Like most college graduates, 22-year-old Dan Schmidt was faced with choosing the path his life would take after his graduation from College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa., this past spring.
Unlike most college graduates, however, Schmidt decided to devote the first year of his post-college life to serving the poor in Philadelphia, Pa. In mid-August, Schmidt arrived in Philadelphia to began his year of service with Franciscan friars and fellow volunteers at the Franciscan Inn, an inner-city soup kitchen.
Voluntary service work is nothing new to Schmidt, whose family attends St. Theresa’s Parish in Stanley, part of the Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community. As a teen, he helped out at area soup kitchens and group homes through his parish youth group, and his commitment to service strengthened while he was at College Misericordia, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy. During the break between semesters last Christmas, Schmidt and a handful of fellow students spent a week working at clinics, hospitals, orphanages and schools in Haiti.
The trip to Haiti changed his life in many ways, Schmidt said. Interacting with the country’s poor and homeless helped him realize he was being called to serve those less fortunate. His parents, Cathy and Gerard Schmidt, said they also noticed that their son was different when he returned from Haiti.
“He was more reflective; he was more into his faith, into the service of (and) caring for his fellow human beings,” his father said.
In June, Schmidt and a group of other College Misericordia students traveled to the South American country of Guyana, where they spent a month teaching English and math at an orphanage school and working at a soup kitchen run by the Missionaries of Charity. Shortly after his return from Guyana, Schmidt was off again, this time spending a week chaperoning a youth-group service excursion to Mexico. The way of life in all three countries was vastly different from life in upstate New York, and it had a profound impact on him, he said.
“I think it changed my thinking (about) types of living and spirituality and what my relationship is with God. It will affect me for the rest of my life,” Schmidt said.
When he returned to the United States, Schmidt had to decide whether he would pursue graduate school or service work. He eventually chose the latter, deferring his admission to SUNY Albany for a year. Although he’d only been serving at the Franciscan Inn for two weeks at the time of his interview with the Catholic Courier, Schmidt said that his work had so far been fulfilling.
Inner-city Philadelphia is also very different from the Finger Lakes area he grew up in, and there Schmidt sees drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and poverty daily. Although this is difficult to see, Schmidt said he’s glad he’s been exposed to it and has the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those suffering around him.
Schmidt waits on guests — about half of whom are homeless and half of whom live in low-income housing — seven days a week at the Franciscan Inn. Seating and bringing meals to the guests is only a part of the way he serves them, however.
“Part of it is to also talk with them … and give them some kind of support besides the street,” he said. “They need us for that moral support because they don’t have anything else. Without the support, they (only) have the street.”
Schmidt believes that he’s gained more from each of his service experiences than he’s given.
“I don’t think that they will remember me, but I will remember them,” he said.