Immersing in the Gritty Reality of the World

By Mike Gabriele

Former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, once said, “Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively.”

Many may think that at a prestigious day and boarding school near Washington, D.C., immersing into the “gritty reality of the world” might not be high on a list of student priorities. At Georgetown Prep, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Over the last ten years, more than 700 high school seniors and faculty have participated in service immersion programs, addressing the needs of some of the poorest, most disadvantaged people across the country. From an Indian reservation where nearly 50% of the population lives below the poverty level, to a homeless shelter in D.C., to rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, to a summer camp for children with muscular dystrophy, Georgetown Prep is going where the needs are greatest—helping transform communities and becoming transformed themselves.

“I’ve seen students moved to tears on these trips,” said Fr. Scott Pilarz, SJ, president of Georgetown Prep. “It’s a sign that their hearts are being opened to a new reality, and with a lot of reflection, which is key to this experience; they really do begin to make meaning out of what they did. They recognize that this is a tremendously important, vital part of their Prep experience.”

Students partner with Habitat for Humanity to build and rebuild houses on the eastern shore of Virginia and in New Orleans.

Kurt Kaufmann, the Christian Service Director at Georgetown Prep, who is instrumental in coordinating the immersion programs, explained their importance: “Our students need to see life beyond their community. If we did not have these immersion trips, they would lose the ability to experience life in some of the most marginalized communities in the country.” A lot of the work is labor-intensive—building houses, fixing and painting churches, landscaping and excavation projects. But much of their assignment is simply to interact and form bonds with those they meet, to show them that there are people out there who know they exist and care about them.

The transformation goes both ways. These teenagers, who offer working hands and a kind heart for so many of the forgotten, are fundamentally changed themselves by the gratitude, love and hope they encounter amid such daily hardship. “You actually move beyond your comfort zone, and that’s where you learn so much more about yourself and about the community,” said Alex Kovalev, a student who worked in the Appalachian mountain town of Ivanhoe, Va., one of many American towns struggling with hard times after much of its mining industry dried up.

“I had no idea the impact this would have on me,” admitted Kevin Cullen, who helped with landscaping and painting at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “Although the grass will grow back and the paint will chip, the relationships we formed will never leave us or the people there.”

Fellow student, Zach Hartranft, who teamed with Habitat for Humanity building houses, agreed: “It bonds us with our Prep brothers and is a great way to put into action the teaching that Prep taught us.”

These Immersion Programs at Georgetown Prep continue to expand. In the last five years they have grown from serving three distressed communities to eight, and are now extending their reach outside the U.S. Just this summer, Fr. Pilarz took a group of students to Nicaragua to partner with Fabretto, a foundation working to improve the livelihoods of families living in that impoverished nation. “They did everything from digging latrines to helping build a new library,” said Fr. Pilarz. “But again, the real takeaway is the bond these young men make with the locals—interacting with them, going to Mass with them. It’s an experience that will stay with them forever and shape who they are.”

Perhaps Sean Clark summed it up best when he spoke of his experience at the McKenna Center serving the poor and homeless in Washington, D.C. “To truly understand an issue, you need to put yourself in the person’s shoes. And that’s exactly what we did at the Fr. McKenna Center. We put ourselves in the shoes of the homeless.”

Fr. Pilarz hopes Georgetown Prep will soon include an immersion program planting trees in Senegal, Africa, responding to Pope Francis’ call to care for the environment.

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