The Catholic University of America

August 30, 2011

CUA Grad Serves Troubled Teens in Alaska

Bethel, Alaska — situated on the remote, windswept Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, along the frigid Bering Sea — doesn’t seem a likely place for an upwardly mobile, just-graduated college student. There are few jobs. People depend on what they can fish, hunt, and gather. And there are no roads leading in and out; the tiny city of 6,000 is reachable only by plane and boat — and when the river freezes solid, by snowmachine and dogsled.

But it’s precisely where Catholic University 2008 graduate Erin O’Keefe began her life’s work.

  Erin O'Keefe
  During her year of service in Bethel, Alaska, Catholic University 2008 graduate Erin O’Keefe fishes for salmon.

“Some people look at a year of service as a break year, like a departure from what they want to do for the rest of their life,” she says. “The way that I saw this was not a break but kind of a direction, in and of itself. If I’m wanting to make my life a service, then this is the perfect way to start.”

Inspired by the principles of Catholic social teaching and seeking to “live justice,” the theology and drama major O’Keefe signed up with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest and, on graduating, headed to Bethel. She was posted at an alternative boarding school for troubled, repeat drop-out teens — mostly poor Alaska Natives.

O’Keefe’s first day of work was the first time she had set foot in a public high school in session. For the young woman who had gone to a private high school with “motivated, smart, and generally wealthy” girls, she says, “it was complete night and day.”

O’Keefe tutored students, made lunch for them, served as a “dorm parent,” and substituted for teachers.

Outside school, she lived in a house with six “community mates,” all Jesuit volunteers working at a microloan agency, domestic violence shelter, public defender’s office, senior center, and local Catholic Church.

The Jesuit volunteers regularly went to Mass together and, one evening a week, gathered at home for “spiritual night,” to reflect and “grow together as a community.”

“To have that spiritual support is really necessary,” says O’Keefe, especially “when you’re going through the hard times that you will inevitably encounter.”

Those sacrifices came daily. Like their Y’upik Eskimo neighbors, the Jesuit volunteers fished for salmon to supplement their pantry. They had neither cell phone service nor a car.

That meant a 45-minute walk to school for O’Keefe, which “at negative 40, is quite cold,” she recalls.
But the deprivations were necessary for learning “solidarity” with the poor, she explains.

“You are accepting and learning lessons about what it is like to really have less. You’re accepting the reality of the people who you are working with, understanding a little bit more, and having a bit more compassion for a life that more people live.”

But “one year wasn’t enough to learn the lessons,” says O’Keefe. So she stayed another two years — down the road at a public high school managing a drug and alcohol abuse prevention grant.

O’Keefe says her long-term service “definitely led directly” to her next steps in life. This autumn, she begins a master’s program in social work in Vermont.

This year, charitable works — including those performed in long-term service projects — may be logged in Catholic University’s Cardinal Service Commitment, a service campaign marking Catholic University’s 125th anniversary. In thanksgiving for more than a century of God’s blessings at Catholic University, students, alumni, faculty, and staff are striving to perform 125,000 hours of service by next Founders Day, April 10, 2012. For more information and to log hours, visit