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Alumni Laura Power, Tomy Vettukallel Serve New Orleans Community Through Jesuit Volunteer Corps

Alumni Laura Power, Tomy Vettukallel Serve New Orleans Community Through Jesuit Volunteer Corps

Two University of San Diego 2020 undergraduate graduates, Laura Power and Tomy Vettukallel, are among a few Toreros whose post-graduation plans involve doing a year of service through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) program. Power and Vettukallel are both in New Orleans, in separate roles, but are living in the same house with five other JVC participants. The USD News Center asked Power and Vettukallel several questions about their JVC work and the preparation for it.

Power (BA Psychology, minors in Religious Studies and sociology) works at the Harry Tompson Center, a faith-based organization space that serves as a day shelter and offers other vital services to those experiencing homelessness in downtown New Orleans. Vettukallel (BBA Business Administration, USD Paralegal Program certificate), is a client advocate at the Orleans Public Defenders Office, which aims to provide eligible clients with high quality, client-centered legal representation in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. 

When you applied to JVC, how did this particular assignment happen?

Laura Power: I interviewed with three different agencies, all of which included a component of working with individuals experiencing homelessness. However, during my interview for the Harry Tompson Center (HTC) with my now-boss, Emily, I felt everything I was hoping to get out of JVC totally aligned with this placement. I felt my conversation with Emily was an instant connection. We are both extremely passionate about working with underserved populations. I was immediately drawn to HTC’s commitment to treat every individual with dignity and respect regardless of their background. I was also intrigued by HTC’s mission to create a safe space in which the guests can cultivate a sense of belonging among a community that is often marginalized and invisible.

Tomy Vettukallel: I first applied to get into JVC, then I went through a series of interviews with different placement assignments. After the interviews, I was given a choice between Baltimore and New Orleans. I submitted my preferences for these locations and then I was matched with New Orleans. I work for the Orleans Public Defenders, which works to help clients access justice that the system does not currently provide for them.

Laura: What is your role specifically with HTC?

I’m in charge of orchestrating the sunrise shower service and providing hygienic supplies to guests who are experiencing homelessness. Additionally, a great deal of my job revolves around interacting with the guests and engaging in meaningful conversations.

Laura: What are your thoughts about homelessness and how you make an impact toward a solution?

In my opinion, you can learn a great deal from an individual experiencing homelessness. No one ends up in this position entirely by choice. Everyone has a backstory that has led them to this point in their lives. Unfortunately, homeless individuals are rarely granted the opportunity to actually share their stories with others. Therefore, I make it a priority to always be there to listen. Although I will never be able to 100% understand what it’s like to be homeless, it doesn’t mean I should just not care at all. I genuinely believe that if more of the mainstream population had a greater sense of empathy for marginalized populations, such as those experiencing homelessness, the world would be a drastically better place.

What's something memorable or defining for you, even in your short time so far in New Orleans?

LP: I think what I’m most proud of is that I’ve thrown myself full force into this role. I tend to love routine and consistency, but this program is pushing me outside of this comfort zone. At HTC, although I was extremely nervous early, I forced myself to ignore all anxious thoughts and, instead, give it my all. Ultimately, I feel this helped me acclimate better, despite COVID-19 throwing a wrench in the original plans. Now, six weeks into my year of JVC service, I’ve already created strong bonds with individuals I’m serving, which I will remember and hold close to my heart for the rest of my life.

TV: I think something memorable for me is the amount of support we receive as Jesuit Volunteers (JVs), not only from our workplaces, but also from the large network of Former Jesuit Volunteers (FJVs) in New Orleans. If we ever need something, there is always someone at the ready to provide us with assistance. If I had to pick something I am proud of, it would have to be the willingness to share more of myself with people that were strangers to me. I spoke up at a large staff meeting about my experiences with racism and discrimination and with my housemates during a night we set to discuss how race impacts our daily lives and work places.

What's a typical day? How has COVID affected it and how have you worked around it?

LP: My day involves waking up at 5:30 a.m. to get to work before sunrise at 6. By this time, people have already lined up to take a shower, so we quickly organize everything and get the guests in as soon as possible. During shower service, I run to grab the next person in line and bring them into their assigned showers, I clean showers in between guests, and I’m finding newly donated clothes and hygienic supplies that people ask for. Most importantly, this is the time during which I actively engage with the guests in one-on-one conversations. Shower service goes until 11 a.m., and I transition to doing laundry, creating personal hygiene packs for the next day’s guests, doing inventory, and organizing donations. When I have time, I write articles and blog posts about my experiences for HTC’s website.

TV: If we weren’t dealing with COVID, I’d be going into the Defenders’ office each day and visiting clients at the jail and/or going into the community to handle things for those clients. During these COVID times, I’m working from home mostly, and I’m occasionally allowed to go into the office to do jail visits and gather notes. For most of the week, one or two people cook dinner and we gather together to eat. After dinner, we hang out and strike up conversations until people go to bed.

