Chicago students learn compassion, service at homeless shelter

by Michelle Martin

CHICAGO — Angela Rizzo, who grew up in Chicago, is used to seeing homeless people.

But the 21-year-old, a junior at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., never saw the extent of the problem until she took the Urban Plunge in Chicago organized by the University of Notre Dame, which is also in South Bend.

She spent three days volunteering at a senior center and transitional shelter in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan.

“I never realized there were so many kids,” said Rizzo, taking a break from preparing dinner Jan. 4 at the shelter, which is called PADS Center. PADS stands for Public Action to Deliver Shelter.

At the center, Rizzo and other students from St. Mary’s and Notre Dame joined students from Waukegan High School and St. Martin de Porres Catholic High School, also in Waukegan. The volunteers spent time playing with young shelter residents and hosting a post-Christmas party as well as cooking dinner for the residents and serving it to them.

Before dinner, the students joined residents playing pingpong, pool and air hockey in one room and board games in another. Earlier in the day, the students spent time visiting elderly guests at Park Place Senior Center.

Terry Zawacki, director of faith formation at St. Dismas Parish in Waukegan, organized the effort in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame and the local high schools. Notre Dame sends students to urban sites around the country for the plunge program.

For him, the goal is not only to open the university students’ eyes and ears to the people in inner cities, but also to have them meet and inspire high school students.

The volunteer experience itself inspired Timika Williams, 17, a senior at Waukegan High School. Even though she lives in Waukegan, she said, she never knew about the homeless center until she volunteered for Urban Plunge.

Williams spent the pre-dinner hours Jan. 4 playing with resident children.

“I think it’s a blessing that we could be here,” she told The Catholic New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. “It’s great to be able to show these kids that people care about them.”

Sandy Stephens, an advocate for transitional shelters, said when volunteers come to the center they bring much-needed supplies, everything from food to paper goods, and the more people come, the more the word spreads.

The transitional center opened in December, Stephens said, to serve a clientele of up to 42 people at a time, mostly women and children. They can stay for several months while they get help finding employment and stable housing. On Jan. 4, Stephens was expecting about 30 residents, including senior citizens and a two-week-old baby, to spend the night.

The Waukegan-area transitional shelter program provides overnight shelter on different nights of the week at 18 area churches.

St. Martin de Porres freshmen RJ Saura and Vanessa Copado said they had never been at one of the transitional shelters before, but they had volunteered at other community agencies and they both welcomed the chance to contribute.

“I like to give back to the community,” Copado said.

Saura chimed in, saying, “It makes you feel good to help people.”

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