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

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.

"I had the lens of a privileged kid," said Gary Hines, who was at Gonzaga in the 1970s and remembers thinking, "Who are these folks? My dad's paying a pretty penny for me to go to this school."

Then he spent part of the summer of 1976 living and volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico City with a priest from Gonzaga and a few other students. That was when he began to think about poverty as a lack of opportunity. He saw parents working long hours but unable to ever get out of the corrugated-tin shantytowns where sewage ran through gullies in the dirt.

Still, it took many years -- and a much more brutal kind of education -- for many of the lessons to sink in. He went to college, became a consultant and got hooked on cocaine in the '80s. The first time he returned to the church on campus, where the McKenna Center was established in the early 1980s, it was to get help, not give it.

"Cocaine had gutted my life at that point," Hines said. While classmates had become doctors, lawyers and engineers, he had lost jobs, friends and his home.

Gradually, after years of quitting and relapsing, he began working with the McKenna Center, first as a consultant, then as a fundraiser and now as the center's associate director. One of the lessons Gonzaga tried to teach -- to become a man for others -- "just had a literal impact on my life."

Now he likes to see students get their hands dirty and keep coming back until it's routine.

For the students, volunteering is optional until they're seniors, when they take a social justice course and have to log 40 hours.

On a recent lunch hour, four freshmen in khaki pants and fleece jackets scooped spaghetti from big tinfoil trays and handed out warm slices of garlic bread to a steady line of men holding out plates, eyes down as they moved along the linoleum floor.

"How you doing today?" 15-year-old Joseph Fitzpatrick asked as he ladled meat sauce onto slick piles of noodles. Sometimes a man would pause and smile. "Not bad, not too bad."

It was a short glimpse of the worn paint, rat traps and sad stories of McKenna, but one that left an impression. "I definitely want to do it again," said Patrick Myers, a student from Bethesda. "I'm not quite sure why. It just felt good, to help someone who didn't have much."

Companionship and compassion

Jerry Cardarelli started volunteering at the McKenna Center when he was a senior in the late 1980s, folding donated clothes in a back room. But he soon found himself spending hours talking with a homeless guy named Angelo, who was always sitting on the wall by McKenna and the athletic fields with a bag he said was full of secret documents.

Angelo smiled a lot, a sweet smile with most of his teeth missing, and he seemed to appreciate the companionship.

Sometimes Cardarelli would talk to him about philosophy or theology, things he was studying in class and trying to figure out in the real world. Sometimes Angelo would tell him about how he had lost his wife and daughter, and how people were trying to kill him.

Often people would ask him what they were talking about. Just life, Cardarelli said. Just life.

More than 20 years later, Cardarelli still thinks about Angelo and wonders what happened to him. He has volunteered regularly since his years at Gonzaga at nursing homes and shelters. Now, with his children, he's leading food drives for the Boy Scouts.

"I saw early what could happen to anyone at any time," he said. "I think I got an advanced education in life."

A lifelong commitment

John Sullivan, now 17, isn't sure what prompted him to sign up for a week-long immersion program at the McKenna Center his freshman year. Maybe it was the guilt he felt walking by homeless men on his way to school.

He slept at the church at night and helped prepare lunch during the day. One thing shocked him: He felt a connection with them right away. "They're just regular people, just like us," he said.

Last summer, he volunteered every day, scrubbing dishes, cooking spaghetti and sorting through boxes of donated zucchini with so many rotten ones that the smell made him gag. Staff members watched him change from an uncertain kid into someone they relied upon.

He kept coming back because the need was so obvious, he said. And it changed the way he thinks about people -- not just those needing help at the center, but also his classmates, everyone. He echoed Hines's words: "Folks are folks."

He plans to work at McKenna again this summer, before his senior year. Eventually, he wants to come back to the city and help somehow. If he studies economics, maybe he'll advise people trying to start their own businesses; if he studies English, maybe he'll write about poverty. He will always volunteer, he said.

"I was taught to love thy neighbor," he said, "and that is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life."

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