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But Why New Jersey?? A Call to Serve as a GSV During Gap Year Before Medical School

[This post was originally delivered as a speech by Martina Penalosa at the 2019 Good Shepherd Volunteers Spring Benefit]

A year, depending on how you think about it, can either seem like the blink of an eye or an eternity. I feel as though this year as a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Collier High School has been flying by. So much has happened this year, and without a doubt this experience has been transformative for all of us [volunteers] in the best way possible. A year ago today, I can say that I was in a very different place in my life. (Quite literally, I was on the other side of the country in California.) It was a period of transition and uncertainty as I worked on medical school applications while also frantically searching for a job. But what sort of job was the real question, and where? What values were important to me, and brought meaning and purpose into my life? I knew that whether it was through coaching an athlete during a Special Olympics practice or conversing with a homeless individual as I served them dinner in West Hollywood, I felt most alive and humbled by the people surrounding me. I could not think of a more meaningful and better way to spend my gap year than by continuing to immerse myself in service. Choosing to do a year of service was a difficult choice to make (as I’m sure it was for most of us). My parents and other family members had expectations of what a typical post-grad job would be, whether it be working as a scribe in a hospital or continuing neurology research in my lab. A service year teaching on the East Coast was something most of my family members didn’t initially understand (“But why New Jersey??” was always the first question I got when I explained my future plans).

Martina, Sr. Fran Lomeo, and Sarah at GSV's 2019 Spring Benefit

Of all the service year programs to choose from (and all of them are wonderful), there was one main reason why the Good Shepherd Volunteer program was the right calling for me. Coming from a very large university, I did not have many close mentors and felt like I lacked guidance. I knew in the next transition of my life that a professional and personal support system was important to me. One of the first things that immediately stood out to me about the GSV program was the strong support system, that sense of true community which I felt was something that a lot of other service programs did not have, or at least did not emphasize as much. The numerous retreats have given us an opportunity to share quality time with one another and get to know each other better. I am constantly inspired as I hear stories from each volunteer about the different experiences and lessons learned through their worksites. Saint Mary Euphrasia, who founded the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, said, “If you always love one another, if you always uphold one another, you will be capable of working wonders.” Uphold is the word that stands out to me here, and I think not only of empowering the students my community members and I work with, but also of how my community members and I empower each other. Every day at Collier is a blessing, and being able to share victories and struggles, joys and sorrows with my fellow community members is a unique experience I will never be able to recreate. 

We are able to be vulnerable with each other, celebrate our individualities, and resolve conflict with a spirit of peace and commitment to one another and to the wellbeing of the community. The other GSVs I work and live with aren’t just my roommates; they really feel like my sisters. There are some days where we come back from work exhausted, but when we lift each other up, we are able to see the good in each day and encourage one another in our work. It is this community of love and the sharing of values and a higher purpose that gives me the greatest strength when challenges arise while working towards social justice! Recently, two students whom I had worked closely with left the school for personal reasons. Both goodbyes were abrupt and unexpected, and I didn’t realize how much I was impacted by their absences until after they were gone. I missed tutoring Chris in math and motivating him in basketball, and I missed driving Audrey to work and seeing how much she enjoyed working at the retirement home. I was sad for a few days and was having a harder time with their absence, but talking it out with my roommates and their simple words of comfort and understanding really helped me process and see the positive in the sudden change. Although it is unlikely that I will see the two students again, talking it out with my community members made me felt renewed and motivated to continue my work and give that same care to other students. This is just one of the many instances where we have given each other so much love and support.

Like I said earlier, so much can happen in a year, and I oftentimes cannot believe how lucky I am to have gotten to know the 12 volunteers who committed to a year of service and share that passion with me. I am truly blessed to live in community with individuals who constantly inspire me with their desires to make positive change in this world.Pursuing a service year was a big, new decision for me, and a year ago I took a leap of faith and listened to that spiritual call. I haven’t looked back since. While this gap year before returning to school has still been a year of transition for me, I can say that it has also been a year of realization and discovery. Every day I am challenged, asking my self how I can best live out generosity, patience, and gratitude. The Sisters’ values of mercy, zeal, reconciliation, and individual dignity have also shaped both my personal and professional life. I strive to live these values in action not only during my interactions with the students, but also with the staff at Collier and my community members. I will carry these lessons into my future career and into the rest of my life, and again I am so grateful for the opportunity that Good Shepherd Volunteers has given me this year, not only to serve, but also to learn more about how to live out love through my experience with the GSV community.                                                                                            Written by, Martina Penalosa Wickatunk Community '18-'19


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