Franciscan volunteers at St. Paul’s learn about themselves by serving others


Staff reporter

WILMINGTON — They are recent college graduates, but the education they have received working among the poor and needy in New Castle County has broadly expanded what they learned on the way to a degree.

Five members of the St. Paul’s Parish community in Wilmington are spending a year, and in one case a second year, volunteering in Delaware to help make the area a better place. The quintet, who are here with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, have found great purpose in their work.

The group performs a variety of tasks in and around Wilmington, according to Katie Sullivan, director of FVM. At St. Paul’s, they teach English as a second language. They visit with patients and families at A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children; meet with and teach inmates at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution; work at a Ministry of Caring child-care center and St. Joseph’s Parish on French Street; and assist with Mass for workers at Delaware Park racetrack.

The Franciscan volunteers serving in Wilmington this year are Dorothy DiMarino (left), Yanil Rojas, Nicole Gagliardi, Jeff Sved and Sarah Teetsel.

“They do everything from social to service to spiritual,” said Sullivan, herself a former Franciscan volunteer.

FVM has been around since 1987 and in Wilmington since 1998. Groups of volunteers also work in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.

Dorothy DiMarino, 24, is in her second year as a volunteer in Wilmington. A native of Cleveland, she was involved in the Newman Center at her alma mater, Ohio State University. Some of her friends had done a year of service and told her of the positive experience they had encountered. One of the aspects of the program she likes is how the volunteers’ skills and interests are matched with the opportunities.

“A unique part of our program is that when we came to Wilmington we got to experience the different possibilities that we could be involved in and then individually decide what are my gifts, what can I offer, as well as where is the need,” she said.

Relating to immigrants

DiMarino is joined by Sarah Teetsel, Yanil Rojas, Nicole Gagliardi and Jeff Sved. Rojas was born in the Dominican Republic, but her family moved, first to New York, then Lawrence, Mass. Her experience in Wilmington is similar in most ways to her fellow volunteers, but also different because she is an immigrant whose native language is Spanish. She can relate to what the workers at Delaware Park or Hispanics at St. Paul’s are going through.

“Being an immigrant myself, I can relate to the immigrants at Delaware Park and at the parish more closely because we have that shared experience. Part of my role also has been closing that bridge between the community and our ministry in a sense,” said Rojas, 22, who graduated from Merrimack College last year with a psychology degree.

She called her ministry to immigrants a blessing and a challenge “because it’s so close to me.” She felt drawn to service because she had opportunities that she wants to show other immigrants are possible, such as attending college.

One of the personal experiences she shares with those she helps is being separated from family. At one point during her childhood, both of her parents were working in the United States while she was in the Dominican Republic, so she knows how this affects families.

“I can relate to that very closely and try to help them be a better parent far away from their children, which is very hard. Just knowing that God is there with them and reminding them of that is a simple thing that you can do,” Rojas said.

By staying for a second year, DiMarino has expanded on what she had begun in 2010-2011.

“This year, I’m spending most of my time in the women’s prison. A big piece of why I wanted to stay was just to continue to be part of different relationships and be a consistent piece of those relationships for a little bit longer,” she said.

She is drawn to the prison “because so many people are needing that stability or just needing to be heard, have that consistent part of their life. At the prison, we get a chance to see the women in different settings, whether it be in the education department or in or a couple different church services that we help with or in the visiting room, visiting the women one on one. It’s a really unique opportunity.”

Identity question

Teetsel, 22, said she has learned about herself as well as the people she has served since last summer.

“One of the biggest reasons of why I’ve done this year has been to answer that question of who am I and what am I about, who am I becoming. To my amazement, I’ve been able to sit with that question a lot and been able to work on that. I don’t have an official answer, but I’m definitely working on it,” said Teetsel, who is from Fulton, N.Y., north of Syracuse.

Teetsel said the process could be likened to putting a poster up on a wall of who she is. The poster she put up last summer when she arrived in Wilmington was who she thought she was and wanted others to believe. As time has passed, she has torn down the poster.

“What surprises me is that there’s a mirror underneath. It doesn’t hold the answers, but am I able to see a new part of myself that I had, at one point, forgotten of dismissed or hidden?

“I think a big part of that has been the people that I work with,” said Teetsel, who is a graduate of Nazareth College.

The five live in a house across the street from St. Paul’s. Each week includes a prayer day and  rest day. Franciscans place a great emphasis on community, and the group is required to pray and eat together at least once a week. The volunteers said they enjoy watching television and talking.

“We devote a lot of time to each other, and we treat it as a ministry in itself, just being present for one another and being a source of support,” Rojas said.

When the volunteer year ends in July, DiMarino will head home to Cleveland to attend graduate school, but she said she really likes Delaware and wouldn’t rule out returning to the state. Teetsel is considering applying for a second year of service or living in a monastery because she is intrigued by “that balance of work and prayer.”

The trio said a year of volunteering is not for everyone, but they would recommend it to those who feel called.

“It’s a lot of effort and a lot of commitment, but you get so much back,” Rojas said.

DiMarino said she has gained much more from her time with the FVM than she ever thought possible.

“If you just make yourself available to learning something new about others, to learning something new about yourself, your world can become so much bigger, your heart can become so much bigger,” she said.