Cheverus launches 4-day immersion program in Portland
“You never notice how many homeless people there are until you face them every single day,” said Ella Cimino ’21.
Ella and six other Cheverus students participated in the first four-day immersion program in downtown Portland earlier this month. The intention of the workshop is to create opportunities to better understand multifaceted socio-economic issues right here in Portland. Ultimately, the program is “aimed at fostering connections. We want the kids to have a connection with the world -- and community -- in which they live,” said Cheverus Principal Dr. John Moran.
Moran led a similar program at a high school in the Boston area for ten years. Even after a decade, he continued to see the powerful impact each trip had on the kids and on the culture of the school community. Moran, together with Theology teacher Mary King, created the programming for this local immersion experience.
The group embarked on a journey towards compassionate understanding over the four days. They started at bilingual Mass at Sacred Heart/St. Dominic church on Sunday. Over the following days, they met with members of the community and heard personal stories of immigration, homelessness, and addiction. They lived simply. They slept on mats at the Root Cellar and spent their days serving and learning. Each morning, the group walked across town to prepare and serve meals at Preble Street and returned to the Root Cellar to assist with the after school program. Students met with city staff to learn about the process of securing general assistance, heard first-hand stories of immigrants who came to Portland as asylum seekers, talked with Jesuit Volunteer Corps members who have chosen to spend a year dedicated to service, and visited a substance abuse recovery center and the Oxford Street Shelter.
“Coming face to face with poverty, the students were able to learn people’s stories. It was a very humanizing experience,” said Matt Briand, nS.J., a novice preparing to become a Jesuit priest and member of the Cheverus Campus Ministry team who also served as an adult leader. The days were long and the stories they heard were often heartbreaking. Each day was bookended with reflection. The leaders knew that creating space for the students to reflect individually and to share their thoughts and feelings as a group would be a critical component of processing this experience.
When asked why she participated in this immersion experience, Ava Rausch ’21 said, “Honestly, I wanted community service hours. I also thought it would be good to learn more about Portland.” However, after four days of living and serving in the city, she concluded, “You get so much more out of it than just service hours. You get a real experience. You make connections with people you never thought you would.” She continued, “I really connected with some kids and I want to go back to volunteer.”
The experience was emotionally powerful. Many of the participants mentioned the trepidation they had on the first day, not knowing what to expect. They also spoke about how that fear eased as the days went on. Like many things in life, “Once you get to know the people, you are not afraid,” said Ava. Ella was struck by the generosity and kindness the team encountered across the city. She volunteered at Preble Street before, but this approach of consecutive days of service was different. She said she got to know people and they got to know her, “It really put things in perspective.”
The mission of Cheverus High School is to “educate young men and women to be people for and with others.” While serving at Preble Street, the students met an alumnus who lives this mission. Andrew Bove ’02 is the resource center director at Preble Street and the group was grateful that he took the time to share his passion for his work. “I thought it was amazing to see someone from Cheverus -- someone from our community -- doing so much good,” said Ava. Evangelo Kapothanasis ’21 added, “There is so much good work being done in Portland, and that is a beautiful part of Portland.”
Teacher Mary King, director of the Cheverus Immersion Program, found the experience very meaningful, “We witnessed the transformation. Their lens widened on these issues.” Students challenged preconceived notions, deepened their empathy, and grew significantly in a short period of time. They did not leave this experience with solutions -- in fact, probably a lot more questions -- but they faced these issues, shared stories, looked into the eyes of their neighbors, and made connections.
For more information on the Immersion Program at Cheverus go to immersion.cheverus.org.