It was a cloudy, windy January afternoon. I walked into Capernaum hesitant, but also excited to see everyone. Young Life Capernaum is a nonprofit Christian ministry serving people of all ages and faiths who have physical and/or developmental disabilities. Inside, I sat beside Rebecca, a bright, ridiculously funny fifteen-year-old who is visually impaired. We talked about her day at school, and if she had any plans for the weekend. As more kids came rolling into the club room, I noticed the loud exciting conversations about the basketball game that was on the previous night.
“Did you watch the game?” I asked Rebecca, immediately regretting my choice of words and my entire question.
She laughed. “I listened to it, but it got boring so I stopped halfway,” she said.
It was one of the many encounters, both small and momentous, that I experienced as a volunteer through the Santa Clara University Arrupe program. Like many students, I was wary of the program at first, but I came away with a better understanding of the world around me and a belief that volunteering reduces the marginalization of the disabled, the homeless, immigrants and other groups. In addition, it enables students to get outside the classroom and the SCU bubble and truly immerse themselves in their community.
In order to graduate from Santa Clara University, at least one session of the Arrupe program is required. The program is a community based volunteering that is connected with certain courses at the university. For the ten weeks of the course, typically students are required to complete 20 hours of volunteering with an organization.
Young Life Capernaum is a place for friendship, fun, and self-expression. The Capernaum high school club is held every Tuesday from 2 to 4 PM. In addition to living with a disability, these children often face neglect, isolation, and bullying at their schools. Most of them only have relationships with service people — physical therapists, doctors, teachers, and others who primarily function as a caretaker. Besides the lack of social life, these individuals face obstacles that most of us are unaware of and most likely will never experience.
“We are acting as a bridge by which kids with disabilities can find life,” said Capernaum founder Nick Polermo. “It is a being a friend and helping them get to places they cannot go on their own.”
Approximately 10 percent of the world population lives with a disability, according to the United Nations, including more than 56 million Americans. Yet, in a survey with 50 SCU students, only 15 thought it was necessary to have contact with the poor, and just 19 thought volunteering was necessary. (When the same survey was given in East San Jose at a public school, almost all students said it is necessary to volunteer and help people in need.)
Danny Hartman, a senior political science major, was “skeptical” about volunteering at Capernaum as a requirement for his Religion and Society course.
“I felt kind of forced,” he said. “My mindset after one session changed toward the requirement. It was more fun than I expected. Once I got to know the kids and they get to know me, it became something I looked forward to.”
Like Hartman, many students are not pleased with the mandatory volunteering requirement at SCU, but they often find it fulfilling in the end.”
“My overall experience at Capernaum taught me so much about myself and also about the marginalized society in our communities” Hartman said.
Volunteering lends support to those in need, and provides a personal sense of hope and fulfillment.
“It was one of the most memorable experiences of my time at Santa Clara University,” Hartman said.
Taneisha Figeuroa, a senior communication major, completed two Arrupe placements. Her first was at the Senior Home for her Anthropology of Aging course. She taught older adults how to use tablets, phones and computers. For those who spoke English as a second language, she helped them pay bills and make appointments.
“Life doesn’t end once you hit the age of 60 or 70,” she said. “I understand my parents and grandparents way of thinking much better. I don’t judge as much.”