Enrique listens as Aly Olsen describes Reins of Life, Inc. whose mission is to improve the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities through equine-assisted activities. The Summons Project encourages students to engage in care for others and the environment through a months-long relationship of service with a local organization.

Eighth graders at Saint Joseph Grade School are abuzz about the possibilities before them as they prepare to embark on self-directed service in the South Bend community.

On Oct. 2, representatives from 18 local service organizations came to the Saint Joseph campus to meet with the students during the second annual Summons Community Partners Luncheon. Among those gathered were men and women who work with persons with disabilities, the homeless, the food insecure, those who are coming out of incarceration, the elderly and with animals in need. The representatives shared about their work, then met with the students in small group rotations so they could ask questions and learn more about how they might get involved.

“It was so inspiring to see so many young people who are excited to share their gifts and talents with us,” said Kate Fischer, community engagement coordinator for Hannah’s House, a maternity home that empowers pregnant women facing homelessness to begin a process of transformation. “It was also a fun way to hear more about all of the amazing work in our community.”

Todd Zeltwanger directs fund development for Cultivate, a food rescue organization that seeks to reduce food waste by repurposing prepared, unserved food and getting it to the people and organizations in the community who need food the most. “I loved interacting with each one and look forward to spending time with any that might choose to work with Cultivate,” he said following the luncheon.

The meeting, their research and guided discernment about their own gifts and passions have led the eighth graders to each make a personal commitment to one local organization for the next six months. This service experience is called the Summons Project.

“I would love to work with La Casa,” wrote student Enrique Lizarraga in his initial email to Humberto Delgado, assistant executive director and youth coordinator at La Casa de Amistad. “I had a chance to volunteer back in seventh grade and I think the work you do makes a difference. As someone with Latino roots, I find it important to help my community.”

“I would love to work with Pet Refuge,” wrote Ana Sofia Macharaschwili to the organization. “I would like to be very hands-on with the animals and will be happy to do anything they need special help with. I believe God has equipped me for this work because I love animals and always enjoy being with them. I also am very good with animals and I know a lot about them, so I feel like I would do well at Pet Refuge.”

The Saint Joseph students were not limited to selecting an organization that was represented at the Summons Community Partners Luncheon, or even those the St. Joseph faculty had been in touch with and invited. They were encouraged to discern their unique gifts and passions and where they might be called to use them.

Tom Farrell, an aspiring engineer and pilot, reached out to Make South Bend. “I would like to help out with classes and anything else like cleaning, fixing and other stuff that needs to get done,” he wrote. “I believe God has equipped me for this work because I know a lot about how things work, and I like teaching others on how things work.”

The students have been formed for the venture through their years at Saint Joseph Grade School. Recently designated a 2019 Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, Saint Joseph educates in the Holy Cross tradition by forming both minds and hearts. School culture and the children’s daily experiences are grounded in the mission of making God known, loved and served.

Gabriel and Sam, center and right, engage in conversation with a representative, seeking to discover to which service organization their gifts and passions will lead them.

Each grade level has a long-time partnership with a local service organization, including St. Margaret’s House, Hope Ministries and the Christ Child Society, where the students serve in many ways throughout the year.

Given this breadth of experiences, the Saint Joseph faculty devised the Summons Project as a new endeavor for students in their eighth grade year to help them to plunge more deeply into service as a personal response to God’s call to holiness, community, solidarity and generosity.

Named after the hymn “The Summons” by John L. Bell, the Summons Project is a yearlong, cross-curricular enterprise wherein students discern their God-given gifts and passions, develop and complete a service project that directs them toward the needs of others in the community and share their experiences with their classmates and families through a capstone celebration called the Summons Summit.

To guide them through the Summons Project, each eighth grader is grouped with two or three classmates and a faculty mentor who facilitates their engagement and helps them to reflect on the journey of service.

The next step for the eighth graders is to go out and fulfill their service. They will be encouraged not only to give but to also receive, being open to the surprising ways grace will be at work in them and in those they encounter.

Sam Norwood is among the students who are very much looking forward to it. “I’m excited to work with the Center for the Homeless. I can’t wait to get started!

Article written by SJGS teacher Brittany Gelchion, published in Today’s Catholic on November 5, 2019.