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Photo by Mr. Bob Colameco

Jonathan Sgro is an alum of Malvern Prep and long-time Bethesda Project volunteer with many years of experience working with the chronically homeless in Philadelphia and Boston. He is a Skadden Fellow and Staff Attorney in the Homeownership and Consumer Unit at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia. His work involves direct representation of low-income and elderly homeowners facing municipal property tax foreclosures.

I am happy to be back at Malvern.

I am here tonight as a proud Malvern Prep alum, and as the Chair of Bethesda Project’s Young Professional Advisory Board. The Young Professional Advisory Board is a group of young people dedicated to raising awareness about Bethesda and its work among our peers in the Philadelphia area. You’ll forgive me then if my remarks are directed primarily to the students in this room.

I am going to spend a few minutes talking about my experience at Malvern and what I’ve been doing since then. The point is not to pat myself on the back, but to share some lessons I’ve learned along the way.

It was on this campus that I first encountered the values that have continued to shape my life and career. I learned from the examples of Malvern’s faculty members the importance of community and of caring for others. I cherish to this day the memories and bonds formed with my Malvern brothers on my MECO weekend. But most importantly, it was through Malvern’s Christian Service Program, then under the leadership of the late great Larry DiPaul, that I learned the fundamental lessons of Catholic Social Teaching: the guiding principle that societies should be judged by how they treat those on the margins, as well as a deep sense of personal responsibility. Larry was famous for going around a classroom in his Social Justice class and asking, “Hey Jonathan, did you ask to be born in Chester Springs and not North Philadelphia?” “Hey Mark, did you ask to be born in Downingtown and not East Camden?” His point was clear. You are so lucky to have the opportunities you’ve been given, and with opportunity, comes great responsibility. These classroom lessons were reaffirmed repeatedly through service experiences with the homeless and the elderly in Philadelphia and with the rural poor in Appalachia. That is why I can stand before you today and say without hesitation that Malvern set me on a path toward a career in public service.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It is through experiences that make you uncomfortable that you will grow. And it is these people and these communities that need your help most.[/pullquote]

After Malvern, I traded the Augustinians for the Jesuits and attended Boston College. After volunteering at a Catholic Worker soup kitchen in South Boston a couple of times per month, I realized that I wanted to do more outside the confines of BC’s campus and I wanted to take on greater responsibility in service of the poor. I took a job working the nightshift at a shelter in Cambridge. It was there that I learned more about the world, people, poverty, and homelessness, and perhaps more importantly, that I learned about myself, than I could have learned in a hundred semesters of coursework. It was one night early in my time there that I recognized the profound injustice of the world in which I found myself – a world where a 19 year old kid could decide whether or not someone would have a warm place to sleep at night.

After college, I returned to Philadelphia and worked with the homeless as an outreach worker and a case manager – trying to help people on the street access shelter or behavioral health treatment. I spent three years helping chronically homeless men and women with severe mental health and substance abuse issues regain their independence in their own apartments after 5, 10, 15 years on the street. I then went to law school to continue my work on behalf of the poor and powerless, and I’m now a legal services attorney who represents low-income and elderly Philadelphia at risk of losing their homes and becoming homeless through foreclosure.

My advice to all of the young people out there, whether you go to Malvern or Villa or Notre Dame, is the same advice I was given when I was in your place. Don’t take this experience for granted. You are tremendously lucky to attend schools like these. Your parents have made terrific sacrifices. Never lose sight of the fact that these schools are not the norm. Seize every opportunity to leave this comfortable campus or whatever college campus you find yourself on in a few years. Most of all, challenge yourself. Interact with your peers in places like Camden or North Philadelphia who live in a world so different from yours. Share a meal with the men at a shelter who have suffered and struggled in ways you can’t imagine. It is through experiences that make you uncomfortable that you will grow. And it is these people and these communities that need your help most.

In closing, I’d like to express my gratitude to Malvern for hosting this event and for growing it over the years. It is tremendously important to Bethesda Project that you continue to have events like these. It raises invaluable funds to continue the good work Bethesda does on behalf of the City’s most vulnerable. More importantly, these events raise awareness and consciousness about inequality that persists in our community. It is my hope that awareness compels us to action.

I challenge you today to continue the work you do in the community, leave your comfort zones, and, interact with those on the margins. In the words of Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “So you say you love the poor? Name them.” That is my challenge to you tonight: seek out the poor, learn their names, listen to their stories.