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Pioneering House of Mercy Ambassadors put service first

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Michelle Ahrens, front; Sarah Anderson

The raucous sounds of children playing amid the oddly melodic blend of their different languages is what after-school looks like for Mercyhurst University students Michelle Ahrens and Sarah Anderson.

Ahrens, a junior social work/religious studies major from Erie, and Anderson, a senior religious studies major from St. Mary’s, have sacrificed the college scene (except for attending classes) to spend the 2014-2015 academic year living and working at the House of Mercy on Erie’s east side.

The students are pioneers in a program designed by Sister Michele Schroeck, RSM, who directs the House of Mercy, which was established by the Sisters of Mercy in 2002 to promote a healthy neighborhood by providing activities that engage adults and children in positive experiences. The initiative is modeled after Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley’s original House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland.

“I was looking for a way to build upon our mission and expand our community outreach, and I needed long-term volunteers,” said Sister Michele. “Many college students do a year of service after they graduate, so I thought we could give them the opportunity now, and it’s working out wonderfully.”

As the first House of Mercy Ambassadors, Ahrens and Anderson live at the Woodlawn Avenue residence at a reduced rent and average 10 hours of service a week. Primarily, they interact with neighborhood children, helping with homework after school and engaging in evening activities like crafts, games, holiday baking and environmental projects. 

The House of Mercy caters to residents of an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood; most families live in public housing and nearly half are refugees, Sister Michele said.

Although the House of Mercy has set hours and programming, its doorbell is always ringing. Can you come out and play is the plea Ahrens and Anderson hear most often.

“These kids all know you and love you and they seek you out – everything from opening their glue stick, to reading a story, or playing a game with them,” Ahrens said. “For many, English is their second language, so we spend a lot of time on homework help. We have an industry club for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers to introduce them to different kinds of jobs.”

“Getting to know the children and watching them learn and grow is what I enjoy most,” said Anderson. “I did a lot of service hours in high school, so it’s always been a part of who I am. I’d like to spend a year doing service with the Mercy Volunteer Corps after I graduate, so this is a great opportunity.”

For Anderson and Ahrens, living and working at the House of Mercy epitomizes Mercyhurst’s promise of providing every student with hands-on learning opportunities.

“So many of the experiences I’m having now I can relate back to what I’ve learned in my social work classes,” Ahrens said.

And while both students stress over the usual college challenges, like getting good grades, Ahrens said being at the House of Mercy gives you perspective.

“You learn that not everything depends on your finals; there’s so much more that is important in this life,” she said.