Some of the most important messages St. John’s University and the Vincentian community teach are: to respect individuals, help the needy, and believe that one’s help to another creates a better society and world. As a student of St. John’s University, I believe that we must keep this message in mind. By following this teaching, not only the world will become better, but I will also improve my own abilities and make a better person out of myself as well.
To help the students connect to the community more, academic service-learning is introduced to the students by the University for Guidance.
Academic service-learning is a St. John’s program that requires students to engage in a form of community service. Through this service, the student learns of the importance of helping others, whether they are poor, handicapped, elderly, or do not have the ability to support themselves. Also while gaining experience in working, one can also learn about themselves as well.
I chose to volunteer at St. John’s Bread and Life Soup Kitchen located in Brooklyn, NY. What is special about this service site is it was the original location of St. John’s University. I figure that this was the perfect location to learn more about the history of the school and help the less fortunate as well. Another reason I chose this site was because I want to help a greater mass of people rather than just several individuals. I figured that a soup kitchen was something that could help many people with an essential, so common for survival, yet difficult to obtain for them: food.
I made my first visit to this site for the interview for the volunteer job. The neighborhood was not the greatest of neighborhoods because many apartments were aging and falling apart. Most of the buildings here were multi-family apartments that go up nearly six stories. I would assume that the residents of this area suffered from harsh living conditions. With this in mind, I knew that the St. John’s Bread and Life soup kitchen was in the right place. The building at the service site took up one block and was comprised of a church and a soup kitchen. Each facility dealt with helping the people of the area, whether by moral support or with their hunger. I took this chance to be part of their community and put my abilities to help others anyway possible.
When I walked in on my service day, I was greeted my good mornings by many of the staff. Already I experienced a sense of acceptance and welcome and I thought this might not be so bad after all. Breakfast was about to be served and yucca, sausages, apples and various pastries were on the menu. The first assignment they gave me was to help stack up the pastries behind the counter where the food was served. Some of the various types of pastries were danishes, éclairs, fruit tarts, and doughnuts, and I was responsible for giving each person one. They noticed that I was new so I assumed that most of the people being served came daily and was familiar with the staff.
Occasionally someone said good morning and thank you to me as I handed each person a pastry and I said good morning back. Most of the people that came for food greeted the staff and me as well. Just something simple as that made me feel great because it shows that us being here really cheers them up.
An hour past and the whole cafeteria was filled up and people were coming faster than I could serve. I asked one of the staff if it was always as busy as this and they said this was considered below normal. I learned that, on some days around 200 people came for breakfast. This information shocked me because I never knew this many people in an area starvation posed as a problem in their lives.
Around the end of breakfast when there were less people coming for food, I had the opportunity to talk with some of the locals. One in particular asked if I was new here and I responded with, “I am just volunteering that day”. He said it was considerate of me to help out because not much people come to help often. I noticed that also since I was the only student there helping in the soup kitchen and they were short on staff that day. Another told me that he comes here every other day and sometimes help gather up the trays just to show his appreciation for the soup kitchen and to give something back in his own way. After breakfast was finished, they sent me to the kitchen to dry trays and dishes. Even though this did not allow me to interact with people, I still felt that any help to the coup kitchen is beneficial as a whole.
I spent my last hour in the supply rooms, arranging health care products and making emergency food bags. The health care products were divided into men’s and women’s and were sorted into bags for distribution. Each bag contained lotion, body wash, shampoo, a razor, shaving cream, a tooth brush, and a box of tissues. After I finished, I went to the next room and helped pack emergency food bags for relief victims. These bags contained foods that can last long such as soups, canned vegetables, canned meats, pasta, and rice. This was important to the people that can’t go to the soup kitchen in person because the food can be delivered to them. Also it helps victims of disasters that are in need for food.
As I left St. John’s Bread and Life that day, I had a sense of accomplishment and I felt that I did something useful that helped people even though they would never know who I am. Overall I believed that this experience allowed me to learn more about myself and recover qualities that I have lost in the past. As I witnessed each member of the staff working hard, I started doing my best as well. If I was here for just one day, I thought that I might as well make the best of it and do my best. I learned that when I am needed, I put aside all other thoughts and focused on how I could help. As more people came for food, I increased my pace in distribution. As more emergency bags needed to be filled, I strategized on how the bags can be filled the fastest.
After volunteering at St. John’s Bread and Life, I felt more sympathy for the needy. Nine years ago, I used to live close to this neighborhood and this past decade of a better life made me forget about the struggles my family and I lived through back then. Revisiting this area made me remember the hardships living here possessed. My stereotypes on the people that lived here also changed. I once thought that people that lived in the projects had a “survival of the fittest” way of living. I thought that everybody depended on themselves to live but after witnessing how connected the community here is, my judgment was changed. The people that come here all know each other and shared the same problem. This created a bond between them and created a true sense of community by working together.
After volunteering at the soup kitchen, I wouldn’t mind doing it again. I have volunteered in similar situations when I was with the American Red Cross so I am used to volunteer work like this. The only difference was this time I was closer to the area where the needy lived and gave me a better understanding of them. My motivations for volunteering did not change after this experience. I have always believed that I should help others when they need assistance and this volunteer experience strengthened it. One has to put themselves in another person’s shoes; in this case the needy, and realize that nobody would want to depend on others just to have shelter or food for another day.
I have learned that we can’t take our lifestyles for granted as there are people that is worse off than us. People who live comfortably should help others who cannot have that great of a lifestyle just because they have the ability to. St. Vincent de Paul once said “It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. Charity is certainly greater than any rule.” Not only we have to follow this teaching as part of a Vincentian university but we have to follow it as human beings as well. Academic Service-Learning allows students to learn more about the real world and its struggles. A student has to excel in academics and personal nature also. It is man’s duty to assist the less fortunate in order to build a better society.