The van packed with a half-dozen high school students pulled into a gravel parking lot on Akron’s East Market Street. The teenagers pointed to a spot where they thought some of their pals might be hanging out. The driver pulled into place, put the vehicle in park and jumped out.
Someone opened the back door, revealing enough food stashed behind the back seat to feed about three dozen people. Within moments, a steady stream of mostly men walked toward the vehicle. It was a warm November evening, but most of the guys were enveloped in layers of clothing. Not because they were cold, but because their bodies are their only place to hang their wardrobes.
Unshaven middle-aged guys, some of whom had not taken a shower in more days than they wanted to admit, made a pilgrimage to the van. The kids sported grins from ear to ear. Those they knew were greeted with handshakes and warm greetings. Those they did not were treated with the same respect.
Katie Petit, a charming 16-year-old from Akron, said she called one of the homeless men “sir” a few weeks earlier. So proud was he to be addressed by the formal prefix, he asked others standing near him if they had heard what the high school junior had said.
Every Wednesday evening, students who participate in Archbishop Hoban High School’s Project Hope take to the streets. On this recent outing, they allowed me to tag along. It did my heart good.
Just to be clear: These young people, under the guidance of campus minister Jason Horinger and Greg Milo, chair of the school’s social studies department, do not consider the homeless beneath them.
At the beginning of the school year, Horinger tells parents it’s his job to make their children feel uncomfortable. Reaching out to the homeless certainly qualifies.
“That is how you grow,” he explained.
Incoming freshmen may feel nervous on their first outing, but it doesn’t take long to learn that this program is about more than feeding the homeless.
“That is not the reason we do it. The humanity is the biggest thing,” Horinger explained. “Greg and I see it every week. The kids go up to complete strangers and start talking. They are a person to another individual.”
And as much as the students help the homeless, the men with the unshaven faces and the women who tag along with them give back. They tell the children to stay in school and away from drugs and alcohol.
“See what it did to me?” they often say.
On a mission
On this night, the kids had started in the cafeteria, making sandwiches and salads, packaging cookies and heating up meatballs, sausage and green beans. They placed the food in the rear of the van and climbed inside.
With Horinger in the driver’s seat, his 2-year-old son in the car seat behind him and Milo as a passenger, they drove through alleys and parking lots in some of the roughest parts of Akron. They called to the people they knew, asking them to come get a bite to eat.
While they were in the gravel parking lot, 27 people emerged from gas stations, dark corners and a nearby shelter. At other stops, the group served between one and six people. But they don’t dish out food and hurry away; they engage in conversation, sometimes about the weather, other times about the struggles of life.
The men and women have gotten used to seeing the Hoban students and other groups, including those from churches and high schools like Walsh Jesuit, who provide meals to the hungry.
“It really puts into perspective that our problems are so minuscule compared to what these people go through every day,” Katie said. “I was talking to some guy when it was raining. I asked him where he had spent his day and where he had slept.”
The man was honest, telling her he went to the library to dry off until he had to leave, and slept on the porch of an abandoned home at night.
A man who had finished his meal in the gravel parking lot leaned over to me and said, “We appreciate what they do for us very much.”
I tried to explain that he was doing as much for the students as they were for him, that the lessons he was giving them about life would stay with them much longer than a lecture about homelessness from a teacher or a television program.
He looked at me and grinned, bowed his head and said “Thank you.”
Being immersed into uncomfortable situations allows us to learn what we might not understand otherwise.
“I know my whole perception of how hard it is to make it in the world changed with Project Hope. I came into high school a very different person than I am now,” offered Austin Hawk, 18, of Green.
Word of mouth is what draws kids to Project Hope, whose members don’t solicit for food or money.
“I don’t know how we do it. We are not writing grants. We don’t have an operating budget. We don’t have the typical things you would imagine for a program,” Horinger said.
“But we’ve never had to worry about where the food or money is gong to come from. It just shows up,” added Milo.
Leftover food from school events and cafeteria lunches is donated to the program. People who have had private events sometimes bring food to the school.
“It’s the grace of the moment,” Horinger said.
Invested in program
During the time I spent with the group, it quickly became clear just how invested the kids were in the program. They knew things other youngsters might not. For instance, the cost of bus fare.
As Jenna Farah, 16, of Green, jumped out of the van to buy bus passes at a downtown grocery store, she told the campus minister that the money he gave her each week bought 16 passes. They might allow a homeless person to visit a doctor, apply for a job or go to an agency to find housing.
Though Project Hope doesn’t ask for donations, gift cards and money to buy things like bus passes or peanut butter for sandwiches are appreciated. Things like gloves, socks, hats and oversized coats and hoodies are always in demand during the cold months.
“We’ve been out in the winter when it was negative … degrees. Snow days are good for us [as students because school is closed], but for the homeless, it’s terrible,” Austin said.
It won’t be long before it’s cold enough outside for skin to freeze. When that day comes, I’ll be thinking of the homeless — and the kids who are warming their hearts.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kim.honemcmahan1.