CHICAGO — Three Catholic students from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway participated in the Mercy Challenge in Chicago May 18-25.
Christy Fili, 22, Ashton Wills, 21, and Juliane Pierini, 21, joined 10 other young women from around the country to participate in a weeklong service project focused on the Mercy charism and social justice principles.
Sister Cynthia Serjak, RSM, is one of the main coordinators of the Mercy Challenge.
“It started 10 years ago because young women were asking for an opportunity to live with the sisters for a week and spend time with other women who were asking questions about what they want to do with their lives and if it involves a religious life,” she said.
The young women spent a week volunteering at the Misericordia: Heart of Mercy home for people with developmental and physical disabilities. Misericordia is a ministry founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1921 and grew into what it is today because they began addressing the bigger issue of providing care for those with disabilities.
“Misericordia is a mini-town for people with developmental disabilities,” Fili said. ”They work, they play, they have community. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been.”
Misericordia focuses on the dignity and worth of every person. The residents are encouraged to live as independently as possible through working, learning and praying together.
Executive director Sister Rosemary Connelly, RSM, has been serving the organization for 44 years and is a constant presence on the campus.
“She’s the grandmother of Misericordia. She watched several of them (the residents) grow up and she’s nurturing and stern. All the residents treat her like she’s their mom,” Wills said.
By her influence and guidance, Misericordia expanded its ministries to the present-day 31-acre campus. In the early days of Sister Rosemary’s ministry with Misericordia, she noticed many of the people she worked with were capable of doing many everyday tasks independently; however, no one was challenging them. She began to make her own educational programs for her residents and created an environment that encouraged them to excel to their highest potential. Today, the residents exemplify their various capabilities daily. Some residents even hold a job on campus or in one of the businesses in the Chicago area that accepts employees with disabilities.
The young women who participated in the Mercy Challenge spent time volunteering in various departments on campus. Each day, they would rotate from the onsite bakery, art room, greenhouse, fitness center, McAuley medical center and Conway educational center for two hours at a time. The girls worked closely with the residents side by side or assisted them.
“The residents are a group of people I don’t think anyone should miss having an opportunity to be with,” Fili said.
The women also celebrated daily Mass with some of the residents, and their faith was the epitome of “child-like faith.”
“These are people that hold hope and joy differently than what you’d encounter in other experiences,” Wills said.
In addition to service work at Misericordia, the participants lived with the Sisters of Mercy and learned more about social justice teaching. Discussions were held on topics such as immigration, women’s rights, the environment and human dignity.
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