In rehab center, USFers learn Ignatian solidarity

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Tue, 04/11/2017 - 10:56

Every Friday afternoon, a small group of USF students heads to a San Francisco rehab center to meet with homeless drug and alcohol addicts.

Rehab is serious business, a hard road for the men struggling to remake their lives in Father Alfred Center, a yearlong residential recovery and job-training program run by San Francisco nonprofit St. Anthony Foundation. They’re often immersed in classes on recovery, or are confiding their fears and frustrations to counselors. Being with USFers, who lead group activities like poetry reading and meditation, is a welcome break. 

“It’s fun, it’s spiritually uplifting, it boosts your self esteem,” says Artis Scott, 50, a Father Alfred Center resident. “It makes you feel wanted.”

Hope and confidence

The students are part of University Ministry’s Solidarity in Action program, in which undergraduate volunteers have an opportunity to live out the Jesuit ideal of being “people with and for others.” 

“Solidarity in action means being there — being present — with those who are marginalized or disenfranchised,” says An Bui, a University Ministry resident minister who helps facilitate the group. “We’re not necessarily there to help anyone. We hear their stories and share our own.”

It’s a simple act, but makes a big difference.

The students “treat us like human beings, not just like some drug addict on the street,” says Scott. “They treat us fair, even though we’ve been through what we’ve been through. It gives you a lot of hope and confidence.”

That kind of personal connection, and the empathy that comes with it, is something students will carry with them throughout their lives, says Sonny Manuel, S.J., professor of psychology and a practicing clinical psychologist who encourages students to participate to fulfill service-learning credits or as volunteers.

“Solidarity in Action shows students that we’re a community that has a responsibility to take care of our weakest members,” Fr. Manuel says.

Understanding addiction

In the hour-long group meetings student volunteers and Father Alfred Center clients — about seven each — participate in student-led activities meant to create a positive and affirming environment.

In a recent session, the group split into teams and wrote short sketches based on morals like “kindness is more effective than severity.” Then teams acted out their sketches while the rest of the group tried to guess the moral. 

“The residents love when we go to Father Alfred Center, and we love being there,” says Samantha Young ’17, a sociology major and psychology minor who plans to work with homeless adults and families after she graduates. She sees the group sessions as real-life training.

“These men are parents, grandparents, IT professionals, sailors,” she says. “Each has a different experience of recovery. I think it’s really hard to understand how complex and difficult addiction is until you’re working one-on-one with someone in the depths of recovery.”

Counseling too

In addition to the undergraduates, USF doctoral psychology students volunteer and work as practicum students at Father Alfred Center and the affiliated St. Anthony’s medical clinic — thanks to a new pilot program.

The students provide mental health, individual and group counseling, and intake services.

“The students do tremendous work to support our organization,” says Ezequiel Montejano, clinic director at St. Anthony’s. “Our Franciscan values call us to restore health and spread human dignity. These patients, who come from the poorest neighborhood in San Francisco, wouldn’t have access to this level of care if they didn’t come here.”

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