A season of giving
Many families teach children the importance of charitable giving, especially around the holiday season, but how many adults would encourage their teenagers to immerse themselves directly in the lives of those they’re benefiting? Abbot Giles is one adult who would, and does.
In a unique school-sponsored program, every year dozens of adolescent Jersey boys turn into Santa’s helpers while living among the poorest people in Appalachia. Santa in this case is the program’s founder, Giles Hayes, O.S.B., head of St. Mary’s Abbey. The Benedictine abbey conducts and shares a campus with Delbarton School, a Catholic boys’ prep school in Morris Township.
While serving as Delbarton’s headmaster in 1980, Abbot Giles began what was a radically new type of community service program, one that has proved popular to the point of expansion overseas.
How did the Appalachia project get started?
The Benedictines have always believed in social justice, compassion and community service, and the school has a tradition of it. Partly as a result of an anti-Semitic incident in the community involving young people, in 1980 the faculty formed a social justice committee. We circulated an anonymous school survey about students’ social values. Results showed that students knew about Judeo-Christian moral values, about sources of racism and ethnic prejudice but very little about poverty and its causes. They generally believed the poor are responsible for their own misery.
This wasn’t too surprising, actually, because at that time, before our expanded scholarship program, most of the students came from privileged families. So our challenge was this: How to help the students become more sensitive to those who weren’t like them, especially the poor.
I had help from an unexpected source: my sister. She’s a big-shot nun, Sister Mary Florence Giles. She was a college professor and a member of the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ committee studying ways to improve social justice education in Catholic institutions. She told me they learned that students benefit greatly from long-term, hands-on experience with those not like themselves. It fosters an emotional connection and a sense of responsibility.
Another colleague at Notre Dame had founded the Urban Plunge, in which students live for a week in inner city slums and do the type of work which gives them close personal contact with poor people, so they can come to know and love them. We adopted the idea. It was kind of radical back then, but it’s common in social justice education now.
Please tell us how the Delbarton Appalachia program works.
Each year members of the junior class have a chance to sign up to spend a week before Christmas, and another week in the spring in Magoffin County, in the hills of eastern Kentucky. This year we have about 57 students onboard. Magoffin is one of the very poorest areas in the country, where 60 percent of the people are illiterate. Many live in broken-down shacks in little valleys called “hollers,” in conditions that people here in suburbia can’t imagine. Those who go to school tend to drop out early. They have no jobs, no education, poor nutrition and low self-esteem. It’s a depressed area in every sense. A group of adult volunteers goes along with us, parents of students or former students. Also driving down are seven 18-wheeler trucks loaded with food, clothing, household goods, sports equipment and toys.
Read the entire interview in the latest issue of New Jersey Countryside Magazine. Click here to get one free bonus issue and save more than 80% on a subscription.