September 16, 2019 | 65° F

Rutgers alumnus discusses unorthodox volunteer life

Cow dung and glass bottles. These are the materials Jonathan Flowers used to build a house while on a 10-day civil service trip to Tanzania at the end of his junior year in college.

“You have to be selfless to do something like that,” he said. “It took me five minutes to process that it was cow s--- that I was touching. You really have to kind of get over yourself in a way.”

Flowers, who spent his college career on the Rutgers-Newark campus, said the education he received is “unparalleled.” After graduating in May with a degree in psychology and women’s and gender studies, he moved to Pittsburgh to work in a free mental health clinic with the Mercy Volunteer Corps, a position he will hold for the next year.

Listening to people’s life stories and making sense of the pieces is something Flowers enjoys, which is part of his reason for entering the mental health field.

Elizabeth MacNeal, MVC’s communication specialist, said MVC’s aim is to cultivate justice and mercy in the world with a network of volunteers who work in poor, marginalized cities around the United States and South America.

“We work to engage our volunteers in a mission that is greater than themselves, a mission that recognizes the value and dignity of each person they meet throughout their time as a MVC volunteer,” she said in an email.

MVC is about volunteers creating change in society, MacNeal said. Flowers is spending the next year at as a human services coordinator at the clinic, which relies on volunteers. He will work with client intake, administer psychological assessments and determine treatment plans for clients.

Flowers, who described Newark as his favorite city — an “honest” and “gritty” place — said moving to the predominantly white Pittsburgh is proving to be a hard adjustment.

Service was something he knew he wanted to do after college, but the required two-year Peace Corps commitment was just too much of an investment. MVC attracted Flowers because it provides housing and transportation, along with the opportunity to work with volunteers from all over.

Flowers, who describes himself as nondenominational — spiritual, but not religious — had to come to terms with the fact that MVC is a religious organization. The nuns he has come into contact with are “some of the coolest people” and “so radical.”

“We may have different views of certain topics,” Flowers said. “But there is a mutual respect we all share.”

Flowers, who doesn’t hold steadfast to the Christian faith he was raised in, now reads scriptures everyday, but not just for personal growth. Since many of the people he works with in the clinic are Christian, he reads them in order to understand and better help them.

In the future, Flower sees himself as a mental health counselor primarily for women and also talked about empowering the black community. 

Although he majored in psychology, Flowers said women’s studies was his niche. As a male, he has privilege that women will never have, and he hopes to be able to empower women to see their full potential.

“I think as a gay man, I kind of realize that the only group of people who have been more oppressed, present day, are women,” he said.

Empowering others is no easy feat, and Flowers thought the task almost impossible at times. One way he tries to empower the black community he works with is by taking individuals on out-of-town errands with him.

“It’s about taking them beyond the welfare and social security offices, to see trees,” Flowers said. 

There is a certain sense of pride that Flowers said this community has, a pride rooted in the idea that growing up in “the hood” and making it through to adulthood is, in itself, something to be proud of.

“Tackling empowering black people … [it’s] not easy because so much of America is against the black race,” he said. “When people see a name that may seem typically black, that person’s not going to be chosen for an interview … they just don’t have the same opportunities.”

Hannah Friskney, another MVC volunteer, graduated from Cincinnati Christian University in 2013 and is living with Flowers for the next year. 

From the moment Friskney moved to Kosovo with her family in the sixth grade, she knew she wanted to work in the social justice field, assisting people of different cultures. 

Falling in love with places around the world, she went on to travel to Haiti, South Africa and Cambodia during her high school and college years. In Cambodia, she worked with girls who were at risk for trafficking, teaching them English and assisting them with job training in a local restaurant.

Friskney’s MVC placement is at a refugee resettlement agency, which aims to help refugees who come to Pittsburgh from a variety of countries, many from Nepal and Iraq. From the moment the refugees reach the airport, the volunteers stick by them, setting them up with housing, welfare, social security and, eventually, jobs.

When she and Flowers moved in together, the two discovered their birthdays were a day apart, and celebrated their 23rd birthdays together in August, right after moving to Pittsburgh.

Though she has only lived with Flowers for a little more than a month, she said they are already close.

“He’s such a welcoming person, immediately upon meeting him he’s very engaging, cares a lot about people’s stories and experiences and their feelings,” she said. “And [he] never judges or criticizes, always empathizes.”

Sabrina Szteinbaum

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