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Jesuit volunteers live simply, help the community

At the beginning of August, Hood River welcomed six new Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest members for an intensive year of service with several local agencies. While the program is Catholic, volunteers come from all religious backgrounds. But all live according to the four pillars of the program: Community, spirituality, social justice and simple living.

This is the second year that Hood River has hosted Jesuit Volunteers, who live in Odell and work in Hood River, Odell and The Dalles. This year, all of the volunteers are women, hailing from the East Coast, the Midwest and Mexico. Five are fluent in Spanish, and all share a common desire to help those who are traditionally underserved.

And for Vicky Yiannoulis, Hannah Ladwig, Jasmine Villanueva, Sarah Christensen, Anna Osborn and Maria Macias, volunteering is a way of life.

Although each woman has a set job, they all volunteer for multiple projects in their spare time. They’ve collectively volunteered for Hops Fest and Harvest Fest, and help out at St. Francis House when the need arises.

“We don’t think of it as volunteering because it’s just something we do,” said Villanueva.

“It’s like hanging out with cool people,” said Osborn.

“We don’t volunteer; we hang out,” added Christensen.

They also give their time to individuals. On Halloween, four of the women took a family trick-or-treating through downtown Hood River. “The kids said it was the best time of their lives,” said Ladwig. Because their mother doesn’t drive, the children would not have been able to participate otherwise.

Support Staff

The Jesuit Volunteers have a support team residing in Hood River and The Dalles: Patrick and Becky Rawson, and Mark and Gwen Thomas in Hood River, and Phil and Mary Jo Brady in The Dalles. The team serves as the women’s family away from home, calling to reflect on their experiences, dropping in to cook meals together, and offering everything from food to furniture.

They receive a small stipend for their monthly expenses. Four of them — Yiannoulis, Villanueva, Christensen and Osborn — also get small stipends from AmeriCorps, through which JVCNW is supported. They have a joint bank account, which they use to pay bills and buy groceries. There is no discretionary fund, but they’ve found they don’t miss things like television or Internet connections.

“Our stipend is very doable,” said Osborn.

Because all of the women wanted their experience here to be very community-oriented, they’ve set up their household like a family. They hold weekly meetings to decide who is cooking and who is grocery shopping, and to rotate house chores. They are “knitting machines and quite prolific with popsicle stick art,” said Ladwig, and Osborn added that they are in the process of building a hoop house on their 2-acre lot.

At the end of their year, the AmeriCorps members will get an educational award that can be used to pay off student loans or apply to graduate school. But the real reward, they agreed, is the experience.

Vicky Yiannoulis, Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital

Yiannoulis knew she wanted to do a year of service after graduating from Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y. The Bridgeport, Conn., native could have chosen Syracuse, N.Y., or Scranton, Pa., but ultimately chose Hood River.

“There was just something about the placement that drew me,” she said.

Yiannoulis, along with the other five Jesuit Volunteers, came to Hood River on Aug. 10, after an orientation and training in Molalla, Ore. Her first thought was that there were a lot of trees. Her second: “Let’s do this now.”

At Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, Yiannoulis works as a coordinator for the Volunteers in Action program, although she does some volunteering with Hospice as well. She arranges light housekeeping, shopping trips and visits for her clients, who are the elderly, chronically ill and disabled.

“My regulars are my best friends,” she said. “All my friends are 75 and older.”

She told the story of one such client, who wanted to “go get into trouble, get some lotion, get some milkshakes,” said Yiannoulis. They did get lotion — but not so much into trouble.

Yiannoulis likes that Hood River is very community-oriented and outdoorsy. In the four months she’s been here, she’s learned a lot about living in a community, and how to work in a functioning community, she said.

“Everyone we’ve surrounded ourselves with is concerned about community welfare,” she said. And that is something she will be looking for when she settles into a community of her own.

As for her placement, the biology major finds she’s getting an interesting perspective on health care. Plus, she added, “I get to hang out with my buddies all day.”

Hannah Ladwig, St. Francis House

Where Yiannoulis’ friends are 75 and over, Ladwig’s are all under 12.

Ladwig volunteers with St. Francis House, a placement she chose because of her previous work with youth camps, sports and mentorship programs. She also works with Mentors for Success with a high school student, and the ASPIRE program at Hood River Valley High.

She was offered a similar position in Phoenix, Ariz., but she turned it down in favor of Hood River. Actually, Ludwig had a list of 10 service opportunities to choose from. She wanted to come west, and St. Francis House “seemed like a good fit,” she said. “I had the exact skills it requires.”

Ladwig, a native of Milwaukee, Wis., attended Marquet University, where she majored in international affairs and Spanish. After studying in El Salvador, she had every intention of going abroad, and planned on applying with the Jesuit Corps Volunteer National program. However, she decided she wanted to “know my country first and serve it first,” volunteering in New Orleans, South Dakota and Milwaukee, and eventually applied to Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.

She has found Odell “more than I could have imagined,” she said. “It’s pretty inspiring, the kind of community that’s been built here.” Seeing both Mount Hood and Mount Adams from her yard doesn’t hurt, either. “Nature is stunning.”

At St. Francis House, she runs the program three of the five days; Patrick Rawson runs the program the other two. She does “all the prepping, cleaning and running of the after-school program,” including organizing volunteers and projects, and the writing of basic reports.

The youth center has been able to expand its hours thanks to Jesuit volunteers, and runs Monday through Friday from 2:15-6 p.m. Special activities usually take place on the weekends; recently, Ladwig took a group on a camping trip to Astoria.

