Ruined for Life, Earning the “F”, and My Last Post

September 29, 2010

So, it’s been a while. Over two months, actually. I meant to write this post in mid-August to wrap this blog up, but as JVC ended, and I began my new life as a “real person”, I got a bit distracted. Hey, it happens. But I’m back now. Well, I’m back for one last hoorah as TheVolunteacher. Here’s a quick (okay, probably not quick) rundown on what’s happened since I last wrote.

I joined about 40 Jesuit Volunteers in hiking about 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail at the beginning of August. It was intense, it was awesome, and I may actually still be sore from sleeping on the ground (or maybe it was the hiking part…). Regardless, it was a lot of fun. I had never even slept in my own backyard before, let alone gone hiking for 3 days in the wilderness of Southern Pennsylvania, but I enjoyed it. I was able to bond with some JV’s who I didn’t normally get to talk with. I got to hear more of their stories, talk sports, learn about their plans for post-JVC, and reflect on the year. It was a great experience, and one that I will never forget. I’ve attached some photos from the trail below. (As a side-note, thank you to all those who helped support me and my goal to raise $500 for JVC for this hike. Your generosity helps to ensure that great people in JVC continue to do great things for those in need, helping to make our communities, cities, and the world a better, stronger place for all).

After the hike, we arrived at Blue Ridge Summit, where it all began last August, for Dis-Orientation, JVC’s closing retreat, joining the other half of JVC-East. Here, I earned my first ever “F”. No, no, we didn’t receive grades as JV’s (we all know I’d get an A+, duh), but we officially finished our year as Jesuit Volunteers and became Former Jesuit Volunteers (FJV’s). It was an odd few days. We all knew we would be saying goodbye at the end of Dis-O, but we all kind of pretended it wasn’t actually ending. So, what did we do? We had a great time together, that’s what! We had ample free time to spend together, heard from FJV’s about post-JVC life, hung by the pool, dined on the finest of foods, and celebrated a successful year.

On Friday morning, we ate, packed, said a prayer, and said tearful, yet joyful, goodbye to one another. It was then that it hit me that JVC was over. It hit me that this amazing group of people meant a ton to me, and that we’d probably never all be together again. It hit me that my new life was starting. And it hit me that I had truly been “ruined for life” as the JV tag-line says. Not to be overly dramatic, but never again will I be able to look at the world in the same way; I know too much now. JVC has opened my eyes to so much, and made me think in ways I never really thought possible. I look back at the me that started JVC, and, really I’m the same Tom O’Keefe. But so much has changed, too.

And now, here I am, almost 2 full months into my new job at Cristo Rey Jesuit, moved into a house with good friends Nick and Rick, and making a life in the great city of Baltimore. Way back in August of 2009, I wrote of starting JVC, “It’s scary, nerve-wracking, a little bit sad and a little bit happy, but mostly it’s a truly exciting time.” I feel a lot of those same things now. But really, it’s different, and I can’t really explain the feeling, but I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. And that’s a great thing.

So, I guess this is the end of TheVolunteacher. I really enjoyed writing in this space. It was a way for me to fully flesh out and reflect on what I experienced. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read it. Your support means so much.

Keep spreading the good word, remember that life is good, and stay well.




Planting Seeds

June 2, 2010

I’m a pretty results-oriented guy. I like to see the benefits of what I’ve done relatively soon after working on it, and if I can’t see those results, I get a bit frustrated.

That’s why, at times this year, it’s been frustrating to be a teacher. You don’t always see results quickly. Sure, I’ve helped students get a good grade on this or that assignment, but ultimately, as a teacher, you don’t always see results today, tomorrow, next month, or even this year.

So, I find myself continually asking myself, “What real difference can I make?

Recently, I was bemoaning this to a friend of mine. She, however, was unimpressed. She said simply, “The fact that you are there is making a difference, Tom. You’re planting seeds. You probably won’t see whether those seeds grow, but they will. You are making a difference by planting, nurturing, and loving these seeds.”

She helped me realize that you don’t need to see the direct results in order to make a difference. Every little bit helps in the lives of children, and, no matter how frustrated I get, I need to realize that what I’m doing isn’t going to solve every problem, but it just might kick-start some growth into those seeds.


Also, in cased you missed it, I’m fundraising for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and hiking the Appalachian Trail to travel to Dis-Orientation, our retreat to end our year of service. For my blog post and more information about it, CLICK HERE, or to go directly to the fundraising page, CLICK HERE. Thanks everyone! -Tom

I Heart City Life

March 31, 2010

On Friday evening, while it was still light out, a man walked up to our porch, took two of our floral-patterned lawn chairs, walked to his green Yukon, and drove away. Four of us were home, but we were too slow in realizing what was happening to do anything to stop it.

It was an oddly gentle reminder that we live in a city. It’s a city full of many great people, places, and things, but it’s also a city where crime, theft, and violence are realities. We may live in Charles Village, a relatively decent area, but Greenmount, a street and area known for crime, is a mere two blocks away. In Baltimore, “relatively decent” turns to “pretty dangerous” in a blink.

