By Ignatius Plato
When Pope Francis approved the Society of Jesus’ Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) in 2019, the themes were familiar to anyone who knows the Jesuits. In addition to showing the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and care for our common home, the UAPs put accompanying young people and the marginalized front and center. Generations of students have learned how to be men and women for others through service programs at Jesuit schools.
Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida, (Jesuit Tampa) exemplifies this legacy. Through its robust student service program, Jesuit Tampa makes a real difference in the lives of the people served, including migrants in the greater Tampa area, one emphasis of the program. However, it is not just the migrants who benefit; as always when one serves out of love, the student-volunteers are also changed for the better.
“When the [migrant] children and high school students get together, you get this sense that both are learning from each other,” said Peter Bell, SJ, a second-year regent at the school. “The students teach migrant children what it is like to be a kid in America, and the children teach our students how to be men for others – not just in the sense of service, but as part of their being.”
The Migrant Situation in Tampa
Tampa’s migrant population consists of people from throughout the Caribbean, Central America and Venezuela. Migrants often struggle to find sustainable employment, and many turn to operating small farms to generate income.
While the overall impact of this system benefits the Tampa Bay area, the migrants themselves can be socially and economically estranged due to language barriers and the circumstances surrounding their immigration. Becoming culturally accustomed to the U.S. is just one step in a long process of finding stability in their daily lives.
Recognizing the needs of the migrants and wanting to respond to the Gospel call to welcome the stranger, the Jesuit Tampa community tries to address two distinct but related challenges: how to help migrant families in the long process of acclimating to life in the U.S., and how to give the children of these families an opportunity to feel and act like kids. Responding to these challenges allows students to discover what they are capable of as men for others through service.
A Service Community
Service to the migrant community is just one part of Jesuit Tampa’s longstanding student service program.
“Jesuit High has historically been known throughout the Tampa Bay area as a school filled with young men who serve the Tampa community,” said Andy Wood, director of community service for the school.
“The students are stewards of the sick, injured, poor, elderly and academically challenged. They also give their hand to the environment, completing hundreds of hours of service doing coastal clean-ups and environmental reclamation projects.”
These service projects are not just about padding college applications.
“Even though some of these efforts go toward required service hours, you can tell that the students really enjoy helping the community,” Wood said. “Having the students serve the migrant community is just an extension of the spirit of service that has been attached to Jesuit Tampa for decades.”
Possibly the most popular of the school’s service programs is the annual Thanksgiving Basket Drive, when students and their families donate food, prepare meals and deliver Thanksgiving dinner to around 60 migrant families every year (about 20% of the families Jesuit Tampa serves through the drive). Students not only deliver food to migrants; they also make them feel welcome.
For some students, the drive is the first opportunity to interact with migrant families in an impactful way. It may also be the first time they are called to consider a worldview from a perspective so different from their own.
These experiences inspire students to continue their service to the migrant community, incorporating service into who they are as young men beyond the school halls.
Migrants may also help students to understand their schoolmates, as well, because some of the students at Jesuit Tampa are immigrants. Through personal interaction, students quickly find themselves relating to the migrant community.
Andy Wood offers an example. “During the height of the pandemic, students weren’t allowed to drink directly from the water fountains at school,” Wood said. “With many of the migrant students not able to afford pricey water bottles, it made it difficult for those students to be properly hydrated. Jesuit Tampa’s Italian Club organized a water bottle collection drive and provided 300 water bottles to the Migrant Education Program. Now that’s an annual event at our school. All from the students’ thoughtfulness and devotion to serving migrant families.”
The spirit of service permeates the school community. Wood remembers one of his first years as the director of community service, heading out to deliver Thanksgiving meals to migrant families. He vividly recalls driving down the unmaintained, pothole-ridden roads, into groupings of trailers in various states of disrepair.
“You would think that it’s discouraging, seeing that migrant families live in that,” Wood recalls. “But I remember passing out the boxes to some of the families and watching as their kids dug through the boxes and pulled out cans of mandarin oranges. They popped open the tops and started eating the oranges with their bare hands.”
Wood observed how the joy that this simple act brought quickly spread throughout the community. “Soon, you had other families trickling out of their homes. The look of pure joy when they saw the food and their children’s excitement is something that stays with me. Some of the families even pointed out that other families needed some food that we had left over. Our simple acts led to other simple acts.”
Simple acts beget simple acts. It is one of the pivotal philosophies of Jesuit Tampa’s service to migrants.
Receive the Children
The children in migrant families often take on adult responsibilities at young ages. When not helping with farm work, children often help their parents raise younger siblings or nature-proof their houses.
Despite the demands at home, hopes for a quality education are not forgotten.
Jesuit Tampa students facilitate clubs and programs in response to the realities that migrant students face. Two programs in particular, Agmen Christi and the Migrant Education Program (MEP), have a notable impact on the educational and social development of migrant children. In both programs, Jesuit High students take on mentor/ big-brother roles for migrant children, acting primarily as their tutors, while also connecting with them on a personal level.
Peter Bell monitors student involvement with migrant service, noting the social growth these personal connections encourage in migrant children.
“Migrant children are usually congregated in neighborhoods like Dover and Plant City, north of Tampa,” he said. “They’re from farm families who need them to stay at home with babies or help in the fields. Having our students guide them through the American social landscape gets them out of their shell. These children love spending time with our students. It lets them experience childhood, in a sense.”
Connor Smith, SJ, another second- year regent at Jesuit Tampa, notes the positive effects of a recent Agmen Christi development – one instigated by Fr. Richard Hermes, SJ, president of Jesuit High School.
“Father Hermes was instrumental in implementing a field day at which mentors and migrant children could play together,” Smith said. “You could tell just by looking that it gave the children a sense of fun as well as safety. They have a space to run around, the autonomy to choose what they want to do, the freedom to enjoy the company of their mentors and other students who want to be with them. They get to be kids for a change.”
As with all positive relationships, the benefits go both ways. The Migrant Education Program calls for Jesuit Tampa students to tutor the children, not only providing a bridge to close the educational gap that migrants experience, but also presenting the student tutors with different social perspectives.
When it comes time to meet migrants in person, students feel it is less of a service requirement and more of an occasion. It becomes clear that the children are part of the students’ personal lives just as much as they are a part of the students’ spiritual lives.
“I’ll hear from the students about how fun it is to meet with the kids,” Smith said. “Listening to them talk about it so enthusiastically is enlivening! You can tell that it’s gone beyond the mentality of ‘I’m doing this because I have to finish my service hours.’ Our students want to be there for these kids.”
Andy Wood expresses it in Ignatian terms: “The students at Jesuit Tampa are learning what it means to give and not count the costs. They are learning what it means to be ‘Men for Others.’”
Photos courtesy of Jesuit High School.