerly awaited his next letter. We exchanged mail for several months: Jim told me about his wife’s death, his open heart surgery, and his entrance into the assisted living home. Even after all this, he was happy. “Moving here was not the beginning of the end, like waiting to die,” Jim wrote. “It was the start of a new adventure - a new part of my life. Sort of like you going to college, my young friend. Enjoy life.” In the end, follow-up is crucial…

Un gruppo di volontarie di Francescane per i PoveriUn gruppo di volontarie di Francescane per i Poveri Research has revealed students who participate in short-term mission trips tend to have lower levels of materialism, greater appreciation for other cultures and a better understanding of missions as a lifestyle. In general, the greater the amount of trip experience, the greater the impact in all three areas. On the surface, the trips seem a win-win situation - for those who send participants, for team members who make the trips and for host sites. Research involving students involved in short-term missions focused specifically on levels of ethnocentrism, materialism andinvolvement in long-term missions and ministry.

Of the students who were interviewed after their trips, 91% said the trips had changed the way they see other cultures, with 54% mentioning increased respect and concern for others.* Year after year, Franciscans for the Poor sees teenagers do incredible things during mission trips. They’ve stepped out of comfort zones, connected with the elderly, given joy to children, conquered fears, deepened relationships and refocused on Jesus. In future years, Franciscans for the Poor is looking forward to seeing even more young people serve others, love unconditionally and grow deeper in their faith. FFTP will still be here to walk with them into this life-changing experience.