Caitlin O’Donnell, below, who credits her faith and time in the Diocese of Trenton with fanning her passion for service work, poses for a photo after arriving in South Sudan. O’Donnell flew to the country in May to work with refugees, above. Photos courtesy of Caitlin O’Donnell

Caitlin O’Donnell, below, who credits her faith and time in the Diocese of Trenton with fanning her passion for service work, poses for a photo after arriving in South Sudan. O’Donnell flew to the country in May to work with refugees, above. Photos courtesy of Caitlin O’Donnell

By David Karas | Correspondent

In 2006, Caitlin O’Donnell’s mother surprised her by signing her up for a summer JusticeworX program through the Center for FaithJustice, Lawrenceville. She might not have been looking forward to the program at first, but the experience proved to be transformative.

Today, O’Donnell credits that summer service immersion program and her work in Trenton – along with her faith – as the catalyst for a path that has led to her newest role working as a psychosocial coordinator with the Jesuit Relief Service in South Sudan. She will focus her efforts working across four refugee camps located in Maban County.

“Displaced people suffer enormous trauma and stress in leaving their homes and re-establishing their lives in a remote, distant place,” she said in an interview shortly after arriving in South Sudan. “My role is to oversee the team that aims to improve mental health and community resilience.”

She will help provide training to camp residents to form support groups, become peer counselors, resolve conflicts and manage stress.

“With a little training from us, the camp residents will be able to help themselves and each other,” she said.

O’Donnell, now 28, grew up in Montgomery Township, and attended St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Skillman, in the Diocese of Metuchen, where she says a spirit of social justice was infused in worship and programming. She acknowledged the “affluent bubble” she grew up in, and the eye-opening experience of JusticeworX.

“Like most kids, my worldview was limited to what I was experiencing every day, and while I knew about poverty and inequality in an abstract sense, I didn’t encounter much of it directly and therefore didn’t think about it much,” she said. “My week with the CFJ disrupted all of that in a complete and irreversible way.”

She served at a daycare program for underprivileged children in Trenton.

“I just could not believe that childhood could look so different only 25 minutes from where I was growing up,” she reflected. “I was beginning to realize that my home and my school and so many other aspects of my life were not ordinary, were not a given. It seemed profoundly unfair to me that people are just born into better or worse circumstances – all chance, by no fault or merit of their own.”

She continued, “I remember feeling like I’d seen the other side of the moon; this reality of inequality was there all along, but I just hadn’t been able to see it before.”

Following that immersion through the Center for FaithJustice, O’Donnell said she found it difficult to go back to living life as she had before – she had discovered a new vocation to help people. Her focus on service continued into high school and college, and she later served as a Jesuit volunteer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for two years before returning to the United States to pursue her master’s degree in social work, with a focus in global practice.

“It was there that my interest in refugees and displaced people really crystallized, and eventually here I am, working in a refugee camp in South Sudan,” she said.

O’Donnell will serve in her new role for at least a year, and will have the option to extend her time. While she will spend most of her time in the remote refugee camps, she will also spend some time traveling to the capital city of Juba, as well as Nairobi, Kenya.

“I am looking forward to so many aspects of the job,” she said, noting in particular the diversity of the Jesuits she will be serving alongside.

Reflecting on her faith, O’Donnell acknowledged the central role it has played in her life, as well as the times she has faced difficulties.

“The difficult thing about working with vulnerable and marginalized people a lot is that it’s also made me question my faith from time to time over the years,” she said. “Poverty is cruel and overwhelming, and a lot of suffering is inexplicable and senseless.

“That said,” she continued, “my faith is a significant reason for joining JRS in South Sudan. Maybe service and loving one another are God’s answer to the world’s suffering. Everybody has unique gifts and talents, and we’re invited to share those with the world generously to respond to its need.”

For more information on the Center for FaithJustice and its programs, visit www.faithjustice.org.