It looks like a lot of food, but high school senior Richard Hrdy wonders if there’s more. He races out of a small industrial kitchen to scout one last dining room at Gonzaga College High School in Northwest Washington.
Four of his schoolmates — three freshmen in black Campus Kitchen T-shirts, and another senior — remain around a table full of open cardboard takeout containers, doling out roast beef sandwiches, pasta and fruit. One boy carefully adds a hard-boiled egg to each box. Hrdy, who is from Alexandria, Va., returns; all food was gathered already. It’s time to go.
The students stack the boxes into what looks like a giant purple pizza carrier, and the tall Hrdy slings it over his shoulder. He and two other students walk a block and a half down North Capitol Street to Sibley Plaza, a public housing complex. Inside a light-brick apartment building, they divide the meals for delivery.
Hrdy walks down the hall, carrying a stack of boxes. “Campus Kitchen!” he calls, knocking on a door. It opens immediately, to the sound of chimes. A thin man smiles at Hrdy and accepts the container. “Thank you, Eagles,” he says quietly, referring to Gonzaga’s mascot. The historical Jesuit boys’ school was the first high school in the country to join the college-based Campus Kitchens Project, in which students recover unused food and prepare meals in the school kitchen space to feed needy neighbors. Hrdy and the other volunteers will deliver 63 meals to hungry people today.
Gonzaga is on I Street NW, not far from Union Station. Just outside the campus, there are views of the U.S. Capitol and of people struggling with life on the street. “Gonzaga sits right in the middle of poverty and power,” says senior Jirhe Love, who lives in the city, “and I mean, you can’t avoid it. It’s the real world.”
At Gonzaga, dealing with the real world is built into the curriculum. The Father McKenna Center, a social service agency for men experiencing homelessness and poverty, is housed at the school. Students fulfilling the school’s requirement to complete 40 hours of service during senior year can work there, serving lunch, giving computer tutorials and striking up friendships with clients. (Underclassmen can also serve in the center and participate in other programs, such as retreats and Campus Kitchen.)
“We’re living in what seems like just a meaner world than we’ve ever been a part of,” says Kristien Zenkov, a professor of education at George Mason who has written about social justice in education. He says that a culture of service like Gonzaga’s “takes that on directly.”
“Gonzaga attracts a unique kind of kid,” says the school’s president, the Rev. Stephen Planning. Prospective students, he notes, see the location of the school, the homeless shelter, the fact that many students walk several blocks to and from the Metro and get to know the homeless population by name. “And there are some kids who find that exciting and thrilling and are drawn to that, and other kids might be a little intimidated by that, and they might choose something different.”
“There is no other high school in the United States that has a homeless shelter on its campus,” says McKenna Center President Kim Cox. Watching the students interact with guests heartens her. “I know it is actually profound for me and the rest of our staff,” she says. “There is hope for the future, seeing them engage at this level and at this depth.”
Gonzaga’s neighborhood has weathered a lot of change since the school moved near St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church in 1871. After the area sustained damage in the 1968 Washington riots, a St. Aloysius priest named Father Horace McKenna devoted himself to helping the community, becoming a founder of several organizations that help feed, clothe, house and provide opportunity for the poor and homeless.
Following McKenna’s death in 1982, the Father McKenna Center was founded in the basement of St. Aloysius to serve the same population, says Ned Hogan, the center’s director of development and volunteer coordinator. Then, in 2012, the parish closed and the congregation merged with nearby Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. At that point, Hogan says, “the school could have said, ‘We don’t want you anymore.’ But they didn’t. The high school made a conscious decision to keep the center going.” The 158-year-old St. Aloysius building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the McKenna Center within it are now part of the campus. “Without Gonzaga, we wouldn’t exist,” says Hogan.
And without the shelter, the students at Gonzaga, whose motto is the Jesuit saying “Men for Others,” wouldn’t have such a unique opportunity to fulfill their service obligation.
Across the nation, only one state, Maryland, and the District have a service requirement for public school graduation. In other states, including Virginia, school districts, cities or counties can set their own standards, and some offer credit for service hours. In parochial, charter or private schools, such as Gonzaga, how — or if — service is part of school is an individual decision.
But Gonzaga — along with many other Jesuit schools — stands apart even from other schools that require service hours in the focus of its mandate. Students can’t fulfill their obligation through activities such as carwashes, fundraising or work at animal shelters.
“Notably,” the school’s guidelines say, “the only acceptable service involves work that directly supports the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized.”
The vaulted cream, blue and gold sanctuary of St. Aloysius is still used for occasional services, but most of the action is in the downstairs McKenna Center. Before lunch one chilly Friday, volunteers stack food in a pantry. In a spacious room, men, a few in heavy jackets despite the warmth inside, gather on repurposed pews. Some watch the television sitting on a stage; others doze, read or just sit quietly. Down a hallway, the kitchen hums. The steamy air smells of soap and gingerbread, and staff members tend ovens, toss salad and wash dishes. Five students stand abreast at a table full of food, wearing baseball and knit caps to keep their hair back, and holding giant serving spoons.
The men come in and ask for lasagna or macaroni, or grapes. One jokes that he’s on a seafood diet: If he sees it, he eats it. Another joshes with the boys, asking if they made the fish fillets and potatoes.
“Are you having a good day?” freshman Christian Garagusi, who is from Silver Spring, Md., asks one man. “Trying,” the man replies.
