Elizabeth Pillari

Site: La Salle High School – Yakima, WA

College: University of Notre Dame

What do you do?

I teach freshmen and sophomore Religious Studies at La Salle High School. I also help out with retreats and service immersions through our Campus Ministry program, and serve as Freshmen Class Moderator.

Why did you choose to become a Lasallian Volunteer? Have your hopes about the Program been realized?

Ever since I was in high school, I had entertained the idea of teaching. This motivated my studies in college as a Theology major and education minor, and as graduation approached I was excited at the idea of being able to use what I had been learning for so many years. I looked into many opportunities that offered a dual teaching experience and degree program, but I didn’t feel that I was certain enough of my vocational direction to start graduate school.

Ultimately, I chose to become a Lasallian Volunteer because it offered nearly everything I was looking for in a post-graduate service experience- faith, prayer, community, an immersion in Catholic education, and the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and spread my wings a bit. Over the course of my life, I had been given so much, and I felt strongly that this should be a year that I started to give back. I wanted a year that was spent in service to others, for the betterment of others. Selfishly, I also wanted a year that would give me better clarity about where I’m called to use my God-given gifts and talents.

I can say with all confidence that my hopes about the Lasallian Volunteer program have been met. As a first-year teacher, I expected that it would be challenging and exhausting at times; this has certainly been the case. I have been overwhelmed numerous times with the responsibilities of an educator, and at the same time, overwhelmed at the continual grace that has allowed me to love and serve those around me.

For the first time in my life, I am no longer the student but the teacher, and yet I think I may be learning more in my role as a Lasallian Volunteer and Lasallian educator than I ever did behind a desk. I’m learning about the world around me, about the needs of the community in which I’m serving, about the challenges of teaching, and certainly about the joy and rewards that it brings.

What have you discovered about poverty from your work?

In my placement at La Salle, poverty is often much more veiled than some of the other LV placements.

What is the most challenging obstacle that your students/clients/guests face? How do your school/agency and your own outreach try to empower them to overcome this obstacle?

One of the greatest challenges that my school community faces is creating a place of acceptance and welcome amidst a very diverse population. Our students at La Salle reflect the ethnic and economic diversity of the Yakima Valley, which is essentially an asset to our school but at times can be a challenge.

The first unit I do with my freshmen when they begin their time here at La Salle is learning the five principles of Lasallian education, two of which are “respect for all persons” and “inclusive community”. We do our best to bring in students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and we also work hard to make sure that once here, every student is a part of our community. These challenges we face at La Salle are challenges that our nation and our world are facing- issues of prejudice, of learning to welcome differences instead of fearing them. The diversity at La Salle offers us educators the daily opportunity to teach one of the greatest lessons that our school could teach- a lesson not only in tolerating differences but embracing them.

Have you noticed any signs of success in your work? What are they?

Certainly the academic success of my students is a priority, and I try to celebrate the “small victories” each time a new study skill is learned, a concept “clicks”, or a deadline is met. These skills and “small victories” are the successes I see. I also have been blessed with the affirmation of my students who through their words and interactions communicate to me that I am someone they trust, someone with whom they can relate, and someone who tries to treat them as the uniquely created individuals that they are.

Ultimately, success is a funny thing to measure any time you are attempting to do God’s work- His definition of success is so different from our own. As an Lasallian educator, I believe it is my primary duty to teach my students about the love of God and His presence in each one of us not only through their Religion textbooks and note-taking but especially through the way I try to interact with them each day. Communicating God’s love to the students at our school would be a success to me.

Which of the core values (Faith, Community, Service) are most important to you? Why?

1 John 4:19 reminds us “We love because He first loved us”. For me, this verse from scripture embodies the reason that faith is the most important core value. Certainly all three are integral to my life as a Lasallian Volunteer, but the love of God that I have experienced in my journey of faith is what inspired me to be here and it is what inspires me daily in my service and community. To the best of my ability, I try to make each day a labor of love, primarily for the Lord but also for the people whom I am blessed to know and serve here in Yakima. Eyes of the world would say that many days are failed attempts- but eyes of faith tell me I’m planting seeds and touching hearts, by the grace of God. This core value of faith sustains me as a Lasallian Volunteer.

If you could project ahead a few years and look back to now, how do you think your experiences with those you serve and with the Brothers will have changed you?

Before becoming a Lasallian Volunteer, I had absolutely no knowledge of the Brothers and their work- this certainly has changed in my time thus far as an LV. I am constantly impressed with the tireless efforts of the Brothers in my community to truly know and love the students that walk our halls each day. They have taught me, through example, what it means to be a Lasallian educator, to engage the students both inside and outside of the class, and to find joy in my daily work with the students. The Brothers have committed themselves whole-heartedly to their work and it has inspired me to do the same.

What would you say to one of your students/mothers/clients/guests who came to you discouraged about a particularly troubling problem?

One thing I’ve learned through my interactions with my students is that often they don’t want advice or feedback- they just want someone to listen to them. When a student comes to talk to me about something personal, I do my best to listen attentively without worrying about what I should be saying- my primary focus, at least initially, is just to listen. I would check on the student periodically, and depending on the severity of the problem I might tap into the network of support I have at school to address the issue.

What might you say to your Supervisor who appeared negative about the recent behavior of the person just above who had recently confided in you?

I would do my best to mediate without breaking the confidentiality of my student, and remind my principal or supervisor that the student had other issues going on at home that were affecting school behavior. I will say, however, that one of the most impressive aspects about the Brothers with whom I live is their total devotion and attention towards the students. They tend to know far more than an average teacher/administrator about the home lives and personal challenges of each of my students, which inspires me to be equally vigilant and sensitive when dealing with my students.

What would you say to a friend from home who questioned why you chose to live with the Brothers?

I have had many people question my living situation, and I don’t blame them because I harbored the same opinion before my year as an LV. However, I assure skeptical friends that the Brothers are very much real people like any other friend or family member, and my experience in community has definitely been a positive one.

Why would you recommend the LV program to a college senior considering volunteering?

Spending a year in service after graduating from college offers the opportunity to discover more fully where one’s gifts and talents lie. At the end of my college career, I knew I wanted to do something in Catholic education, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to begin another degree. The LV Program offered me the opportunity to spend a year doing something I had been dreaming of doing- teaching high school religion- both as a means of serving others as well as a means of figuring out more fully where my vocation lies, while living in an intentional faith community that would support both endeavors. I also find that living with the Brothers offers a certain community stability that can be difficult to find in other volunteer communities.

Why would you recommend a contribution to the LV Program from a prospective donor?

Donors who contribute to the LV Program are making an investment in the Lasallian mission of education, not simply for the year that an LV might serve, but also for a lifetime. I’m blessed to be a part of a dedicated and inspiring group of volunteers who have taken their time as an LV to heart, as something that is not a break from the real world but the beginning of what hopefully becomes a life of service in the real world.