Yearlong volunteer program changes hearts, lives

When a 12-year-old girl from Guatemala told her mentor that boys in her school were pushing her books around, calling her a “dirty illegal” and telling her to “go back to her country,” Tracy Medrano Gonzalez was breaking apart inside because she had similar experiences as an immigrant child living in the United States.

“This girl was one of the first children I ever mentored,” said Gonzalez, 22, a former member of the Change A Heart Franciscan Volunteer Program that partners with nonprofit organizations to serve socially vulnerable neighborhoods in western Pennsylvania.

“As an immigrant child, it was difficult for me because most of the Hispanic children had lighter skin shades or looked more indigenous,” recalled Gonzalez, who emigrated with her father at the age of 9 from the Dominican Republic. “One time a boy spilled chocolate milk all over me at lunch. I was a light brown girl with curly hair. The students didn’t like the way I looked or that I didn’t speak English well.”


A year later, she returned to the Dominican Republic to live with her mother until the age of 12 and then came back to permanently reside with her father and cousins in New Jersey. Her mother waited seven more years for paperwork to be processed and reunite with them.

In school, she noticed people seemed focused on her nationality and the color of her skin. This was unusual to her because in her native country, she was never told she was black or white growing up.

“I was just Dominican,” she said.

She grew up and earned an undergraduate degree from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, but didn’t feel ready to get a job or go back to school.

“I felt I needed time to explore and give back to the community,” she said. “I wanted to experience what it was like to give of myself for a year or more.”

The Franciscan way

A member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities for 53 years, Sister Donna Stephenson founded Change A Heart in 1999 and served as its director until 2008.

The nonprofit Christian organization has a Catholic foundation and a Franciscan identity but is an interdenominational program. It offers a way for the Franciscan sisters to maintain contact with young adults and pass on the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi to live out the Gospel values of service and justice among those on the margins of society.

Change A Heart volunteers are single, recent college graduates and young adults with little work experience from the ages of 21-30. They come from all over the country to live out the four core values of the program: service, spirituality, simple lifestyle and community.

So far, 84 members (volunteers) have completed service in the last 17 years. Sister Donna hopes they become empowered to follow a countercultural lifestyle similar to that of St. Francis.

“They are challenged to be open to the ways the grace of God can change their hearts; this is how St. Francis was converted by his encounter with a person who had leprosy,” Sister Donna said.

The faith-based program is aptly named, Sister Donna said.

“By the end of the program, hearts are changed — both the hearts of those served and the hearts of the members themselves,” she said.

Director Patricia Moran, says the Franciscan mission is to serve the poor, be out there with the people on the streets and to live simply. By living in community, the members are encouraged to try to modify their lifestyle.

“We want them to get a sense of what it’s like to be poor,” said Moran. “Their life should reflect those they serve.”In her work with young adults, she finds they really care about the needs of those around them and in the world.

“They are beautiful souls,” she said. “They just stop their lives and do this.”

‘The needs are great’

Moran sees young men and women apply for various reasons. Sometimes they need a break from academia. For many, it’s a great way to do significant work with other adults on the same journey before graduate school or the start of their careers.

Applicants undergo an intensive screening process by program staff. Upon acceptance, they identify one to three preferences to serve in nonprofit organizations from a placement list. Moran works with Brittany Shaulis, administrative coordinator of Change A Heart, to match a member’s education, interests and skills with a compatible organization. Supervision is provided by Moran and a supervisor on site where they spend 80 percent of their time with the client(s) for 35-40 hours a week.

The director interacts with dozens of nonprofit organizations in and around the Pittsburgh region to place applicants. A stipend is paid from the organizations to the program.

“In our city, the needs are great,” Moran said. “We have a lot of homeless, a high population of poor, and because of that, a lot of nonprofits are trying to meet the needs. For our members to come and help them, they just cherish it.”

As far as provisions, five members live together in a modest, fully furnished, rented house in a low income, urban setting. Each member receives an allotment of $90 a month for personal items; free housing and utilities; a food allowance of $120 that may be combined to purchase groceries together; free public transportation; and health insurance.

The alternatives to serving a yearly commitment are serving for six months or during a spring break.

Bilingual service

Gonzalez served one year with Casa San Jose, a Catholic resource and support center for Latino immigrants and their families under the Sisters of St. Joseph, which is supervised by St. Joseph Sister Janice Vanderneck, the center’s director. Gonzalez assisted Hispanic children with tutoring and maintaining two languages.

“We were looking for a bilingual person to help with our youth program,” Sister Janice said. “The parents have limited English. Tracy was fabulous. She worked well with the parents and the children.”

When Duquesne University professors Vanessa Fernandez and Lucia Osa-Melero, expressed interest in collaborating with Gonzalez, a grant was obtained called “Reading to Play, Playing to Read.” Fernandez worked on translating traditional Mexican children’s plays into Spanish. The outcome resulted in Hispanic parents better communicating with their children in their ethnic language and increased cultural understanding.

By helping children from two cultures navigate their identities, Gonzalez learned to embrace her own identity and become more compassionate to the needs of the parents.

“The main thing was really seeing God in the people I served,” she said.

Aiding refugees

Nazra Kazia, a Change A Heart member, never loses the feeling that God is working through her. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, the 27-year-old holds a master’s degree in global health from the University of Notre Dame. She has always known about refugees and what they go through in order to survive.


“Kenya is home to one of the largest populations of refugees,” she noted. “Being on the continent exposed me to a lot of trauma in terms of terrorist attacks. A few times, my family was caught up in a lot of conflict.”

Fluent in six languages, Kazia was seeking experience in the humanitarian field to work in areas of conflict or war zones when she researched volunteer organizations. She was impressed with Change A Heart for three reasons: it is faith-based, located in Pittsburgh (she heard great things about the city), and gave her opportunities to work with refugees at Catholic Charities.

Susan Rauscher, executive director at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, supervises Kazia, who began serving in refugee resettlement work. Currently, Kazia is developing a refugee simulation project from scratch and has adapted languages from Somalia, Nepal, Iraq and Syria. “We could never afford these projects due to time and cost,” Rauscher said.

Kazia said Change A Heart teaches its members how to respect life. “It’s God’s light that shines through people.”

Paula A. Smith writes from Pennsylvania.