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Coleen Knight Santoni

2004 Senior Service Send-off

It is an honor for me to be here. As a colleague of Andrea’s at the CSC, I know I can speak on behalf of our staff when I say that the service send off is something we look forward to as a way to celebrate our journey with so many of you who have been committed to service and social action throughout your time at Notre Dame.

It wasn’t too long ago, only eight years ago, that I was in the students’ shoes.  I was excited, clueless about what was ahead, hopeful, and I had parents in the audience who were supportive yet probably still wondering how long this interest in service would last.  Funny how things change, now I am a parent of two boys, Noah 4 and Alex who is 1.5 years old, and I can’t help but see the parents here and pray that my journey takes me full circle so that someday I am sitting in your place watching my children, and celebrating the decision they have made to serve others.

So my question for all the parents is: How do you get to this point?  We all have hopes dreams for our children.  We want to give them the best, to love and to protect them, and to give them all the tools they need to succeed.

Of course, I hope that Noah and Alex will be intelligent, creative, compassionate men someday, but I’ll be honest, also at the top of my list is to raise boys that can do a load of wash, cook a decent meal, and turn heads on the dance floor—and I can’t help but think there are a couple of special women somewhere out there who are  really going to be grateful to me if I can pull that off.

Just the other day during another one of our impromptu dance lessons, I had a revelation: I realized that…wait a minute… all these fancy dance moves will one day impress women that I don’t even know yet …women  that will eventually take my boys away from me!

I realized that when it came down to it the fruits of all my hard work, the worrying, sleeplessness, prayers and heartache won’t only benefit me.  In fact, the fruits of my love will be most apparent when they enter into relationships with other people and communities.  Coming to terms with this reality, and taking a break from concocting elaborate plans of how to keep them with me forever, I am reminded that yes, in fact that is the point, we are all created for others, created to be for others .   All that we invest in our children is so that they can become active, loving, compassionate members of the Body of Christ.   Yes, we are created to be for others…

The call to be for others is no less true for your friends who have made other choices for how they will spend their time after graduation.  However, seniors, you are weeks, perhaps days away from learning this lesson in a very unique and rich way.    To understand this truth that we were created to be for others, we must understand that we are only part of the equation.  It is not until we encounter the other that we can fully become who we were created to be…Let me be clear—it is in our deliberate encounters with others that our best selves are drawn forth. 

I think a few stories will help me make my point more clearly:

I spent two years teaching middle school children at All Saints, a small predominantly Latino elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas, through the Alliance for Catholic Education. These were two of the most grace-filled years of my life.  Not most graceful, grace-filled…they were full of God, full of challenges but rarely were they graceful.

As a first year teacher, I must have bought into the idea that the world was our classroom, because my class went on more field trips than the entire school combined.  For one particular outing I had planned a visit to the local soup kitchen and shelter for people who are homeless.  I engaged my students in discussions to prepare them for being with people who are homeless. We talked about their fears, addressed any questions they had, and looked at some of the causes of homelessness.

As the day neared, I felt ready, but I was always concerned about the few children in my class who liked to mix things up. One student in particular worried me and I planned to keep a close eye on him all day.  Ruben had too many deep-rooted hurts for a child of his age and he was known for his temper and for bullying others.  You all know who I’m talking about, he’s the kind of kid that tripped the Three Wise Men at the school nativity play rehearsal.  Anyway, on this day, I would be happy just knowing where he was the whole time.

The staff at the soup kitchen put us to work as soon as we arrived-preparing tables and food, organizing the food pantry, and folding laundry.

My students were excited and nervous, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the people to whom they would be serving lunch.

The lunch guests arrived and I was beaming as my students proudly served the meal they had prepared, sat with the guests, and even waited on the guests at the tables. Everything was going better than I had hoped and then it hit me.  Where was Ruben? My stomach was in knots as I searched the room for him. I caught sight of Ruben at the farthest table in the corner of the room.  He was tending to one of the shelter guests, Joseph, a little two year old boy who lived with his mother at this shelter for the homeless. Ruben stayed by Joseph’s side throughout the meal picking up things Joseph dropped, refilling his drink and entertaining him.  Which Ruben was this?–so gentle, so playful, and so fully attentive.

