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Setting Them Free To Care

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In the days that followed, when I thought about the students' behavior on the bus, I was angry, not at the students, but at their ignorance and their heartlessness. How could they have not known better? The bus was gone. I knew that I could never reach that group to say: "Listen! Do you know what is going on here? Do you know what it is like to be poor and homeless, to be eating on the street?'' But I could reach my own students, and so began the connection between Archbishop Carroll High School and the Zacchaeus soup kitchen.

The program started small. I told the students in a class I was teaching on social justice that the soup kitchen needed weekend volunteers. A few came. I then went to my principal and asked him if my students could be given school time to perform community service. He agreed.

Today, every student at our school takes one of my social justice classes during his junior year. When we discuss homelessness and poverty, I ask each student to spend some school time serving meals to the homeless. Most do so four times during the academic year, working a total of 20 hours. And although the experience is not a requirement--any student can decide, without penalty, not to go to the soup kitchen--it is one of the school's few activities that has near-perfect attendance. This year, every member of our championship boys' basketball team ladled bowls of soup.

It is a powerful educational experience, one of the most significant of our students' high school days. Consider what it is like to be 16 and to take some responsibility for people who are three and four times your age; to see poverty close-up, to smell it, touch it, breathe it; to sit down and share a meal and a conversation with someone whose life is so different from your own; to have the opportunity to do something that is totally for others, whether it is simply washing dishes or stirring a large pot of soup; to go home and think about what you have done and what you have seen; and then to share that experience with your family.

Take, for example, the comments of student Shane Brent, written two years ago, after his first visit to the kitchen:

"When the doors first opened that morning at 9:30, there was this long line of hungry, dirty, sad-looking people. I didn't want to get near them because I was so proud. When they sat down to eat, they were eating like there was no tomorrow. Most of them came back for thirds and fourths.

"I kind of made buddies with a couple of them,'' he continued. "They would come up to me in the serving line and look at me with an infectious smile. I would put salad on their plates and they would ask for a little more. I smiled back and said, 'Sure buddy, sure.' As I watched them eat, I began to feel for them. I would wonder where they slept and how they would spend the rest of their day. Life must be hard when you live like they do, with no money, no place to go, nothing to look forward to.''

Similar experiences and reactions are mentioned year after year in valedictory addresses. Students feel rewarded by having had the opportunity to give. They feel more responsible by having reached outside the boundaries of the adolescent world.

And there are other benefits. Students return to the kitchen on their own time, often with friends. The school's Thanksgiving food drive amasses 12,000 pounds of canned goods annually. Parents have organized lasagna dinners for the kitchen. Underclassmen can't wait for the opportunity to go. Who can measure the effect of this experience on the long-term world view of these young men and women? As one student wrote: "The most pathetic examples of poverty I saw today were a man who looked like he had AIDS and a family with a 3-year-old girl. I don't know what to do or say about this. To see this is so demeaning--I mean this is the land of wealth and opportunity, and families are living on the streets?''

Education has always been best when it sheds light on ignorance and sets people free to think critically. Can it not also set people free to care? School-sponsored bus trips to the nation's capital or the state capital are a good thing, but schools might be doing more for students if they organized regular trips to their local soup kitchen or shelter.

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