“I just like hanging out with the kids at St. Francis House,” she said, adding that she’s been “overwhelmed with joy and happiness and family” since arriving. “Odell and Hood River have been very welcoming.”

Jasmine Villanueva, Columbia Gorge Community College

Villanueva is from Boston, Mass., and works in Latino outreach at Columbia Gorge Community College’s Hood River and The Dalles campuses. Her focus is getting Latino students into college and “finding the right action plan to help them complete college,” she said.

She’s also on the Foundations of Excellence and the Strategic Enrollment Management committees, as well as involved in a multi-cultural club, helping with initiatives and promoting student leadership.

Villanueva, a fashion design major, attended Lasell College in Newton, Mass., where she learned about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps from a staff member. As with Ladwig, she had a list of service opportunities to choose from after being accepted into the program. Columbia Gorge Community College was one of those options, and, as she had previously done volunteer work with a minority college outreach program, she felt well-matched for CGCC.

“I loved what the position was about,” she said.

Moving to Odell wasn’t a culture shock for Villanueva, even though she is used to living in a much bigger city. “I love it,” she said. “It’s a change, but it feels like a natural transition.

“I like how nature just overwhelms you here,” she said, noting that upon arriving, her first thought was to how small she was. “You get wrapped up in your own life, and then you look at Mount Hood.”

Sarah Christensen, Mid Valley Elementary

Christensen — or “Mr. Sarah,” as she is often called — has multiple roles at Mid Valley Elementary. She dons the orange vest for recess duty, where she organizes activities and teaches children about sportsmanship and respect. She has a second-grade Spanish literacy group, often meets with students who need one-on-one adult interaction, and helps at the school’s after-school care program. She can also be found teaching Zumba at St. Francis House.

“Children crawl in your heart and make a little nest there,” she said.

Christensen is an elementary education and English as a second language major, and attended St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. A native of Janesville, Wis., Christensen did a lot of volunteer work in college — St. Norbert’s is very service oriented — and was interested in post-graduate volunteer opportunities. She turned down four other volunteer programs before interviewing with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.

“It felt like the right fit,” she said.

While she could have gone to Denver, Miami, Chicago or Sacramento, Christensen chose Hood River and Mid Valley Elementary. A love of Hispanic community and culture, plus a desire to live with other volunteers, made the decision easy. In fact, she feels like Hood River picked her, and that coming was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

The mountains have drawn her in, as have the people she’s met. “I’m overwhelmed by the love in the Odell community,” she said. “I feel settled here, and present, even though it’s a year commitment. It feels like home.”

Anna Osborn, Gorge Grown Food Network

Osborn attended Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., where she majored in Spanish and environmental science. She was involved in the Creighton Center for Service and Justice, making weekly service trips to various agencies.

The university has a big emphasis on post-graduate volunteer work, said Osborn, adding that there were several volunteer sites for students around her native Omaha. She volunteered with a middle school after-school program, as well as a gardening program.

After graduating, she applied to Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest because of its emphasis on ecological justice and spirituality. This is her second year as a Jesuit volunteer — last year, she volunteered at an after-school program in Hillsboro.

This year, her volunteer choices included sites in New Jersey, Texas and South Carolina. “But I was really drawn to the Northwest, to this area, this culture and beautiful scenery,” she said. She had already visited Hood River, and the placement with Gorge Grown Food Network was an attractive one.

Osborn divides her time between Gorge Grown and with Michael Becker’s permaculture program at Hood River Middle School. With Gorge Grown, she does Hispanic outreach — getting people interested in the Thursday farmers market and making Gorge Grown programs more culturally sensitive.

“Most of the people who go (to Gorge Grown Farmers Market on Thursdays) are economically affluent,” she said. “We want to get people who normally wouldn’t go to go.”

Osborn also works to inform people that Gorge Grown is more than a farmers market — it includes cooking classes and demos, as well as regional food system educational opportunities. This winter, she’ll focus on refining established programs to make them more efficient.

As for living in Odell, she’s amazed by the supportive community she’s found there. “There’s an emphasis on community in this area that is unique and special,” she said.

Maria Macias, Hood River Health Department

Macias has a special connection with Jesuit Volunteer Corps; volunteers came to work in her mother’s kindergarten in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico, where she was also a student. An architecture major at Universidad de Coahuila, Macias decided on post-graduate volunteer work with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, wanting to be close to her childhood friend, who now resides in Spokane, Wash.

Hood River was her first choice because of its proximity to Spokane. She called her friend to ask if he knew anything about Hood River, and he immediately told her, “Do it.”

As for her placement, her interviews were all done via Skype with Health Department Supervisor Trish Elliot. She feels a special closeness to Elliot, and feels lucky to have come to Hood River.

At the health department, Macias works mainly in an outreach capacity, helping primarily low-income people enroll for health insurance through Cover Oregon and Gorge Access Program. She also translates when the need arises, and visits local nursing homes.

Sometimes her job is hard — she hears a lot of difficult stories. But “patients are always thanking me,” she said. “It keeps me motivated.” And the people she works with at the health department are incredible. “It seems like a family,” she said.

Everything about her experience here has been different than what she’s used to. “Where I live, it’s the desert, and there are a million people in my city,” she said. But she’s enjoying her time here. “I feel so blessed with everything,” she said. “The support people, the community … and that my housemates know Spanish.”

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