Christina Ortiz | Director of the Ignatian Immersion & Solidarity Program
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, this spring Regis Jesuit again sent our juniors and seniors into the community to engage in Immersion Experiences (formerly known as Service Projects) around the metro Denver area as part of the school's Ignatian Immersion & Solidarity Program (IIS), which is supported by an endowed fund begun with last year's LARK paddle raiser. Program Director Christina Ortiz shares this reflection on changes to the program and the insights and impacts these experiences held.
During Junior-Senior Immersions, I found myself on the phone with one of the directors at Chelsea Place, a memory care facility that was hosting junior volunteers at the time. We were discussing logistics, but before I got off the phone she said, “I want you to know that your students are doing amazing here. The staff has been taken aback by all of them, in particular one of your junior boys. For the last few days, we have found him just sitting with one of our nonverbal residents, holding her hand. When we asked him if she was talking at all, he smiled and told us, ‘We communicate in different ways.’ It is quite the sight to see a teenage boy—one who looks like he is probably on the football team—sitting in silence with one of our elders, just holding hands.”
This has been one of the primary images from immersions this year that stuck with me. In the vision for the IIS Program, we state that this program exists to dissolve real and perceived barriers between our students and the wider global, interconnected world. Dissolving those barriers requires so much of our students: humility, flexibility, patience, presence and vulnerability, to name a few. Working with vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the poor, the unhoused, the disabled, requires our students to let go of preconceived notions about others and about the world, and to put relationship first. Perhaps the hardest lesson they have to learn is how to be present to people before you try to do anything for them.
This year, we were not only able to return to our traditional program of sending all 800 juniors and seniors out into the community, but we also began a new tradition of hosting a few small groups of students for an overnight immersion. Two groups of seniors and one group of juniors each committed to a truly immersive experience as they spent an entire week away from their families and friends and instead spent their evenings praying together and reflecting on what they had seen/learned each day at their sites. The seniors worked with Bal Swan preschool which serves a combination of children with special needs and typical needs in Westminster. The juniors volunteered at Tennyson Center, a school and program for at-risk youth who come from abusive and traumatic backgrounds.
There are many stages of growth our students go through as they process their immersion experiences. Many, such as Sawyer McFarland ’23, start by reflecting on the privileges of their own upbringing, “Working with these kids all week and learning about their stories have put things into perspective for me. I may complain about a test or a bad grade while these kids are just looking to be loved and cared for. Everyone has their own struggles and challenges, but it is important to notice the people who have to fight to be loved. I am very fortunate to be loved and cared for.”
Beyond just appreciating what they have though, we hope that our students are inspired to act to make the world a better place. Katelyn Nelson ’23 thinks a key part of that is overcoming self. “I was able to overcome myself this week at the Tennyson Center by growing in patience, persistence and openness to love… By the end of the week, my perspective that our job as volunteers was to directly help the kids, developed into the perspective that our main job was to support them on their journey.” Molly Nichols ’23 learned that embracing uncomfortable experiences is crucial to loving others. “It was an intimidating environment and I didn’t feel comfortable, not once. I think, though, that that is the point of immersion.” She goes on to say that she had to learn to see people for their whole, authentic selves “rather than stand in judgment at how they carry their own cross across the broken path they’ve been placed on.”
Perhaps the most unexpected part of immersions for our students is learning how much they themselves long to be accepted and loved. High school can feel like a very unforgiving, unkind place for many teenagers. Many of them struggle with the feelings of not being ‘enough’, whether that’s in the classroom, on the field or the stage or in the hallways. In their day-to-day lives though, they feel they must hide those insecurities and bury them deep enough inside so that no one can see them. The very idea of being a vulnerable person though means that their insecurities and “shortcomings” are right on the surface for everyone to see. As our students engage with the kind, generous, patient and, oftentimes, hilarious guests/clients at their sites, they learn how much strength can be found in vulnerability.
Before immersions start, we ask our students to reflect on their feelings going in. Almost all of them express a fear that they won’t be good enough for their site or that they won’t know how to help. On the first day, they are amazed at how welcome they feel right away. Some are greeted by young children who immediately want to be their best friend, no questions asked. Others are welcomed to conversations and activities with guests/clients, and they are surprised that they are the ones being taken care of rather than the other way around. Rahel Seyoum ’23 reflected early in her immersion, “In my family, it’s tradition for the children to sit at a separate table during the holidays. When I was younger, all I wanted was a seat at the table—to be an integral part of something bigger than myself and to have a space where I could voice my opinions without fear. As I grew older, this desire manifested in a need for diversity and inclusion without the toll of discrimination and without the need for conformity. Today, I got a seat at the table. Today, I became a part of something larger than myself. Today, I spent time with three of the most amazing and inspiring Black men that I have ever met…I look up to these men, and I am grateful that, today, they offered me a seat at the table.”
So much of the human experience is rooted in a desire to belong; to feel that someone genuinely cares. Immersions are just a little reminder for our students that there is a place for everyone at God’s table.
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