Volunteering — just a natural part of life



JOHNS ISLAND — The sisters at Our Lady of Mercy Outreach Center are seeing the fruits of their labor with volunteer Erin LaMarche.

After graduating from St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., the 24-year-old wanted to explore her talents. Her mother, a chaplain at Boston University, gave her the 2000 Response directory, published by the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service (CNVS). There she found and researched outreach organizations throughout the country. Luckily, the OLM center was on her list.

“I chose this outreach because it offers so many different services and would be the most diverse experience,” said LaMarche.

She is enrolled at Boston University where she will start in the fall working toward her master’s in theology.

In the interim she is spending six months on Johns Island, February to August.

“I wanted to do something more constructive. I didn’t want to spend time waitressing, but rather doing something more positive that would add to my experience in grad school,” said LaMarche.

The Volunteers in Ministry Program (VIM) at the outreach center is relatively new.

Sister Mary Joseph Ritter, director, and Sister Carol Wentworth run the outreach with a large pool of local volunteers, 75 to 80 people whom they can call on for help. They sought to expand their volunteer service with the VIM program.

They joined CNVS three years ago and are slowly developing their long-term volunteer service. In the VIM program participants may stay from two weeks to nine months. Since the program’s inception most volunteers have stayed only for a few weeks, until LaMarche.

The long-term arrangements have delighted all parties. The sisters are enjoying the hard work and vitality that LaMarche has brought to the center, and she loves it.

“We have a saying here ‘Blessings from the heart,’ and Erin has been a real blessing,” said Sister Carol.

The eighth of nine children, LaMarche’s parents always encouraged them to get involved in volunteer service, which Erin and her siblings did.

“Volunteering is helping me to determine my gifts,” said LaMarche.

While she has volunteered most of her life, the long-term stay is new for her, too. “It’s an opportunity to develop relationships. I’ve gotten to know the families,” she said. She is sharing in the cultural aspects of the community and participated in a Hispanic celebration.

Her work at the outreach center has been varied. She visits the homebound, works with Jakki Jefferson at Haut Gap Middle School in the cultural experience program, teaches English as a Second Language, tutors after school, works with the NAILS program, helps maintain the food and clothing closet at the outreach, and visits with senior citizens on Wadmalaw Island. She is also helping to run the health screenings in the migrant camps.

LaMarche even started a new program, a Girls Club. She has assembled a small group of girls from grades fourth to seventh with whom she meets once a month. They discuss topics like healthy relationships, fitness and hygiene.

Since she loves meeting new people, it is no wonder that her favorite activities involve people interaction.

“Everyone’s been very hospitable and welcoming,” said LaMarche. “The people make it so easy to be here.”

While her room and board are provided, she also receives a small allowance. The sisters have made time available for their long-term volunteer to do some outside activities unrelated to the outreach. She was interested in participating in the Lowcountry’s Spoleto Festival, but said she loves being at the outreach center.

In July, LaMarche will share the volunteer home, which opened in December, with three women, who are coming to participate in the VIM program. Together they will work with students in the Yes, I Can! summer camp, while keeping up with the myriad of outreach programs.

Sister Carol said that many people come for the rich culture in the area, but for LaMarche it is just natural.

She laughs, in a don’t-be-silly kind of way, when people tell her that six months dedicated to outreach service is commendable.

“I’ve always participated in volunteer work,” said LaMarche. “It’s a natural thing to do.”