Following lunch, we were given a tour of the facilities.  We entered a darkened room where little Joseph was taking his nap on a blanket.    As soon as Rueben realized it was his new friend asleep in the room, he moved to stand by Joseph in order to make sure his noisy classmates didn’t wake him.  Ruben relied on tactics he had mastered as the class bully.  He shushed and threatened anyone who spoke above a whisper, and his Joseph slept peacefully as we passed through.

What was it about this baby, Joseph, that coaxed out of Rueben a side that I had never seen before?  How did their brief lunch encounter soften Ruben’s defenses and allow him to openly be gentle and loving?  The mystery continues to amaze me.

Many of you may remember Margaret Laracy , last year’s valedictorian. She is now living and working in a L’Arche community in Washington, DC with people who have a variety of disabilities.  Margaret spends her days caring for the basic needs of her fellow residents at the L’Arche house.  At all times there is a member of the community who is dependent on Margaret to get through the day smoothly.  She makes sure his/her emotional and physical needs are being met. In the morning, she bathes him.  During the day she accompanies him and every evening they join the entire L’Arche community for prayer.  Her days are simple, a contrast from the busy schedule at Notre Dame.  During one of our recent conversations she said that her experience has been humbling, yet empowering, none of the people with whom she lives would be impressed by her list of accomplishments or by the fact that she was the valedictorian at Notre Dame. The unconditional love they give her has taught Margaret that what she is valued for, who she is to them, a friend, a person who lives with them and loves them.  I would call that Margaret’s truest self.

What do a class bully and a valedictorian have in common?   They both are more fully who they were created to be because of their encounters with people who needed their gifts and who they themselves needed in return. Ruben and Joseph showed me that we are our best selves when we are being for others.  They showed me that even the class bully was created to be for others. Because her experience has been so life-giving, Margaret has decided to continue at L’Arche for a second year before pursuing graduate studies in Psychology.  Soon you will be living with, serving, and learning from people who are weighed down by poverty, people with disabilities, and many other populations who are marginalized in society.   So soon when you find yourself in a place you’ve never been before and are being asked to do something you’ve never done I challenge you to recognize the grace in that moment, the grace found in that intimate moment of mutual vulnerability when we are open to one another’s suffering and willing to meet one another’s deepest needs. That is to be loved and to be known.

I’d like to close by sharing one final voice, the voice of Kelly Rich, a 2002 graduate who is now volunteering in Bolivia at an orphanage.    A family of three sisters, all under the age of seven, arrived at the orphanage.  Kelly noticed that Lourdes, the middle sister, had a severely curved spine.  Kelly sought medical attention for Lourdes and was told that nothing could be done. She felt helpless, but continued to advocate for a surgery that would save Lourdes‘s life. Shortly after accompanying her for the surgery, Kelly wrote the following reflection …

I feel blessed to be here.  I am a poor substitute for a nurturing mother, but perhaps the only thing I have felt really capable of and maybe good at doing for these children has been to try to give them love and affection and comfort.  For these kids who have been so little cared for, so little nurtured, I have an overwhelming desire - surprising in its strength even to me - to care for them and nurture them, to love them.  They are so fragile, so precious, and I want to be able to protect them.  My heart aches that Lourdes must endure something as painful and scary as major surgery and a stay in the hospital without the loving, calming presence of a parent, but if this is the way it is to be, I am deeply blessed to be the one who receives the gift of being able to try as best I can to be a presence of love and comfort to her.

If this speaks to you, maybe it is because you are a parent and you know what it means to care for a child, or maybe because you will soon be in an unfamiliar place as Kelly was. In both cases I pray that you will also feel blessed to be in the places that you will soon find yourselves. I pray that your days may be grace-filled and that you perhaps even experience moments of gracefulness. And finally I pray you will always remember that you and the people you encounter are created to be for others.

God bless you.


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