Daryl Stewart, 16, and two of his friends missed their classes at Archbishop Carroll High School recently to spend the day working as cooks, waiters and janitors.
The three arrived at the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen at Church and 14th streets NW at 8 a.m. and spent the next five hours cutting up vegetables for the soup, making sandwiches, washing dishes and sweeping the floors. In between they helped serve the 400 homeless men and women who came for lunch.
For the past seven years all juniors and seniors at Carroll, a Catholic high school in upper Northeast Washington, have been required to spend one to two days a year working at the soup kitchen.
The volunteer service, which has become a tradition at the school, was started by Robert Hoderny, 37, a religion teacher who works at Zacchaeus Kitchen every Sunday and who formerly belonged to the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a leading advocacy group for the homeless.
The experience of the soup kitchen "is the most important lesson they learn in my class," said Hoderny, who requires the soup kitchen work as part of his class in "Social Justice: The Christian in Times of Crisis."
"I remember how stunned I was the first time I walked into a room full of poor people in the Bowery in New York," he added. "I'd never imagined anything like that."
His students, largely from middle-class homes, "have a lot of ideas about poor people, a lot of myths, and some of them don't know anything about it," he continued. "I wanted them to see poverty, to smell it, to understand what it's like."
The philosophy seems to be working. "Before I came to Carroll, I might have seen someone less fortunate and he wouldn't necesarily be a bum -- just wear raggedy clothes -- and I would laugh at him, joke about him, criticize him and say something smart like, 'Look at you and look at me. I have it, you don't,' " said Daryl Stewart, a junior.
"But after I came to Carroll I started to realize it's not that they don't want to have it, it's just that they are less fortunate. You're luck is bad and mine happens to be good. It made me realize I have something to be thankful for," he added.
Eric Chambers, a junior who volunteered on another day, added, "I didn't see anybody who came today who didn't really need the food."
Two or three Carroll students are assigned to come each day so that by the end of the school year the approximately 300 junior and seniors will have fulfilled their requirement.
Occasionally parents object to the program because the soup kitchen, which is run by a coaliton of religious groups, is near lower 14th Street in an area known for drugs and prostitution. No students have had a problem, Hoderny added.
"Everybody talks about the soup kitchen this, the soup kitchen that," said Keith McCray, 17. "I was wondering how it would be when I got there. Now that I've seen it, it makes me feel that somebody has to care for these people."
Stewart said he had imagined what "these people" would be like. "I expected them to have an 'I don't care' attitude, to be grumpy, grouchy -- you know, as soon as you say something polite to them, they say 'Shut up,' like they don't want to hear you, because you're living a whole lot better than they are." Instead, he found most people polite, even friendly.
Although many of the Carroll students are too busy working to talk very much with the people they serve at Zacchaeus, they said they left with a sense of what it is like to be without a home.
Larry Boyd, 16, recalled meeting "one lady who doesn't know what she's going to do because all she does is walk around and pick out trash. It's like her whole life is in the bag that she carries with her. She even comes late so that she can get any extra loaves of bread they have."
Some of the students who are now in college return to volunteer during holidays and summer vacations, Hoderny said. This past November a student, whom Hoderny had not seen in seven years, brought him two turkeys the day before Thanksgiving for Zaccheaus, he said.
He would like to see more of his students -- all of them -- make a commitment to community service, but he recognizes that what most will gain from the experience is more compassion, greater caring, a change in attitude that even the students themselves begin to value.
"I think maybe when we first started all of this, helping the poor, it was kind of pushed," said Chris McGean, 17. "But after a while, everybody started to grow into it. You're taking care of people who are twice your age, and you feel a little bit of responsibility for them. These are people you just met, you know they need help in some way, and you're giving it to them. It makes you feel that you've done something. It makes you feel good."