Irish volunteer finds family at Franciscan Center



ST. HELENA ISLAND  Saying she’s been “really busy” is somewhat of an understatement for Theresa Hassett, a native of Ireland who spent the month of June volunteering at the Franciscan Center on this sea island near Beaufort.

A niece of Franciscan Sister Sheila Byrne, a co-director of the center along with Franciscan Sister Stella Breen, Hassett lives in Cork, Ireland, and has been a high school teacher for the past 13 years.

“I asked the sisters when they were home last summer if I could work as a volunteer at the center,” said Hassett. “I wasn’t quite sure what I was volunteering for as I knew little about their work, but I knew I wanted to be of assistance, which is essential to volunteer work.”

Hassett, who is engaged to be married in Ireland next month, has spent her career teaching English as a Second Language classes in locales throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. With her impending nuptials, she finally felt settled enough to indulge her long-term interest in doing volunteer work. In addition, she would also be able to visit the states for the first time. Of that, said Hassett, “I’ve found the people here to be most approachable, polite, and mannerly.”

For the career educator, the schedule at the Franciscan Center must seem somewhat foreign, as it varies from day to day. June is the month when over 1,000 workers arrive to harvest the tomatoes, and a small store at the center provides many essential items needed by the seasonal laborers.

“My first morning on St. Helena Island I worked in the supply rooms sorting out boxes of long sleeve shirts and T-shirts with the many volunteers who are a constant support to the sisters,” said Hassett. She added that the drop-off area at the store is jammed with goods donated by the local community, and each day these items need to be unpacked, sorted, and displayed.

Volunteers make sure that the store is well stocked with items such as pillows, blankets, pots and pans, cutlery, and towel packages which include soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush. The migrant workers arrive in a constant stream by truck and bus, and the store becomes a beehive of activity.

“This is a constant source of work and vital not only to the migrants but also to the lower income families in the area,” Hassett said. “Having carefully selected what they need they leave you with the wonderful feeling of having been there for them.”

She also participated in the delivery of food to the migrant camps. This project began six months ago with a group of center volunteers who arranged everything from fund raising to the packing of boxes. One evening, 50 volunteers compiled more than 420 boxes of food assembly-style. The packages contained items such as rice, flour, maize, cooking oil, fish, canned meat, vegetables, fruit, soups, and other non-perishable foods.

The following day food was delivered to 10 migrant camps using all of the vehicles the center had at its disposal. Volunteers delivered one box of food per cabin, and two boxes if more than six people were in a room.

Said Hassett, “It was a delight to watch those among us who could speak Spanish telling the migrant workers how the food was organized to help them, and that we wished them well during the coming weeks of labor.”

The food deliveries were completed after two days, with the remaining boxes being given to migrants and others in the community as the need arises.

Another experience Hassett had at the migrant camps was preparing for Spanish Masses which were held there in the evenings. Father Gerald Lutz, former director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Charleston from 1991-94 who now lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., celebrated the liturgies, with Sisters Stella and Sheila leading the music. Hassett said she helped load the center’s truck with chairs so that the migrant workers could sit during the Mass. After the liturgies, she also distributed toys and baby clothes provided by students from St. Peter’s School. In addition, rosaries were also available for anyone who wanted them.

One activity which Hassett especially enjoyed in the Lowcountry was the annual picnic for 30 senior citizens from the LeRoy Brown Retirement Center on St. Helena Island. Residents arrived at the Franciscan Center early one morning and rested underneath the beautiful oak trees draped with Spanish moss against a backdrop of blue skies and high tide.

“We all ate copious amounts of delicious Southern fried chicken and sang praises to the Lord in the Gullah tradition,” Hassett said.

In addition to these seasonal or annual events, the sisters at the Franciscan Center conduct educational efforts throughout the year, teaching children’s classes in English and math. “Volunteer teachers are always welcome,” said Hassett, who explained that while a teaching background is helpful, volunteers with all kinds of expertise are needed in fields such as art, dance, music, photography, etc. “Really anyone can be a volunteer. There is so much to do in whatever area.”

In addition to her work with the sisters, Hassett is also using her teaching experience to help out at the Migrant School, an educational facility on St. Helena Island held only during the harvest season. “I spend some of my time teaching English to the older students, as the school is only a short distance from the center,” Hassett said, adding that she enjoys being with the “really smashing people over there.”

Another thoroughly enjoyable task, according to Hassett, has been running errands for Sisters Stella and Sheila and getting to drive the center’s truck, albeit on the right side of the road.