For the past five Tuesdays, high school students from in Wilmette have commuted to Chicago's Uptown neighborhood for a homeless ministry program called Labre.
Named after the Catholic saint who willfully lived in poverty, Labre allows students from a private high school to develop relationships with homeless people whose lives and needs they may have otherwise overlooked.
"It brings you out of your suburban bubble," 17-year-old Highland Park resident Gery Fesalvo said.
Ethics teachers Trevor Clark and Tim Martin lead a group of six students around the neighborhood, beginning at the Wilson Red Line stop. Together, they pass out hot dogs and hot chocolate and strike up conversations with people living on the streets, who are struggling just to raise enough money for a single meal.
As teachers at a Jesuit high school, Clark and Martin started Labre to help fulfill the Jesuit mission of serving others, especially people living in poverty. Clark said that because Loyola Academy is located in an affluent town, it's hard to provide students with that opportunity. He said he hopes Labre will be part of a bigger change.
"You share their world with them"
The program also gives greater context for volunteer work.
"You share their world with them, for a little while,” Clark said. “So instead of going to a soup kitchen, where you're safe, where there's boundaries, where there's a counter, you enter into their world. You go under the bridge where they sleep, you listen to their stories and in that way, the ministry is less about food and more about relationship.”
Fesalvo said he feels changed by his experience getting to know homeless individuals.
"It's different, meeting other people and not just seeing them on a documentary or a commercial on television," he said.
Brianna Martin, 16, said that Labre serves as an inspiration for humility and gratitude. Two weeks ago it was raining and Martin was shivering because she didn't bring a proper jacket. One person they met, after praying for them, did something very surprising.
"He was a poor man on the street and he took his own scarf and wrapped it around me," Martin said. "I could get a scarf anywhere and he gave me his scarf. When I'm helping them, they're also helping me. It's not just about me giving them food. They're giving me lessons."
Clark hopes that those moments remain with his students as they get older.
"The stories they're sharing are being heard by people who will hopefully, in the future, be able to take that transformation and do something with that," he said.
Cody Sullivan, 17, is a linebacker for Loyola's football team.
"I'm trying to get as many people involved as possible," Sullivan said. "At Loyola, we're blessed with so much."
Nights bring emotional surprises
Through Labre, Sullivan has realized that lack of effort has little to do with homelessness.
"It's not like they're lazy or anything like that,” Sullivan said. “They're hardworking people and they're just looking for the opportunity. Some of them have come across bad luck in their lives. Some of them have had family problems. It's tough to see someone who has literally done nothing wrong struggle out here, especially during the winter."
Last Tuesday, the students approached a man named Darnell who, although not homeless, is still on hard times. He gave them a short history of Uptown, explaining that since the closing of several housing projects on the South Side, a lot of people have moved to the neighborhood because of much-needed social services for the homeless and the mentally ill.
"Labre is about building a community," Martin said. "Getting them outside their bubble, understanding how social policy affects things."
Even though Darnell wasn't hungry, he thanked them for their kindness and directed them to areas where people might need food.
"God bless," Darnell said. "That's what God wants you to do, help people."
Martin also gives a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out various shelters or temporary lodging like Wilson Men's Hotel, where rats can be seen crawling along the sills.
For some reason, the streets along the students' typical route are a bit empty. It's been a "dry night," Martin said as the event concluded. Yet it's hard to predict what will happen.
As the students gathered for a briefing and a closing prayer, a homeless, middle-aged woman named Annette, physically weak and in distress, approached their circle.
"I just want to be included," she begged. "Please pray for me. To be given one more day of grace above ground is a blessing."
She entered into their circle, and showed them her hospital bracelet, which she keeps because she has no ID. With tears, she spoke of her battle with HIV and Hepatitis C, along with memories of the mistakes she's made in her life, including drug addiction. As the group prayed, one student held back tears.
"School is everything. You are all so beautiful, and so young," Annette said. "God bless you. You kids are the key to the world."
Her unexpected appearance left a strong spiritual impression on both the students and the teachers.
"It was different tonight, meeting Annette," Fesalvo admitted. To be present during someone else's moment of suffering, and to offer support and compassion in that moment, has been a significant experience for the group.
As the group departed, Clark acknowledged the power of the shared moment.
"I think that speaks for itself, guys."
Clark and Martin, along with their students, hope to expand their ministry by getting more people, including faculty, involved. For more information on Loyola Academy's Labre program, or to donate food, clothing or other materials for the homeless, contact Trevor Clark at email@example.com.