My time here in Rochester, even just these past three days, has been quite the eye-opening experience, and wonderful in so many ways, in terms of all four pillars of SOUL: Faith, Service, Community, and Transformation.

Here in Rochester, we’re staying with the Sisters of St. Joseph, a religious community with a fascinating history we got to learn more about today when we had dinner at their mother house this past evening. While they’ve only been in Rochester for a few decades, their order was founded in France back even before the French Revolution. They started small, only a group of six women who wanted to serve their community, but have grown incredibly since then. In Rochester they used to work in schools, and started a foster home for special needs children that eventually grew into a daycare as well. Both are still active today. As one exploring the idea of religious life, learning about these sisters and being a part of their community as we live with Sisters Donna, Lorraine, Marilyn and Barb, has been a truly marvelous experience that has deepened my relationship with God and helped me see where He might, or might not, be calling  me to serve Him.

In terms of where that means right now though, I am most blessed to be serving most of my time this week at that foster home I mentioned– a beautiful, joy- and love-filled house that cares deeply for all of the special needs children under the tender care of Sister Jean and other sisters and nurses that help out. The foster home is called Morning Star, and it is incredible. As someone whose experience working with kids generally only comes from volunteering at VBS though, it’s been quite an experience for me learning how to interact with these children and how to serve. It’s been quite the adventure. From my first diaper change to singing to a blind girl with the most wonderful smile, to cooking soup and cleaning, I’ve participated in a variety of activities this week. But activities that, ultimately, all contribute to the same service– loving these children as they are and helping them as much by doing household chores as simply spending time with them. One of the “mottos” we were told of that exists at Morning Star and Day Star  (the daycare) is that these kids we’re working with are children first. Not patients. Yes, they have various disabilities or special needs, but they’re kids, just like any other little children. They all have so much joy and energy, they love to move around and play. Just because they’re different doesn’t make them less than in any way and it’s truly wonderful to see and be a part of how that philosophy is brought to life in the service we offer there.

“We” of course being the operative term. The community present among the workers and volunteers at Morning Star is incredible. There’s no question how much Sister Jean and Sister Ann love the kids they care for. And they make a point of caring for each child individually, but also making time for them to spend with each other, rolling out those who are immobile in their chairs to the family room so they can share in the community. And even just among them — Sister Ann is so conscious of how much work Sister Jean has and does her best not to put too much on her plate, helping out as much as she can. They both make sure we volunteers are well taken care of as well. Again, “we” is an important word. I’ve been blessed to spend my time at Morning Star working with my friend and classmate Kati Keller. Though I knew her before this trip, working together at Morning Star has definitely brought us closer. She has more experience with children and so has kindly been able to offer words of advice on how to talk to and interact with them. (Which has been a big help) And this morning while the kids were at school we spent nearly three hours cleaning together, each taking on a different task in the room to make it spick and span. Without the clock though we’d have never known. Chatting as we went about our work made the time fly. We both enjoy doing house work and the company made it all the more pleasurable. There’s no way anyone could handle a foster home by themselves, and working at Morning Star has really shown me the value in community.

And lastly, Transformation. I’m fairly sure it’s obvious where I’m going with this. I’ve mentioned a few times that I have minimal experience with kids, so this week had really developed that aspect of life for me. And all three of the other pillars have built up to the change I’ve noticed in myself. The community with Kati and the sisters helped me gain confidence in my ability to serve well. And taking my inhibitions, my fears about my inadequacy or not know what to do, to prayer helped me leave them behind. In my morning prayer today I reflected on the line from Scripture, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” That quote was featured on a mural in the lunch room of my elementary school, and I used to read it every day. But today, instead of picturing my old cafeteria I thought of all the beautiful children at Morning Star, and how even in a mere two days I’ve gone from feeling uncertain around them to allowing myself to be fully present and care for them as best I can– whether that means cleaning, singing, or using a wind up toy to make silly noises that bring out the brightest laughter from a particular little boy.

These past couple days have been entirely new and inspiring to me. I’ve grown in a variety of ways and I’m truly grateful for every single new experience and all of the people who have been present with me throughout them. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this week holds, and even when the time comes to go back to school I know I’ll treasure the time I spent here with these children and sisters for the rest of my life.