By Chris Neville
When I was applying to colleges, I toured a few of those located in Philadelphia. At each one, my tour guide said something along the lines of, “Philadelphia is a big city, but it’s really a big college town.” Working at St. Peter’s, I have definitely found this to be true. Relationships with the various institutions of higher learning in this city have been highly beneficial to me during my time at St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.
As might be expected, these institutions have been an unfailing source of volunteers. I receive emails weekly from individual students or student groups who want to serve at St. Peter’s. During my tenure here, we have had volunteer groups from Thomas Jefferson University, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Temple University, and Bryn Mawr College. In addition, the universities of Philadelphia have provided me with skilled volunteers who help me to improve the food cupboard. Every autumn, we partner with the Intercultural Communication master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania, which provides us with five to seven students who volunteer at the food cupboard every Saturday for an entire semester, helping us to discover and overcome cultural barriers between us and our clients. Many of these students are able to provide the indispensable service of interpreting between Mandarin and English. Another skilled volunteer is Claire, a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University who chose to do her community internship with us, studying food security in Philadelphia. Claire has brought skills that enable her to serve in food cupboard leadership positions and to review and edit our grant applications.
Encouraged by these partnerships that basically fell into my lap, I began actively seeking more relationships with Philadelphia universities. At the suggestion of one of my board members, I contacted a group of Temple MBA students, requesting that they analyze how the food cupboard functions and suggest changes that could help us to operate more smoothly. We recently had an initial meeting with these students, who are excited to put their coursework into practice to help us out. I am also contacting various student groups in search of volunteer Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese interpreters.
Aside from volunteers, relationships with Philadelphia universities have provided me with amazing networking opportunities. When I mentioned that I am considering looking for a job in biological research at the close of my Servant Year term, multiple volunteers offered to help me connect with researchers at their respective institutions. Additionally, my official Servant Year mentor is a very well-connected visiting professor at the Wharton School of Business. Every time we meet, he offers to connect me with someone interesting or potentially helpful.
When talking about networking, Lindsay, our program director, once told me, “Philadelphia is a big city, but you’ll find it’s really a small town. Everyone knows everyone.” This, too, I have found to be true. Philadelphia has skyscrapers, a subway system, and 1.5 million inhabitants, but it’s also a small college town full of well-resourced people who are eager to serve their community.
Chris Serves as Manager of the St. Peter's Food Cupboard
By Chris Neville
I think my experience in Servant Year thus far can be boiled down to these two realizations:
Take this, for example: I remember, during orientations at various retail jobs, my new employers telling me that I was going to gain customer service skills that would be valuable in my later career. I nodded politely, thinking to myself, But actually no, because I am not planning on making retail a career. Heh. Guess what?Those grueling shifts at Arby’s and Bath and Body Works really did hone my customer service skills, and I really am using them. Thanks to those experiences, I can throw myself into a Saturday morning grocery distribution at St. Peter’s and manage to be kind and present to every client and volunteer, no matter how crazy the last one I met was. If I can exude positive energy toward a woman ready to take me to court over an expired coupon, I can be positive toward a grumpypants who needs some food. My service sector supervisors were right, after all. Wow. Thanks, guys.
As a student, when I would have to work with or talk to people who got on my nerves for one reason or another, I would do my best to appreciate their good qualities. Always in the back of my mind, however, was a thought akin to: This person needs to learn ____, or she will not make it in the real world. You just can’t act like that! I think I assumed that all “successful” adults possess a fully formed array of social skills. That, it turns out, is not true. Lacking social skills does not mean you lack marketable skills. As a result, difficult people do not disappear from your life after college. Darn.
My senior year of high school, when I was applying to colleges, a few people recommended that I take a gap year. The thought terrified me. A year of aimlessness? How about “no”? My life needed to follow a defined course of action. So I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I admitted that was a problem, but delaying college and taking a mysterious unstructured year in which to “find myself” would have been a much bigger problem. You see where this is going.
Servant Year is very much like a gap year (for some people, it is one). I am not working toward a structured, multi-year goal. I am exploring career options, going to discernment meetings, and trying new things. Wonderfully, I have become ok with this. Even through the end of my last year at college, I was working fervently to nail down exactly what my vocation is and to make it happen.
Through the readings we have had for spiritual formation meetings, I have come to accept that my vocation is not one thing that I have to find before I can fully live my life. Rather, I have come to respect that I will find my vocation by listening to my inner leadings. I can appreciate God at work in my life now instead of trying to envision what a God-filled life would look like. I am finally at a place where I am comfortable spending years exploring different careers and lifestyles. Alleluiah.
Chris Serves as Program Manager for St. Peter's Food Cupboard.