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Felicia & Sean O'Brien Speech


Senior Sendoff Talk

By Sean and Felicia

As an admissions counselor over the past 2 years, I have read close to 3,000 applications of students from all over the country and all over the world who want to come to Notre Dame. In their essays, they often speak of their personal commitment to service: volunteering with the elderly, a trip to Appalachia, or serving dinner at a homeless shelter. But out of all of these 3,000 applications, I have yet to read a single essay in which the student wrote that after she earned a Notre Dame diploma, she wanted to go out and become a full time volunteer. To the parents in the audience today, I am sure you can also relate to this. When you dropped off your child at Notre Dame four years ago this fall, I doubt that you said to your spouse "I can't wait to attend the Senior Service Send Off when we return for graduation!"

But here we are, and what an honor it is to be here together today. When you look at your past and motives that bring you to this commitment to service and to this Send Off, you will surely think of dozens of different experiences and people who have been your inspirations, your guides. But one thing that you all have in common is a tremendous openness to grace and a willingness to share your gifts. Fr. Michael Himes, whose writings had a strong influence on me and may have guided many of you in your process of discernment, speaks of three signs for a successful service experience:

1. Discover whether the work you will do is a source of true joy? Not happiness, but Joy.
2. Do you have the ability and gifts to serve and does the opportunity to grow and stretch yourself exist?
3. Will your service fulfill a need in the community?

My own experience with post-graduate volunteer service fulfilled all three signs. I knew Honduras was the right place for me. Coming from a family where service is modeled, I was eager for my chance to finally put my ideals to the test. I was told I was going to teach in an orphanage and community center that was built and underway. Much to my surprise, I ended up helping to clear the land, carrying bags of cement to build houses for the orphans and families, settling legal papers in the capital to open an institution, and traveling around the country to interview abandoned children who would someday flourish at our orphanage. Sure, I ended up being a teacher for 6 months. But even then I taught three grades at once. Between classes I helped deliver babies and put out a giant forest fire that threatened to consume the country. Okay, I'm beginning to stretch the truth with the forest fire part. The truth is, only three months after arriving to Honduras, the director of our program was tragically killed in a plane accident. No one could have ever predicted this event, but it ultimately challenged me and the two other ND grads that went down with me to take on the responsibility of directing the administration of the orphanage. With faith in God's will for me to be in Honduras, I took the risk to stay and take on such a task.

The other volunteers and I were able to cultivate an openness to grace by the support we received from living in community and by continual prayer. You may have heard comments by your friends or family that by doing service, you are putting off the dangers and difficulties of entering into the "real world." Well I can tell you this morning that I have encountered nothing in the "real world" so far that has been as challenging, and difficult - and ultimately as rewarding and joyful - as living in community and serving others.

The communities that you have lived in in your hometowns, with your family, and at Notre Dame have shaped you. Now, for the first time, however, you will consciously form a community with your fellow volunteers based upon shared values, goals and a common mission to serve the most vulnerable members of our country and our world. The community you will form will reveal your most giving and loving side, and it will also reveal your shortcomings and limitations. But it will force you to work on those areas in your life that need attention and the support of others, allowing you to become a better person, a better friend, and a better spouse (look over at me here with a loving smile!)

By living in community, you will also challenge the communities to which you formerly belonged - your friends and family - by your testimony, your commitment, your experiences. Having my parents as a strong part of my time in Honduras meant the world to me. They fully supported me and believed in me, although they surely thought that I was crazy and more than once thought that it was time for me to come home. I can speak for them now knowing that their lives were changed by visiting Honduras and also by taking an active part in my life from the US. I still remember my mom's promise to take cold showers in order to be in solidarity with me! I'm not sure how long that lasted! I encourage parents to be involved in any way possible, through phone calls, letters, visits, and prayers. You have shaped your children's lives and this is a wonderful chance for them to shape you!

The lessons learned through service and community are invaluable and you will carry them with you for the rest of your life. It is truly a privilege to enter the lives of the people you will be serving at a depth that is sometimes overwhelming. Honor that privilege. Through service, you will learn how to better use your gifts, build better relationship skills, gain maturity, and internalize priorities. As a result, you will bring much needed values and awareness to our society and for that we are truly thankful.

