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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

Rebecca Ohler
Once a dropout, now changing the world


Rebecca Ohler looked like your average college student as a senior at Loyola New Orleans, but just four years before she had moved back in with her parents after a failed marriage and several years of poverty, crime and violence.

A high school dropout who left home at age 17 to get married, Ohler was forced by messy divorce proceedings to move into a trailer on her parents’ front lawn, where she began to reconsider where her life was headed. She had hit rock bottom.

“As a teenager I was completely rebellious, I was wild and crazy, but after a while I began to feel unfulfilled and to think seriously about what I wanted to be,” recalls Ohler, now 26.

The Oregon native returned to school, finishing her associate degree in applied science at Portland Community College, and began volunteering weekly at her Catholic parish.

The more she volunteered, working at the parish food bank and teaching religious education classes, the more Ohler began to take ownership of her faith and find joy in helping others. She was soon volunteering at the local junior high school, tutoring people in English as a Second Language classes, and doing wetlands restoration on weekends with an Oregon nonprofit.

“I just wanted to do something, anything. I got worth, satisfaction and fulfillment from living for others,” she explains.

Ohler spent a semester in Barcelona, Spain, before deciding to enroll at Loyola University, where she became a philosophy pre-law major.

In her senior year she did a 200-hour internship with the nonprofit group A Fighting Chance, where she worked to commute the death penalty in capital cases. She also chaired Loyola’s Worker Justice Project, and arranged a special Global Justice Week in March.

The week centered largely on Darfur and fair-trade issues, and included documentary screenings, a symbolic commemoration of the Iraq war, lectures by Loyola and Tulane professors, a daylong fair, workshops, a solidarity campout next to the student center, and a “Hope for Haiti” hunger banquet.

Ohler was involved with the Loyola Society for Civic Engagement, the Philosophy Club, and as special affairs chairperson for the Loyola University Community Action Program, where she helped organize the School of the Americas protest trip to Fort Benning, Ga., last year.

She said the community action program is ideal for transfer and nontraditional students such as herself, who may feel marginalized and in need of a niche when they get to campus. The program “is a place where I can not only be involved and educated in rebuilding the city, but it is also a place where I can be silly and creative.”

But it’s not all action. Reflection and prayer are a necessary part of the equation for Ohler, who received the sacrament of confirmation while at Loyola.

“Serving others is fun to do,” she said. “Sometimes it’s very challenging, but it’s also rewarding. ... It becomes a part of who you are.”

Ohler said that some of her peers view faith-based volunteer work as fruitless, dull and mandatory.

She responded, “You can’t change the world immediately, but you can make an extraordinary difference for a large number of people. If you do this work and don’t see any immediate difference, you aren’t looking hard enough.”

Since her graduation last spring, Ohler has been working full-time for A Fighting Chance, as an investigator for indigent clients facing the death penalty.

Sean Salai is a Jesuit scholastic pursuing his master’s degree in applied philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. He spent the spring 2007 semester working as a chaplain for Loyola New Orleans University Ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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