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COVID-19 didn’t dampen Sarah Bleile’s desire to serve

New Orleans YAV continues as a volunteer

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Sarah Bleile gets ready for the Wednesday lunch at Okra Abbey in New Orleans, before COVID-19 changed the way meals were served. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Sarah Bleile joined the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program in 2019 because she was looking for a challenge.

A challenge is just what she got.

She was in the middle of her YAV year when the pandemic hit the U.S.  The YAV year came to a halt, but rather than returning home, she chose to shelter-in-place at the YAV house in New Orleans so she could continue to serve as a volunteer with several YAV partner organizations.

“Life during the pandemic hasn’t been easy,” she said. “No one expected this to ever happen and I definitely didn’t expect the YAV year to end the way it did. I spent half the year in self-isolation with my YAV community. I planned to serve for a second year but because of the pandemic the YAV year changed to the virtual program. This wasn’t my first choice but like everyone else, I had to adapt. I have learned to have patience and to go with the flow of things because everything is constantly changing. “  

She splits her time between four YAV work placements sites in New Orleans, including YMCA Educational Services, her original placement site. She now works from home helping the organization input important data. Before her YAV year ended unexpectedly, she started working with her housemate at two YAV site placements and has continued to volunteer at both. At a Jefferson Presbyterian Food Bank, she helps box up and distribute food to the community.

She also spends time at Okra Abbey, a community garden where she helps garden and assists with the weekly lunch.  With the remainder of her week she helps with the Sunday services at Lakeview Presbyterian Church.

“I get to see the impact of being a safe place to get a hot meal each week at Okra Abbey while I am distributing lunch to the community members on Wednesdays,” she said. “By being there each week, it lets the community members know that we care for them, especially during this time we are living in. They are always grateful for a free meal and are sometimes surprised when they hear that we cooked it ourselves for them.”

She has watched the partners adapt and change as well during the pandemic. For YMCA Educational services, classes used to be held in person. Now learning happens online using educational websites. She misses the interaction with students.


New Orleans YAVs at the food bank. From left to right are David Sydnor, Nate Burt, Sarah Bleile and Kristina Meyer. (Contributed photo)

The Wednesday meal at Okra Abbey was served family style, where everyone sits at one table and eats together. The food was prepared by a local chef. Since the pandemic began, she helps the director cook lunch and the food is distributed in to-go boxes. The food bank has converted to a drive-through where volunteers load food into cars. She helps coordinate services at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, both online and in person.

One of the things she loves about the New Orleans YAV site is its focus on community, within the city and in the YAV house. “A YAV can find support from our partners and through people who support the program,” she said. “As a community we get to create memories together by trying a new spiritual discipline each month and learning about it.”

Sarah Bleile’s YAV placement in New Orleans was interrupted by the pandemic. (Contributed photo)

Bleile is a Bluffton, South Carolina native.  She graduated from Presbyterian College in 2018 with a degree in Business Administration. She is currently participating in the virtual YAV year and hopes to serve a second YAV year in 2021-22.

“I have grown a lot in my understanding about myself,” she said. “I have learned how I process information and know that it takes me a bit before I can address it. One of the core tenets of the YAV program is vocational discernment and at the beginning of my year I only saw it as the work side of things. The pandemic especially taught me that there is another side to it, the personal/rest side. Taking time for self-care is important to good mental health.”

She believes her second YAV year will help her in the vocational process to decide what’s next for her professional life. She would encourage any young adult to enter the program.

“I would tell someone who might be interested in the YAV program to go for it, even if it makes you nervous and you are unsure,” she said. “The year will be challenging and have its ups and downs. But in the end, you are going to create so many memories and grow and learn about yourself.”

The Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program is an ecumenical, faith-based service opportunity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at sites throughout the U.S. and around the world. YAVs ages 19-30 accompany local agencies to embody the Matthew 25 vision of dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and building congregational vitality. Alongside this work, volunteers explore the meaning of their Christian faith and accountability to their neighbors in the community with peers and mentors. The YAV year is August to August. Applications are being accepted now. Learn more and apply.

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