The needs of the poor aren’t only visible in the McKenna Center (and the school offers volunteer opportunities beyond it, such as spring break trips to live and work with immigrant laborers). Between classes students scurrying through the hallways pass stacks of diapers for a diaper drive; an image of Saint Bakhita, the patron saint of human-trafficking victims; and a model of a jail cell inspired by a recent guest speaker on mass incarceration. “It’s very easy to be present to a culture of service if it’s just everywhere you’re looking,” says Stephen Szolosi, the director of campus ministry. “You’re hoping that people are being drawn in, saying, Well, okay, what’s going on in the real world around me? Where is there need? Where do I have resource to respond?”
Love says that students have indeed been captured by that culture of service. When students see homeless people by the Metro station, Love says, they don’t “just, like, go around them as if they’re not people. Many Gonzaga students have conversations with them. And there are actually many homeless people who have Gonzaga hoodies on.” Love says that his service has informed his creative writing as well. He wrote a poem, called “Benning Road Flows,” based on an encounter when he distributed food. “Imagine locking eyes / With one who looks through you,” it begins.
In teacher Katie Murphy’s social justice classroom, signs read, “Let’s Combat Terror With Love” and “We Stand With Immigrants.” Sounds of buses, sirens and braking cars remind you that you’re downtown. A group of seniors has gathered to talk about their experiences with service and with the class, through which they participate in projects that fulfill 20 hours of their obligation. It’s a rare dress-down day for them, and they wear sweatshirts and sneakers as they eat pizza at desks pulled into a circle. They speak carefully, giving each other credit for introducing ideas: “like Jackson was saying,” or “to go off what Patrick said.”
“In classes like ethics and social justice you get all these stats thrown at you about homelessness or people who are without proper nutrition and all these numbers,” says Thomas Pollack, who lives in Alexandria, “but it’s hard to put a face to it. But once you start doing the service, that firsthand experience of helping give food to the homeless, or just talking to them, acknowledging they are there, you sort of put faces with those numbers, and you really humanize the issue instead of just thinking, Oh, man, that number’s bad.”
“It’s very easy to teach someone something. It’s very difficult to teach someone to care about something,” says Joseph Johnson, who lives in Arlington, Va. “This class has helped me care about those statistics a hell of a lot more.”
The service requirement “doesn’t just teach you the problems and the root causes,” says Christian Tabash of Vienna, Va., who has had conversations with a regular guest at the McKenna Center. “It teaches you a sense of conviction. It makes you unsettled. As long as there’s progress to be made, as long as there are people suffering ... it stirs up, like, this hunger for justice.”
The parents of one freshman say service was part of what drew their son, Robbie, to Gonzaga. Bill and Michelle Dubay, who live in Great Falls, Va., say they see a different level of commitment at Gonzaga than at the Catholic high school their daughter attended.
“There’s something very unique about Gonzaga, that I see with Robbie,” says Michelle Dubay. “I think the location of the school and its interactions — they have the opportunity to see the homeless people as people.”
“It’s kind of opened up another level of observation of people,” says Bill Dubay. “It’s a very compassionate, kind of humbling environment.”
Michelle Dubay says that the emphasis on service is borne out in the students’ social behavior, too. “It’s the accepted norm,” she says. “It’s not like, Oh, look at that goody-two-shoes. Everybody in the school is doing the same thing.”
On a cool January evening, sophomores Parker Scanlon of Alexandria and Juan Fernandez of Washington bump along in the back of a van that belongs to Martha’s Table, a nonprofit offering food and support. The mobile food service is called McKenna’s Wagon — Father McKenna was a founder of Martha’s Table — and volunteer driver Indra Books has named this particular vehicle Mabel.
Books goes over a few rules. One is that no one stays in the van, because it’s rude to sit inside when people are out in the cold. Another: Mind the hot tea. Remind clients that there are oranges and trail mix to go with the turkey chili and sandwiches.
At the first stop, Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street NW, the students, along with Books and Gonzaga Director of Counseling Maureen McLaughlin, lug folding tables onto the sidewalk and set up the tea station. The boys hand out sandwiches. “We have ham and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly,” they say, to dozens of men and women. “Am I too late?” asks a bicyclist, pedaling up to the van. He requests two meat-and-cheese sandwiches.
The next stop is McPherson Square, a popular spot for the homeless just two blocks from the White House. The tables are set up again. Lines form. A young man with a backpack waits, his skateboard under his arm. “Anything but peanut butter,” one man tells the boys. A woman in a dress coat asks for food for the homeless men she knows she will see in front of her building. As the evening goes on, Scanlon and Fernandez start to shiver. The line disperses. “Be safe tonight,” Books calls to the retreating figures.
Fernandez takes leftover food to the people still there. One man has gone back to sorting through a garbage can, so Fernandez leaves two sandwiches on his pile of belongings.
Service learning informs students that “the world is always probably going to be an unjust place,” says Zenkov, the education professor. And it teaches that the only way to fight that is “for us to participate in undoing — actively undoing — some of that injustice.”
That participation carries through to adulthood, says Paul Riley, who lives in Washington and graduated in 1985. After Gonzaga, he joined the Marines, went to college and is now a sergeant with the D.C. police. Riley sees the school’s ethos as having guided his life’s choices. “I’m still pulling the Gonzaga sled,” he says. “I kind of turned community service into serving my country and my city.”
“When I was taking the social justice class last semester,” says senior Samuel Gonson of Arlington, “the reason it had such a huge effect on all of us is because you never find yourself asking that age-old question of, kind of, when am I going to use this? Because you know that this is what’s happening around you in your community. And you have a responsibility being a part of that community to go out and make change.”
Eliza McGraw is a Washington writer. Her most recent book is “Here Comes Exterminator! The Longshot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero.”
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