The St. Thomas response is taking action

Attorney volunteer in Bolivia inspired by role models

Attorney Matthew Thibodeau ’93 changed his life a year ago. He arrived in Bolivia on Sept. 16, 1999, and now teaches English at the Universidad Academica Campesina in the small town of Carmen Pampa. The university educates the children of campesinos, indigenous Indian farmers who lack access to health care and need modern knowledge in nursing, veterinary, and agronomy — the three degrees the university offers. Thibodeau also writes grant proposals, teaches English at the K-12 school and tutors local Bishop Juan Vargas, the only Mayan Indian bishop in the world.

Thibodeau, who got a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1997, and other volunteers at the university work for food, lodging and about $50 a month.

A little over a year ago, I arrived at my office in Wayzata. I had gotten up at 6 a.m., left St. Paul early to beat the rush hour, went to the gym and arrived at the office by 8:15 a.m. I hung up my coat, organized my desk and made my to-do list for the morning.

It was a fairly interesting list for a 27-year-old attorney: file articles of incorporation, change corporate name, telephone the SEC to obtain FASIT regulations.

With my list completed, I checked the Internet to see how the stock market had closed the day before, got a glass of water, and sat down to begin the day’s work.

But as I read back over my list, it seemed awfully trivial. And the more I looked at it, I realized that it didn’t have any effect on anything other than the corporation and "me." Yes, the list gave me work to do while I increased my savings account, made my Roth IRA contribution and spent the lunch hour looking at new cars, but, truly, it only impacted my life.

That morning it occurred to me that, somewhere, someone else was making a list that affected other peoples’ lives — that someone else was making a list that reached out beyond "me."

I was healthy, educated and relatively debt free, yet I had narrowed the focus to myself. I was working 55 hours a week to get even further ahead.

I spent that morning in doubt, my to-do list left untouched. Was working for myself and satisfying my own needs the only direction my life should take? Or did I need to try and work for others and make a contribution to something other than myself?

It didn’t take long to decide. By the end of the week, I had submitted my resignation and called a friend in Minneapolis who needed help running an inner-city kids program.

I don’t know where my doubts came from that morning. But I do know where my response came from.

It was the response I learned from Father Lavin suggesting that residents spend snowy Saturday mornings shoveling elderly neighbors’ sidewalks instead of watching TV in Ireland Hall. It was the response I learned from doing dishes with Father John Malone at the Dorothy Day Center and sweeping floors with Sister Pat Kowalski at Loaves and Fishes Too. It was the response I learned from walking through broken glass into boarded-up houses in Northeast Minneapolis with Father Greg Tolaas, offering nothing more than "Merry Christmas" and a smile.

It wasn’t a response grounded in the classroom, or even a response that could be taught in the classroom. It was the response I learned from doing good work with good people. People who asked you to take a chance to contribute to something bigger than yourself. People who challenged you to step outside of your circle — to stretch your life a bit.

It has been over a year since that morning, but I still have that list. I keep it in my desk. And whenever I get discouraged about my savings account or the Roth IRA contribution that I probably won’t make this year, I take the list out and look at it.

When friends ask me "What happened?" I tell them about the St. Thomas response ... and they know it’s right.