Sean - part II
Felicia spoke about your differing pasts and motives that bring you to this commitment to service and to this Send Off this morning. When I remember what I felt 5 years ago this morning, it is really remarkable that I am speaking to you today. I remember sitting up in the balcony feeling rather lost: part of me in amazement at all of these fantastic service-minded students sitting around me, part in disbelief that I was going off to join a volunteer "community" (thinking why the heck do they keep using that word) part ogling this cute girl in the flower print dress in the front row and part of me thinking "hey cool, there's Monk Malloy".

Well, this morning I am once again in amazement at all of these fantastic students that I am privileged to stand in front of. I am in still in disbelief at the way that my life has been affected by what I thought was just going to be "a year off" to do volunteer work. I'm still ogling that same cute girl, but now she is my fiancée and she is standing beside me. And "hey cool, there's Monk Malloy."

Somewhere I heard the image of the two-steps on the path of justice. One step is doing direct service: caring for the elderly, working in a homeless shelter, serving those with AIDS. The other step is advocacy, or working for systemic change: identifying the institutions that oppress and working to liberate or reform those institutions. In the Fall after my graduation, I went to Phoenix Arizona as a Holy Cross Associate. Working in the Diocesan Office of Peace and Justice, I took the advocacy step, lobbying on behalf of welfare recipients and immigrants, whom Catholic Social Teaching call the most vulnerable members of our community. At the same time, I became involved in the larger social justice community in Phoenix, volunteering at a shelter for Central American refugees. Inspired by the lives of the immigrants and refugees that I met, I decided to take the other step of direct service, a step that took me to La Finca del Nino in Honduras Central America.

Wanting to really be engaged in direct service and working with people, I hoped to work in the Finca's agricultural extension project, laboring in the fields with the campesinos. I don't know how good of a farmer I am, but fortunately for those who desperately needed food in our community in Honduras, I never found out. Instead, I was asked to be a teacher. And not just a teacher, but a kindergarten teacher. And not just a kindergarten teacher, but I had to teach in Spanish. With limited language skills, and no training as a teacher at all, I dreaded the invitation to teach. "You've got the wrong guy," I said to Felicia. I can't do this I said to myself. I'm gonna screw up the lives of a whole village of Honduran children! But I looked at the example of those members of the volunteer community already there, three of my classmates from Notre Dame. They had built the orphanage. They had developed the school. They had convinced the families in the village to send their children to our school. I figured if they could use their gifts to do all of this - tasks for which they surely were not trained - I could find someway to teach kindergarten.

I still remember that first morning. I was terrified to speak in front of the children. How could I teach Toni and Alba and Armando the alphabet if I was afraid to speak Spanish in front of them? So I did what each of you will do over the next year or two. I took stock of my gifts. I could sing. I could play the guitar. And that, my friends, was the genesis of the vowel song that took Trujillo, Honduras by storm. "Las Vocales en Espanol." That was the first in a long line of songs - the "Good Morning Song," the "Good Afternoon Song," the "Why is Selvin always lost in the schoolyard song?" I used my gifts, no matter how meager, to respond to the need of the community. Experiences like these await each one of you and I pray that you have the openness and the willingness to do what God asks you to do. God will not ask things of you that you are not prepared to handle.

I wish I could tell you that I have just finished a tour of Latin American grade schools and orphanages with my songs. Instead, I can tell you that I just finished my second year of law school here at Notre Dame. It was my childhood dream to be a lawyer, but I lost the desire to pursue the law during college. Now I realize that my two years of service really created within me a calling. The twin steps of advocacy and direct service have led me to the study of human rights law and I work in the immigration clinic here in town, helping immigrants put together their political asylum claims. It is my chance to return some of the hospitality with which I was so lavishly greeted by the poor in Phoenix and Honduras.

Our wish for you today is that you find true joy in your service work, that you develop your gifts and stretch yourself, and that your work will meet a need felt in the community you will soon be a part of. Open yourself to God's grace, take risks to love and learn, give of yourself and you will receive abundantly. The gift of being open to grace is a way of life for you to keep and treasure. Give thanks for this wonderful gift and time in your life. Our wish for our marriage, is that someday we will return to this audience to send our children off in service. We are grateful to all of the parents here, including our own, and the many ways you have helped make all of us who we are today. God bless you all in your journeys!






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