This is all a bit new to me. I’ve never lived in a city before.

When you live in the city, you can’t afford to forget to lock your door. You have to walk with someone else at night. You can’t leave the windows open all day. The GPS can’t stay on the dash. If you’re kids want to play outside, you sure as heck need to be out there with them. And when you get too comfortable, there’s usually a siren close by or a search helicopter to bring you back to reality.

On the other hand city living gives you have a unique community. You don’t need a car. You can walk most places: grocery store, watering hole, gym, the farmer’s market. They’re all close by. You have a certain protective bond with your neighbors. You see familiar faces around the local spots. You can sit on your porch on a particularly warm Saturday in March and watch the cars go by. You find a certain comfort in the sounds of the city: the barking dogs, the too-loud music or car engine, the side-walking passersby.

Living in a city is both scary and gloriously liberating for a country (suburban) boy like me.

Now, as I return home tomorrow for Spring Break and Easter, I’m reminded of the stark difference in living that I’ve experienced this year, and how much I’ve come to love living in the city of Baltimore… even if we do only have one more floral-patterned lawn chair left.

Decal from

Advocacy and a Voice

March 15, 2010

Image via "hiddedevries"

Last week, a student came to me and asked, “What’s A-D-V-O-C-A-C-Y?” I told him that advocacy is basically when a group or a person helps support another person or group in order to help them. Literally not 20 minutes later, I read Kristina’s post over on her blog. I like her explanation of advocacy a lot better:

“It is hard to know when to be an advocate for someone, and when to let that someone speak for himself. People have voices, and we walk a fine & creative line when we become advocates for them. I don’t think that advocacy means speaking for someone without a voice, but simply working with that person to help him express himself in a more effective way… I realized that advocacy is a powerful thing, but it is so powerful because as advocates, we are asserting that we are invested and that we believe in that other human being, in his voice and his abilities. Advocacy is not about saying, “Oh hey, that guy can’t speak, so let me do the talking for him,” but rather it is saying, “You weren’t hearing him before. I am not speaking for him, I am speaking with him. Two voices are better than one. Listen to us now.'”

Kristina is spot on. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of this idea as a full-time volunteer. We want so badly for everything to go well and get better now that we can forget that we’re working for long-term, too. It’s important that the people we advocate learn to develop their own voice, so, someday, they have a voice for themselves and help others attain a voice as well. We shouldn’t be doing for. Rather, we should be doing with.

Rice Reflection

March 3, 2010

Our rice fast ended on Sunday at dinner. I almost added “mercifully” at the end of that sentence, but, not to sound all tough or anything, it really wasn’t that bad for me. On Sunday, before feasting on taco soup, guacamole, and corn chips, we had some time together to reflect on our 9-day rice fast thanks to Amanda and Rachel‘s Community Night.

We talked about how it affected us physically, mentally, and in our daily actions and interactions. For me, I didn’t feel it so much physically. Sure, I was a hungrier earlier before meals, and I always wished that I had more to eat, but I still had sufficient energy, never got sick, and even made it to the gym a couple times.

I did find, however, that it greatly affected other parts of my day-to-day. Normally, I eat lunch at 11:35am with a group of other teachers, but, because dinner wasn’t until 7:30pm or later, I tried to stretch my dollar (rice bowl) and eat closer to 1pm. It worked, but it took away from a part of the day that I really enjoyed: sharing a meal with a large group of co-workers. On a more positive note, I could sleep later in the morning because I didn’t have to make breakfast or lunch. I only had to scoop rice into a container and pick a seasoning (adobo and BBQ sauce is actually pretty darn good, by the way).


What I didn't eat during the rice fast

I also had to deal with cravings, offerings, and many, many questions. Every time I smelled any food or saw a food commercial, I immediately wanted it. At points, I thought I would just “go grab a snack” or I would yearn for a saltine cracker as I passed the box in the kitchen, only to remember that we were on a fast. I’ve never wanted a peanut butter and jelly more in my life! My own head was torturing me!

On a more serious note, though, it’s amazing how easy it is for us to “go grab a snack” or head to Chipotle for a quick bite. We don’t even have think about it. But what if we lived where rice was basically the only food available? We wouldn’t have the same options that we take for granted every day. It’s easy to forget that. This week, I was wholly aware.

During school, fellow teachers and staff often graciously offer Kelly and I extra food. It seemed like they had more food than any other week combined last week as we continually turned down free food (a volunteer almost never passes up free food). With each refusal came an explanation (and later in the week a “Oh, right, you’re fasting. Sorry!”) and with each explanation came a funny look like, “Really? You guys are crazy!”

Like I said, it was a tough week and I was incredibly glad when the fast was over, but I was also incredibly glad that I actually did the fast and finished it. I have my community to thank for that. If not for them, their support, and mutual participation, I would never have done it in the first place, let alone stuck with it for 27 meals. The most fasting I had ever done before this was abstaining from meat on Fridays during lent. Not anymore! And, now, I’ll never take my PBJ for granted again!

