National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Young, Homeless and Loved

BY Joseph Pronechen

February 15-21, 2009 Issue | Posted 2/9/09 at 1:03 PM


Volunteer work is nothing new at Covenant House International. But at the organization’s centers in Atlantic City, N.J., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and New York City, the commitment comes with a spiritual twist — at least for the faith-filled individuals who sign on with the organization’s “Faith Community” program.

“When volunteers come to our Faith Community program, they have to be open to serve wherever they’re needed most,” explains Katrina Amann, program coordinator. “It’s a big leap of faith to come in not knowing what you’re doing or where you’re going.”

Amann knows of what she speaks, having accepted this challenge herself. She spent two years as a full-time Faith Community volunteer, serving the at-risk youth who comprise the Covenant House clientele.

How far is Covenant House’s reach? In 2007 the organization housed, fed and counseled close to 66,000 homeless, runaway and “throwaway” young people. Troubled teens and early 20-somethings knock on Covenant House doors from Hollywood to Philadelphia, from Mexico City to Toronto. Each year upwards of 7,000 come to the New York City location alone.

“Typically, the Faith Community volunteers work on the residential crisis-center floor,” says Amann, “from day-to-day being present to, and listening to, the youth in the context of a residential setting.” This allows for more individualized interaction and guidance.

Covenant House began in a single New York City location in 1969. Today, the needs are more complex than ever, says Amann, especially regarding mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

All youth served have nowhere else to go that’s safe, healthy and supportive. Many have been “couch surfing,” says Amann, bouncing between friends’ and relatives’ houses that have no bedroom for them. Many were born into poverty and lack the learning and work skills it takes to go it alone. Some teens are pregnant or already parents. Many come out of the foster-care system, unprepared for life as an adult, as soon as they turn 18.

Despite the challenges, all have the intrinsic worth and dignity God gave them — even if the staff and volunteers of Covenant House have been the only ones to point these qualities out to them.

Prayer and Work

In October, after intensive training, 22-year-old Lauren Huber, a recent college graduate from New Jersey, became one of the newest Faith Community volunteers. (So far there are 16 “FC” volunteers among the three locations.) She is a case manager in Fort Lauderdale working with single females over age 18.

“Last year, I handed everything over to God, through prayer,” says Huber. “I said, ‘Whatever you want me to do this year, I want to do for you.’ I could never have planned this myself. I know God brought me here and is doing this work through me, and I for him.”

Although Covenant House, the largest privately funded child-care agency in the country, has its roots in the Catholic faith — it was founded by a Franciscan friar — it accepts qualified and caring volunteers of any religious affiliation.

That doesn’t mean faith in Christ isn’t an ever-present offering. According to Amann, many of the young people have spiritual needs. When they find out the counselors are unpaid volunteers, many of whom pray and reflect together each day, hearts open.

“Many of the youth see the volunteers as pastoral-type people,” she adds, “and approach them with faith-based conversations.”

Last month, Covenant House named Kevin Ryan, a Catholic father of six with a long and distinguished experience in child advocacy, its fourth president. “Covenant House staff and donors all across the world have been moved by kids’ suffering and become icons of God’s love in the world,” he said in a published statement. “I’m coming home to Covenant House to rejoin their ranks and lead their fight against those who hurt our kids, especially those who exploit them and traffic them and throw them away.”

God’s Hands

While never part of the Faith Community program himself, Father John McCarthy of the Church of St. Clare in Staten Island, N.Y., helped out at Covenant House for several years, beginning with his days as a seminarian. He was available in the chapel for counsel, talk and prayer. He saw many non-Catholics come to ask questions about the faith. There was talk of Scripture and of Christ.

And, quite often, deep gratitude was expressed by the young people for the help and care they received.

Such charitable work “helps externalize the internal nature of the Church,” says the priest. “God is love, and the Church must always reflect that love.”

While many Faith Community volunteers are recent college grads like Huber, they come from all ages and backgrounds, including a salesman in his 50s who took a year off from work and a woman in her late 70s who will be returning soon for another year of service.

Jim White, Covenant House’s chief operating officer, notices that many volunteers go on to be teachers or work with the handicapped and younger children.

“I was blessed with a good family and a Catholic upbringing and wanted to give back,” White says of his time with the organization. “I thought I’d give back for a year but fell in love with the work and the kids and found a real calling here.”

Adds Faith Community volunteer Huber: “Because of my faith and that God is the complete intention why I’m doing this, any time I spend at the agency is time I’m spending with God.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.