Volunteers participate in a life-altering year of full-time service with children of incarcerated parents. (COURTESY)

Volunteers embark on ‘unexpected’ adventures

ORLANDO | LaShanna Tyson said, “yes” to a missionary adventure at the age of 45.
While some full-time volunteer organizations welcome young adults into their ranks, Catholic Volunteers in Florida offers opportunities for people of all ages, and not just young adults. Now 47, Tyson is the oldest volunteer serving with Catholic Volunteers in Florida. She said joining the organization two years ago is the best thing that ever happened to her.

“I’m serving with a group of people who I absolutely love,” Tyson said. “I’ve never had so much support in my whole life. It’s a community that I never want to leave. I am as close to God as possible when we are together. Everyone is so dedicated to serving people and loving the Lord. It does everything for my soul to be around them.”

Tyson knows firsthand what is needed for a fresh start. She personally selects new outfits and hygiene items for individuals who have been in prison and helps them either apply for jobs or register for college. She also ministers to children with incarcerated parents and holds retreats for women who were formerly incarcerated. She understands a good support system is critical for someone who has been incarcerated because it is something she was lacking herself for many years — until her introduction to the CVIF team and volunteers. Quarterly retreats and regular contact help maintain a strong connection between the volunteers and staff even while they are spread out at service sites across the state.

“I’ve been meeting with employers to give them a different perspective for what it’s like for people to come home and how hard they work. I’ve been able to change the mind of several employers here in Central Florida, and when I refer someone to them they know that they’re a good quality person to hire,” Tyson said. She also lobbies on behalf of “Ban the Box,” an initiative that would remove the conviction question from initial employment applications.

Catholic Volunteers in Florida is dedicated to providing people of all faiths the opportunity to volunteer for a year and live out their faith by serving the diverse needs of the people of Florida and the Dominican Republic. In exchange for a one-year commitment to serve, the organization provides volunteers with housing, health insurance, a monthly stipend and quarterly retreats.

College sophomore Kalley Koch was on vacation in Florida when she felt God inviting her to serve him in a more profound way. After months of prayer and research, she came across the website for Catholic Volunteers in Florida and knew in her heart it was where God was calling her.

“The world told me that I had everything I needed to be happy, but I felt a calling to something more, to experience something deeper,” Koch said. “I felt the Lord speaking to my heart and asking me to say yes to an unexpected adventure.”

Having taken a year off in the middle of her college career to join Catholic Volunteers in Florida, Koch is currently serving at St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando as a teacher’s aid, substitute, and extended-day teacher. Koch said serving with the organization has been a transformative experience and has given her clarity on where God is calling her in the future.

“I have been asked to step into some roles that I did not feel fully equipped for, but thankfully, Jesus has guided me and taught me what it means to serve with an open heart,” Koch said. “Serving at St. Andrew Catholic School has taught me so much about what being a teacher entails, and I have become passionate about the students. My hope is to make a difference in the classroom by giving them the tools they need to be successful. Because of this volunteer experience, I plan to go back home to Minnesota and continue to pursue my degree in education.”