How a Volunteer Year Changed My Life

When I was 24 years old, just two years out of college, I was a bit restless. I had been working with middle-school youth and teens at a small urban nonprofit. This was a wonderful and fulfilling learning experience, but also tough and draining. I felt that I needed more training. I was living in a community house that was floundering, and wanted to learn more about what it meant to live in intentional community. I looked at a missions program in France, another one in Africa, and other volunteer programs all around the country. An unexpected opportunity opened up that led me to Washington, D.C., only two hours from the Pennsylvania home I was living in at the time. What drew me was a small volunteer program called Discipleship Year, run by a community called Church of the Saviour.

So, in the summer of 2008, I kissed my boyfriend goodbye (now my husband -  Yes! We survived the year of long-distance relationship), said tearful farewells to friends, coworkers, and the youth and families with whom I’d formed relationships at my job. Though not far away, I entered a world that felt very different and new. My new Discipleship Year housemates and I committed to live very simply, to forego much travel, to volunteer at various organizations, and to learn to live well together in our urban context.

Volunteering is one of the best decisions you’ll make. <<Click to Tweet

For me, it turned out to be a life-changing year of growth, challenges, joys, and deepened faith. I lived with six other women in a beautiful old house in a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying. We had quite a bit of diversity in age and religious background. The house was comprised of women in their early 20s, mid 20s, 30s, 40s, and late 50s. Faith perspectives represented included Catholic, Quaker, Baptist, Presbyterian, Non-denominational, and everything in between, including my own patchwork of denominations (Anabaptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian).

We ate meals together – delicious, healthy (and cheap!) meals. We shared traditions with one another, from scrumptious homemade bread baked by my Quaker housemate, to a ritual of tea every evening after meals thanks to our housemate from Northern Ireland. We learned songs, recipes, and prayers from one another. We laughed a lot, we danced sometimes, we made beautiful harmony together. We even performed a few times at local gatherings and churches. We also stretched each other’s perspectives, cried and lamented together, worshipped in a variety of ways, and had grueling, honest conversations.

Community life can be beautiful – the fullness of it in both hard and good times. <<Click to Tweet

Each of us was placed at a local agency to serve for the year. I worked at a job placement organization – Jubilee Jobs. This organization helped individuals with barriers to work, such as language and communication barriers, learning disabilities, former incarceration, and alcohol/substance abuse get prepared for and placed in a job. Other volunteers worked at housing organizations, a home for individuals with HIV/AIDS, an adult education facility, a nursing home, and an advocacy organization. Our volunteer experiences helped to contribute to each organization, building their capacity to meet the needs of locals. But each of our lives were also profoundly affected through the people we met, the experiences we had, and the ways we shared this with one another. 

Spending a volunteer year in DC enhanced my life in many ways.

I left DC to return to PA at the end of the year, but not without lasting friendships and changed perspectives, plus an admiration for the Church of the Saviour community. My time helped me cement my decision to get my Master’s of Social Work the following year.  The seven of us housemates still stay in touch; they even made it to sing at my wedding!

Seven years later, I am excited to say that the organization I now work for, Brethren Housing Association (BHA), is beginning a volunteer-year program of their own. BHA is a nonprofit that works with families and individuals experiencing homelessness in the city of Harrisburg, PA. They provide support and case management for different stages of life and various situations – single mothers and fathers, children from infants to teens, families, those with disabilities. Given my experience with Discipleship Year, I jumped at the chance to plan and develop this community house in Harrisburg. While it will be a different program, I look forward to helping to facilitate an experience that impacts the lives of participants, just as my time in DC profoundly impacted me. I am confident that a program like this will increase BHA’s ability to serve families and individuals who have been homeless.

 For more information, and if you or anyone you know is interested in serving for a volunteer year, please go to!

Micalagh Beckwith Moritz is a social worker, writer, wife, sister, daughter, community member, continually learning how to do a better job at each of these roles. She is always contemplating how to love others better and to enjoy the small things of life; to see God in everything and everyone. She is passionate about caring for the environment, experiencing new cultures, and also important, eating cheese. She currently resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 


photo credit: DSC05600 via photopin (license)

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