The Rice Fast

February 24, 2010

Image via quinn.anya

My  housemates and I are fasting. We’re eating rice every for every meal for nine days straight. Rice at every meal for Nine. Whole. Days. That’s 27 meals. For nine of those meals (dinner each night), we’re having Haitian rice with kidney beans, garlic, and onions. Other than that, we can only eat 3-6 cups of rice a day with seasonings or basic sauces (e.g. not with chunky salsa or meat sauce), and drink any type liquid.

So, to answer your question, yes, we are crazy. Why would we want to put ourselves through the hunger, the same meal every day, and the temptation to eat anything other than rice?

Three reasons: Solidarity. Simplicity. Sacrifice.


Rice is a staple for more than half of the world’s population. Most of the world quite literally lives on rice. It’s cheap, relatively filling, and has become an important part of many cultures across the world. Simply put, rice means life for many people. In this way, we’re attempting to gain some solidarity with much of the world.


Coordinating meals, grocery shopping, and cooking for six people each week is time consuming. Rice is a simple meal, and it doesn’t take much time, effort, or planning to make. Put it in a pot with some water, cook it, add seasoning, and eat. Boom. Done. So, what does that mean for us? Well, we can spend more time on things like prayer, community, and Lenten activities. It’s a way to simplify our lives for the week.


It’s Lent. Lent prepares Christians for Easter and Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. The forty days of Lent represent the forty days that J.C. spent in the desert fasting where he was tempted by the devil, but held true to G.O.D. So, fasting and sacrifice are big parts of Lent. By sacrificing what we usually eat and resisting the temptation to break the fast, we’re acknowledging and honoring his actions for our sake.

So, we may, in fact, be crazy, but really it’s not much different from what most of the world experiences. Plus, it gives us a chance to simplify, and allows us to pause to honor Jesus. So far, 14 meals in, I’ve been hungry earlier before each meal and feeling “full” is rare, but it hasn’t been a huge deal, especially with these three things in mind. It’s definitely been a challenge, but, like this whole year, it’s been a good challenge and one that allows for great learning and reflection.

For more information on rice and rice fasting check out these websites:

How to do a brown rice fast

Free Rice – A cool website where you can donate rice simply by answering vocabulary questions.

Operation Rice Bowl – Project from Catholic Relief Services

Rocky Bleier and One Damn Good Attitude

February 18, 2010

It seems like my dad’s been giving me news and opinion articles to read since I actually learned how to read. When I was younger, I used to roll my eyes, skim the article, and say, “thanks, Dad,” to feign interest (hey, the Wall Street Journal wasn’t exactly my cup of tea in middle school!). As I got older, however, I began to take these pieces more and more seriously, seeing the value that they provided.

This week, Dad snail-mailed me an issue of Investor’s Business Daily. There was no note, just a few articles checked off for me to read (he’s been e-mailing me articles now a days). Since I had had the last 13 days off from school, I was pretty hungry for something to do, so I sat down and started reading the first article, “Rocky Bleier, A Super Boulder”. Now, at this point, I’m thinking, “who the heck is this Rocky Bleierboa character, and why does he matter to me?”

Well, it turns out that Rocky Bleier is one pretty bad dude (bad in a good way). He was “too small” for college football, but became captain of the football team at Notre Dame. One of the last NFL draftees of 1968, he was a long shot to make a Pittsburgh Steelers team, but made it as a special teams player. Later in 1968, he was drafted to go to Vietnam. After sustaining a wound to the left thigh and severely damaging his right foot in an explosion, doctors told him he would never play football again and that he could kiss his career goodbye.

But the doctors forgot two things: Rocky Bleier is a bad dude (again, bad in a good way) and Rocky Bleier is a damn positive guy, too.

The article reads, “His sunny personality was forged in childhood when he woke up one day and realized it was his choice to be happy, and being optimistic made everything better.” Read that again…

Done? … Okay, now read on.

Instead of becoming a lawyer or an NFL scout, he learned to run on the side of his injured foot, returned to football in 1971, gained the starting fullback job in 1974, blocked for NFL great Franco Harris (a thankless job in many cases), won four Super Bowls (that’s even a lot for this Patriots fan), and continued to be bad (in a good way, of course). The man worked hard, shed doubters and naysayers left and right, and took life head on with the best of attitudes.

Of his mostly blocking, supplementary role on the team, he said, “I wasn’t pouting because I wasn’t getting enough playing time or carrying the ball. I was happy to be there and to be able to contribute.”

Rocky chose his attitude, knew what his goals were, and worked hard to reach them.

(You can (must) read the rest of the article by Michael Mink here: “Rocky Bleier, A Super Boulder”)

The lesson I take from this: keep a positive attitude and be optimistic. Rocky’s right, it is a choice. Be happy with what you have and work hard to attain your goals. We’ve all been there when life is exceedingly difficult (read: it sucks), and we’ve all been there when everything seems to be stacked against you. But who says you can’t grab some optimism, rally, pick yourself up, and, as my dad says, “press on, baby!”

So, today, tomorrow, and every day from here on out, we need to be more positive and keep a better attitude. That and we need to be bad (in a good way) like Mr. Rocky Bleier.