What is your outlook for this JVC year? Set any goals?

LP: My ultimate goal is to take advantage of every experience possible. For example, through JVC, we are encouraged to “live simply,” to be in accordance with the populations we are serving. Although it’s definitely not easy to live off of only $200/month, I’m confident that by adhering to the expectations of JVC, I will walk away from this experience as a better and stronger person who truly appreciates all of the blessings in her life.

TV: COVID definitely adds a unique layer to everything we’re doing; the things I thought I would be doing this year are definitely not what I am doing now. During this year, I hope to grow in my faith, expand my knowledge of the criminal justice system, and learn how my identity impacts my experience and the experience of my housemates.

Tomy, you were a mid-year graduate last fall, but you spent the first part of 2020 earning a Paralegal Program certificate. Are you utilizing what you learned there in this current role?

Undergoing the USD Paralegal Program was actually something I was looking to do in preparation for law school, but I found myself on a different path of heading into a year of service in a completely different part of the country. While I’m not directly using my paralegal skills, I’m finding that the knowledge I gained through that education has helped me better understand the criminal justice system.

What do you utilize from what you did at USD and apply it to your JVC role?

LP: At USD I was a member of Greek Life (Kappa Delta Sorority), and I was in several clubs at varying points over the four years, including Founders Chapel Choir and Torero Ambassadors. Outside of school, I spent most of my junior/senior years working at an organization called Teens in Motion through the YMCA, which is an after-school and summer day program for teens with special needs. Although working after classes was draining at times, I loved that job so much that I was willing to do anything to make it work. Juggling my classes and assignments with my work schedule taught me how to manage my time more effectively and practice self-care whenever possible. Both have been useful to me as I transition to my JVC role. Working at the HTC, I’m constantly running around and multitasking. Once I’m home, I have to force myself to engage in self-care so that I’m not completely drained for the next day of work.

TV: I was involved in a wide variety of organizations and events while at USD, and I have found that I am continuing that streak out here in New Orleans. My involvement with University Ministry has allowed me to engage in open conversations about my faith with my housemates. My involvement with the Living-Learning Communities as an RA allowed me to engage in social causes and issues I care about, and I am getting involved in the political scene in New Orleans.

What are your post-JVC assignment plans?

LP: I plan to attend graduate school. I am using this year of service to figure out what direction I actually want to go, but I’ve always known I wanted to pursue work with special needs populations. More specifically, I’d love to have a job in which I help differently-abled teens effectively transition into adulthood by ensuring that they are well-equipped with basic life skills (e.g., cooking, taking public transportation, handle money, different tactics to better facilitate social interactions with others, etc.) which are necessary for them to learn so they will be successful later in life.

TV: I’m considering law school. While I’ve not set concrete plans on which school I will attend, I’m looking forward to channeling my JVC experience into the energy and knowledge I can take with me to law school.

What's something that defines who you are and how you live it every day, especially now?

LP: I feel my deeply rooted passion for working with underserved and marginalized populations accurately depicts the kind of person I am. Clearly, this closely aligns with the expectations of JVC, but I find this is how I try to live my life every day. I have a strong willingness to throw everything I have into the efforts of helping those in need. And in situations in which I’m not knowledgeable about what needs to be done, I’m the first person to sit back and listen. One of my favorite parts of this job is to hear the stories of the guests I’m serving and I feel this rings true here because I understand there’s still so much I have to learn. Lifelong learning is a passion, but I find that this learning becomes even more significant and impactful when you are learning from those who have remarkably different life stories than you.

TV: I’ve been learning to bring my authentic self to every aspect of this experience. I started to cultivate this my last few years at USD, but I think I am learning how to bring my authentic self to every part of my JVC journey. I live most authentically by sharing the good and the bad of my life experiences. The moment we are living in this country also plays a large role in how I hold myself and how I share my experiences, especially as I am the only outwardly visible person of color in the house.

You are living in the same house with five other JVC roommates. What’s that experience like and did you know each other at USD prior to coming to New Orleans?

LP: Prior to senior year, Tomy and I knew of each other, but we ran in different social circles. I believe this has ultimately been a benefit as we’ve been able to get to know each other on a more personal level than we normally would have outside of JVC. He provides a sense of home and comfort to me when I’m homesick or just need a little reminder of San Diego. Therefore, I am glad to have Tomy here with me. Living in a house with seven people can be difficult at times, but we’re building stronger relationships with one another because of it!

TV: Funny enough, Laura and I only lived about 30 minutes away from each other when we were not at USD, but we only crossed paths towards the end of our senior year. We live in Mid-City, which is considered an historical part of New Orleans, and most locations are accessible by walking, biking, or taking public transportation.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Tomy Vettukallel (front) and Laura Power (fourth row, right) are both new USD alumni who are doing Jesuit Volunteer Corps community service for one year in New Orleans. Tomy Vettukallel (front) and Laura Power (fourth row, right) are both new USD alumni who are doing Jesuit Volunteer Corps community service for one year in New Orleans.

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