Seeds of volunteerism planted early at D.C.'s Gonzaga College High School

Gonzaga junior John Sullivan, 17, right, fills food bags for the homeless.
Gonzaga junior John Sullivan, 17, right, fills food bags for the homeless. (James M. Thresher - Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; 10:33 PM

In his freshman year at Gonzaga College High School, John Sullivan hurried by the panhandlers and homeless people he passed on the streets. They made him feel uneasy, unsafe.

The teen from Great Falls also was intimidated when he began volunteering at the Father McKenna Center, a Catholic-run shelter on campus where homeless men can get a free hot lunch, addiction counseling and other help. The first morning, he was cursed at when he refused to give a man six tablespoons of sugar for his coffee. Someone had to escort the man out.

For many Gonzaga students, the elite Catholic school is a first introduction to poverty and their first chance to learn how to help. The need is all around: on the walk from the Metro past people demanding money, in the long-troubled Sursum Corda neighborhood next to the Northwest Washington campus and on the school grounds, where the homeless shelter is as integral as the 150-year-old chapel and brick classroom buildings.

Long before schools across the country began requiring community-service hours for graduation in an effort to teach compassion and social responsibility, Gonzaga students were living it. They can volunteer during a lunch break, sign up to sleep at the shelter for a week or deliver meals to nearby families.

In the decades since the McKenna Center was founded -- one of the only shelters in the country that operates in the middle of a private-school campus -- thousands of students have volunteered there. Some try it grudgingly. Some come back occasionally. And some find themselves rethinking how they want to live their lives.

Value of volunteering

Over the past 20 years, the number of young people volunteering nationally has increased significantly, said Andrew Furco, associate vice president for public engagement at the University of Minnesota.

But experts don't know what impact all this volunteering has on needy people and communities, or on the people who are trying to help. If there are important lessons to be learned, do those lessons stick?

By one measure, at least, there has been a profound shift. As more students volunteer during their teenage years, the percentage who plan to continue helping in college has shot up, increasing by more than 80 percent in less than 20 years, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Researchers have found a link between those who volunteer and the value students place on social and political involvement in their communities. Nearly 70 percent of college freshmen said it's very important or essential to help people in need, one of the highest rates since 1970.

"There's a changing student propensity to volunteer in college and to think that is something important," said Linda DeAngelo, a researcher at the institute.

At Gonzaga, those seeds are planted from the first day.

"I had heard of poverty," said Jerry Cardarelli, who studied there in the late 1980s, "but going downtown to high school you're face to face with poverty every day." It is a shock for many students, especially those who have grown up in wealthy suburbs.

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