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A life shaped by service

During her senior year at Queens, Alice O'Toole sat on her bed, talking with her mother.  They were deep in conversation late into the night as she struggled to map out the rest of her life.

"Finally my mom asked me what I was happiest doing and without hesitation I just said, 'Being in Guatemala, helping people,'" Alice remembers.  "And all of a sudden it was clear that service would be a big part of my life."

Alice came to Queens in 2003 intending to study journalism. She was a Presidential Scholar which is the highest undergraduate award at Queens. She traveled to Guatemala three times, spending her Spring Break on mission trips in small villages. 

"Each time I left I couldn't wait to go back, and here I was still feeling a call to return," she says. "I kept asking myself what my gifts were and how I could help people most, and I realized that I'd been happiest and the most transformed in Guatemala."

Her life has been devoted to service ever since.  She's working full-time as Director of Outreach and Fellowship at Queens, and also finishing an MBA in the McColl School, focusing on economics and development. Her ultimate career goal is to work with governments to create systemic changes.

But before she settled on that goal, she had two hugely transformative experiences. She spent a year in Honduras serving with Passionist Volunteers International and an emotional week in Haiti this past August serving with the Foundation for Children in Need.

"In Honduras we spent time visiting with people in rural villages working on the needs they identified as most pressing," she says.

Among their many accomplishments, they dug latrines and created a support group for victims of domestic violence. Alice helped provide a reading library for street children.

"It was one of the most impactful years of my life," she says. "They say 'God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called,' and that was definitely my experience in Honduras."

She learned to take showers with only a bucket, drive a manual truck and volunteered to read books over the radio.  She spent time one-on-one with people in devastating situations that she couldn't even imagine surviving, and came away inspired by their deep sense of hope and their faith.

"When my year was coming to a close I started to dread the idea of coming home and working a regular 9-5 job," she said.

She had kept in touch with mentor Dr. Diane Mowrey, Queens' Chaplain, and was thrilled when Mowrey called with a job offer.  Alice has worked in the Chaplain's Office at Queens since then, working with students one-on-one and in groups to help them foster spiritual growth during college, and leading outreach efforts including Room at the Inn.

"I've traveled back to Guatemala now three times with students and it's even more special now," she says. "I get to keep up relationships with the Guatemalans who have become my friends, but also watch students go through deep transformations of their own. Everyone's journey is unique and it's a blessing to get to see how each person is affected."

While she's enjoyed all aspects of her job, she's also felt called to create even more opportunities for students to volunteer abroad.

In August she traveled to Haiti to spend a week serving with the Foundation for Children in Need.

"We went to a clinic full of orphaned babies, like 100 of them, who were malnutritioned and suffered from failure to thrive because of a lack of human contact," she remembers. "All morning we just held children. I had one in each arm and one in my lap and I remember struggling emotionally because I wanted more arms to hold more children."

She also visited Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying where the small volunteer group was a "presence of love," she says.

"We painted the women's nails, talked with them, just tried to make them feel that they were not forgotten," she says. "There were lots of 20-something-year-olds dying of things we can cure very easily here, just because they lacked access to good healthcare."

She also volunteered to run a mobile learning center equipped with laptop computers to give English reading tutoring to children. She also visited a center for homeless boys where children ages three to 15-years-old slept 30 to a room in stifling heat.

"Haiti is so close to the United States, but it's absolutely the Third World," she says. "The poverty there is beyond what I imagined it would be. It absolutely shook my faith to see people living the way they were. I couldn't help but wonder how a good and loving God would allow his children to live this way. And then there was tremendous guilt because I had so much and never appreciated it fully."

Alice turned her focus to how she could increase her stewardship and decided to create a mission trip to Haiti for Queens students. The first group will go in May.

"When I came to Queens as an undergraduate I never imagined that I'd be doing this as a career," she says. "My goal was to be a journalist and my dream was to work for Time magazine. Going to Guatemala with Queens, learning from Dr. Mowrey and seeing how service transforms lives all inspired me in ways I can hardly describe."

"Now I focus on my faith and trying to live what I believe every day."

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