The smell of meatballs and marinara sauce wafted through the dining area of the Interfaith Community Shelter at Pete’s Place on a recent evening as a group of high school football players zigzagged through the kitchen to prepare dinner for an estimated 150 homeless people.
Fifteen teammates from St. Michael’s High School made up the second of four groups — there are more than 60 on the team — to volunteer at the Santa Fe homeless shelter this month. While community service is fairly common at parochial schools, folks at the shelter said this is the first time they’ve had a high school sports team volunteer.
While some teens said the goal is to simply give back to the community, others said the experience can do something much more: eliminate stigma.
“There’s a stigma around homelessness. How can we change that? Kids,” said Natasha Katko, a board member of the shelter who spearheaded the volunteer sessions with St. Michael’s.
A couple of weeks before the first dinner on Oct. 20, Katko said, she held a one-hour educational session at St. Michael’s to teach the teens about various types of homelessness — such as couch surfing and unstable housing — as well as how easy it can be to lose housing.
Part of the exercise, she said, was reading first-person stories out loud from people in the homeless community. For example: “Hi my name is … I was a football player who became injured, got addicted to painkillers and ended up homeless,” she said. This “makes it more real for them.”
Katko said she hopes collaborating with St. Michael’s will be a pilot program. It was easy to start with the school since her son, freshman Jacob Katko, is on the football team. But eventually, “my hope is to really engage all of the schools,” she said.
Teens said the experience is a reminder to not take things for granted.
“It just really opened our eyes to what it means to be homeless or ‘without,’ ” said senior Dañiel Martínez, noting that while not everyone at St. Michael’s is wealthy, most people at the school “have everything we need, and our parents provide for us.”
Angela Valez, a graduate of St. Michael’s who has been homeless for three years, said it’s vital that kids understand homelessness can happen to anyone. She said before her family died, she had assistance in meeting her needs. She has fallen on hard times, however, while living on disability with lupus.
“They have luxuries — what we consider luxuries — and they don’t even realize it,” Valez said, adding this includes simple things, such as listening to a song on the radio, using a private restroom or watching a television show of one’s choice. “The little things in life are luxuries to us.”
Still, “the have and have-not mentality isn’t the point,” said school President Taylor Gantt, who was also present to help prepare the dinner. “It’s about walking alongside of them without judgment.”
Gantt said the mission at St. Michael’s is: “Enter to learn, leave to serve.” The dinner, he said, is “not about counting volunteer hours on a résumé. It’s about creating service-minded kids. … We want their heart and their soul to be in it.”
From 4 to 5:30 p.m., some teens chopped veggies, tossed salads and loaded meatball subs, while others cut bananas and crushed vanilla wafers for a pudding dessert.
After finishing meal prep, the team gathered to hold hands in prayer as people with shopping carts and backpacks lined up outside the front doors.
At 6 p.m., the boys spread into groups: Some helped pass out sleeping bags in the hallway; some cleared plates and checked on people as they ate dinner; others served food.
As guests entered the dining room, their faces lit up with excitement and gratitude.
“They certainly brought some delicious food,” said one guest named Jeannie as she bit into her sandwich.
“They’re very engaged and very polite,” said another guest, Brenda.
But the impact went far beyond food and manners.
“It’s easy to grow up and ignore” the homeless, Valez said. “It’s nice to get them outside of their element and into ours.”
And the hope is that the service extends beyond one night, she said.
“What they take from being here tonight — the reward is in the heart. Some of them will go home and think of us,” she said.