Jesuit universities around the world aim to develop students into “men and women for and with others,” and author and executive Jay Sullivan exemplifies that goal.
Sullivan, who spent two years volunteering in Kingston, Jamaica, between his graduations from Boston College and Fordham University School of Law, wrote “Raising Gentle Men,” the book chosen for this year’s Royal Reads program for incoming students.
Sullivan visited The University last week to present the keynote speech at the third annual Ignatian Values in Action lecture, during which he spoke about his experience in Jamaica working at a school and living in an orphanage.
“Raising Gentle Men” focuses on Sullivan’s stories from Alpha Boys’ School, an orphanage in Kingston run by the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic religious order.
During the presentation, Sullivan emphasized the book’s subtitle, “Lives at the Orphanage Edge,” because it encapsulates both the experience of orphans and volunteers, he said.
“You can only get to the edge” as a volunteer, he stated, but the boys also remain at the edge, unable to escape their backgrounds there.
The influence of the Ignatian values of social justice, faith and service were clear as Sullivan spoke about his life in Jamaica.
In “Raising Gentle Men,” Sullivan describes himself as having an “unlimited ability to believe that everything would turn out well,” and his sense of hope is clear in the vignettes he presents throughout the book.
“Being hopeful is also in part about letting go. So letting go of the need to try to control everything, letting go of the need to try to manage everything,” Sullivan said in an interview.
One of the lessons Sullivan learned was that being present is sometimes more important than accomplishing anything specific, he said.
In one of the book’s vignettes, Sullivan describes spending time with one of the boys at Alpha who needed someone to be there for him during a hard time.
“My role at the time was not really to do anything except to be there to comfort O’Brien and try to get him through that process … I wasn’t there to accomplish great things — I was there just to be present to these kids — and that that in and of itself was a good thing,” Sullivan said.
“If you’re a type-A personality, you feel like everything is about success. You try to measure your contribution based on ‘What did I succeed at?’ But if you’re not measured on being successful, if you’re being measured on being faithful, on being present — then it changes your perspective,” he added.
Sullivan also spoke about the joy he shared with the boys, which was a relief after being a disciplinarian at a high school during the day.
“I felt like the rich uncle with all the toys,” he said.
Sullivan brought three guests with him: Irene de Groot Thompson, Dr. Thomas Check and Desmond Plunkett.
Thompson was a teacher and a volunteer in Kingston at the same time as Sullivan, and she often spent time at Alpha. She appears often in the book as “Miss Irene.”
“It was phenomenal,” she said of Alpha. “He took me there one day, and I saw all these boys there, and I was hooked.”
Plunkett lived at the orphanage while Sullivan and Thompson were there, and he fondly remembered spending time with them.
“Their very presence meant a lot,” Plunkett said. “They didn’t have to do a lot of talking, but they just showed up and played with us, doing fun stuff.”
Sullivan’s other guest was Check, a dentist who traveled to Jamaica annually to care for the children’s teeth. Both Plunkett and Sullivan spoke highly of Check’s dedication to serving the community in Jamaica.
Plunkett remembered being “horrified” the first time he sat in the dental chair but praised Check and his wife’s ability to put him at ease with their generosity and friendliness.
“I will never forget how Dr. Check and Mrs. Check made us feel–they made us part of their world,” Plunkett said.
Sullivan said he encourages University students to consider service opportunities like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after graduation, noting that experiences like his do not detract from career prospects.
“These are not non sequiturs in your career, they’re very much about career training in a way, faith-building. They’re not something you do separate from the rest of your life — they’re something that forms the rest of your life.”