It was my sophomore year of college when I found myself on a school bus packed with other students headed for Pilsen. This bus was shipping students all across the city for what DePaul University calls Vincentian Service Day, a day marked by volunteerism in the name of St. Vincent de Paul.
While this might not be a normal occurrence at every university, it was an annual reality for those at DePaul.
At that time the volunteering that I was doing was interpersonal and on the ground, working with others from DePaul and from the community seeking volunteers. This year, Vincentian Service Day, also affectionately known as VSD, was very different due to the social distancing measures in place in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
During a pandemic, volunteering for Vincentian Service Day does not look the same as it has in the past. There are no dirty hands working in community gardens, no food kitchens packed with people, no tutoring sessions in school libraries. These acts have been replaced by virtual card writing and mask-making in an effort to keep both volunteers and communities in need safe.
“Vincent and Louise 400 years ago in times of public crisis tried to listen and learn and see what are the new ways that we are being called to serve,” Karl Nass, the director of the Vincentian Service and Formation office at DePaul, said of the event held last Saturday. “These are new ways that we are trying to listen and learn from experience to see how we are being called and invited to serve.”
These new ways of volunteering defined VSD 2020 when over 800 DePaul students, faculty, staff and alumni became helpers for a variety of local, national and international organizations, all from the comfort of their own homes.
“I really didn’t have too many expectations for virtual VSD,” said Maddie Fernandez, a sophomore at DePaul studying environmental science. “It lived up to what I thought it was going to be — very flexible and very Zoom.”
Fernandez found herself volunteering from her living room table surrounded by a stack of paper and craft supplies. One of her jobs that day was to make thank you cards for health care workers with her fellow colleagues at DePaul’s University Center for Writing-based Learning.
“I didn’t get a chance to do it last year and thought it would be a great way to join the DePaul community and do things that help others when so many people are out and risking their lives for others,” Fernandez said.
While few participants knew what to expect when it came to virtual volunteering, those who participated found that the increased accessibility and comfort of remote service made the day a success. That is why it’s hard for them to imagine that it almost didn’t happen.
“We thought that VSD was going to be canceled completely,” Katherine Morzy, a freshman studying political science and a Vincentian Service Day team member, said after learning that DePaul’s spring quarter was to be held remotely. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it.”
The blow was hard for Morzy who, after taking a course on Vincentian service in Chicago the first quarter of her freshman year, was eager to participate in her first Vincentian Service Day.
Despite their own doubts of how the first virtual Vincentian Service Day in 21 years might operate, Morzy said that the planning team was willing to take on any challenge necessary to make it happen.
All of which is easier said than done. Morzy and her team were faced with a few different obstacles, one of which included finding organizations to volunteer with in the first place. While previous service days have focused on volunteerism in Chicago, going virtual came with a whole new slew of possible foundations that needed help.
The product was impressive; students had the ability to choose from volunteering opportunities that included working with the Smithsonian Transcription Center for a day, organizing documents at the Library of Congress or writing uplifting letters that would be sent to children around the world with the help of Cardz for Kidz.
“Anyone can see that the world is hurting right now,” Morzy said. “It’s so important that we struggle through the different hurdles to deliver the same kind of care and service and feeling we would in any other manner, just in different ways.”
That need to help those helping others drove many DePaul students to take part in the day. It turns out that there is really nothing more motivational when it comes to volunteering than a pandemic.
“Now, more than ever, it is important to take the extra steps to foster intentional community and do what must be done,” Claire Black, a senior studying neuroscience, said. For Black, it was not just the desire to honor health care and other essential workers during this time, but a way to reconnect with other students in a way that feels lost to all of us now.
“The challenges we are facing are unprecedented, and it is really easy to feel isolated in this time,” Black said.
To remedy the feeling of isolation, Black created a Zoom group where she and other student leaders that were part of Vincentians In Action, an on-campus organization that does service work, could chat while writing letters to senior citizens at the Paul House and Healthcare Center in Chicago.
The mission behind Vincentian Service Day, an event that, for many busy college students, is taken for granted, has rightfully been transformed. Not only was the day about volunteering but about reconnecting with friends, doing good for those risking everything and showing people that they are not alone.
I didn’t realize it before, but that is what Vincentian Service Day is all about.
“We’re rooted in a Vincentian family and legacy of 400 years of responding to the reality of our times with expressions of love and solidarity,” Nass said. “This is an important way that we stay committed to it.”
Header image by Natalie Wade