Retirees share their time through Ignatian Volunteer Corps

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

George Casson, a member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, reads with seventh-grader Jacob Moreno at San Miguel School in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on July 3. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)

George Casson doesn’t think he does much at San Miguel School, 1954 W. 19th St.
Casson, a retired attorney from Hinsdale, Illinois, and a member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, spends two days a week at the school, which operates on extended school year and an extended school day.

While he’s there, he sits with students one-on-one, listening to them read a page of whatever book they are reading, then taking a turn reading a page back to them.

San Miguel, an independent Catholic middle school, serves sixth- through eighth-graders, most of whom come from families that are economically challenged and speak Spanish at home. Incoming students might still be reading picture books meant for young children; older students might be reading adult books. With two periods a day devoted to reading, they progress quickly.

“Sometimes they might ask me what a word means or how to pronounce it,” said Casson, a parishioner at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in the Joliet Diocese.

Casson has been helping students read at San Miguel for three years. He volunteers through the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, which offers adults usually 50 or older an opportunity to be part of a community of volunteers that is based in Ignatian spirituality.

Maura Rogan, regional director of IVC Chicago, said all three parts of the program support each other: work as a volunteer in the community, meeting once a month with a “spiritual reflector” and coming together with other Ignatian volunteers.

Jacqueline Fitzgerald, a program associate, said the spiritual reflectors are not so much directors as companions on the journey.

“They’re there to help the volunteers identify where they see God in their work,” Fitzgerald said. “So that they can find the meaning in the journey.”

There are Ignatian volunteers in 20 regions of the United States. The group has been in the Chicago area since 2001. In the 2017-2018 service year, 65 volunteers served in more than 50 partner agencies. In addition to schools, volunteers serve in refugee and immigrant services, women’s and children’s services and hospital and prison ministry.

Those are the volunteers that are really working hard, Casson said.

“I just read with kids,” he said, “I try to get them interested in reading the same way I was when I was their age.”

He still is interested, he said. So interested that he sometimes will go to the school library to find out how a book ends, since he picks up reading wherever a student is and stops at the end of a period. 

Some books, he’s read parts of over and over again with many students: all of the Harry Potter books, for example, or the books in the Hunger Games trilogy.

Erin Hempstead, director of intervention programs at San Miguel, said Casson’s time with students makes a big impression.

“It’s extremely beneficial to their academic development,” she said. “The kids are here because they have social and emotional support needs as well. Having people with life wisdom who can offer them patience and presence is important.”

All IVC volunteers commit to two days a week for nine months, Rogan said, roughly coinciding with the school year. While the commitment is only for one year at a time, many volunteers come back year after year.

Casson said he sees that commitment with the volunteers he knows.

“There are a lot of volunteers who have been doing it five, 10, even 15 years,” Casson said. “With everybody retired, they have the time, and they keep going through their 70s and 80s and even 90s, as long as their health allows.”

Agencies who partner with IVC pay a small fee to cover IVC’s costs, which include conducting criminal background checks of volunteers and providing safe environment training through the Archdiocese of Chicago. In return, they are matched with volunteers whose skill sets and interests fit the job descriptions they provide and who are willing to spend enough time to make a meaningful difference to the agencies they serve.

Casson was recruited by other men in his parish who were already Ignatian volunteers, he said.

“They said as soon as you’re semi-retired and you have some time to give back, this is the way to do it,” Casson said.

He had already been introduced to Ignatian spirituality by attending a retreat at the Jesuit Bellarmine Retreat House years earlier — an experience he repeated every year since.

“Ignatian spirituality can be life-changing,” Casson said. “It can bring focus to your life not only spiritually, but in how you interact with people. The Ignatian Volunteer Corps really ties your volunteer work into Ignatian spirituality.”

Now, he said, he is the one recommending IVC to friends who are retired, or planning to retire soon.

“Every Ignatian volunteer is a recruiter,” he said. “I find it to be everything my friends said and more.”

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