Gonzaga student takes part in a school tradition: lending a hand with what’s needed at the McKenna Center, a Catholic-run shelter on Gonzaga’s Washington campus.

During his freshman year at Gonzaga College High School, John Sullivan hurried by the panhandlers and homeless people he passed on the streets. They made him feel uneasy, unsafe.  The teen also was intimidated when he started volunteering at the Father McKenna Center, a Catholic-run shelter on Gonzaga’s Washington campus where homeless men can get a free hot lunch, addiction counseling, and other help.


The first morning, he was cursed at when he refused to give a man six tablespoons of sugar for his coffee. Someone had to escort the man out.

For many Gonzaga students, the elite Catholic school is a first introduction to poverty, and their first chance to learn how to help. The need is all around — on the walk from the Metro past people demanding money, in the long-troubled Sursum Corda neighborhood next to the campus, and on the school grounds, where the homeless shelter is as integral as the 150-year-old chapel and brick classroom buildings.

Long before schools nationwide began requiring community service hours for graduation in an effort to teach compassion and social responsibility, Gonzaga students were living it. They can volunteer during a lunch break, sign up to sleep at the shelter for a week, or deliver meals to nearby families.

In the decades since the McKenna Center was founded — one of the nation’s only shelters that operates in the middle of a private school campus — thousands of students have volunteered there. Some try it grudgingly. Some come back occasionally. And some find themselves rethinking how they want to live their lives.

Over the past 20 years, the number of young people volunteering nationally has increased significantly, said Andrew Furco, associate vice president for public engagement at the University of Minnesota.

But experts don’t really know what impact all this volunteering has on needy people and communities, or on the people who are trying to help. If there are important lessons to be learned, do those lessons stick?

By one measure, at least, there has been a profound shift. As more students volunteer during their teenage years, the percentage who plan to continue helping in college has shot up, increasing by more than 80 percent in less than 20 years, according to a national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Researchers have found a link between those who volunteer and the value students place on social and political involvement in their communities. Nearly 70 percent of college freshmen said it’s very important or essential to help people in need, one of the highest rates since 1970.

“There’s a changing student propensity to volunteer in college and to think that is something important,’’ said Linda DeAngelo, a researcher at the institute.

At Gonzaga, those seeds are planted from the first day.

“I had heard of poverty,’’ said Jerry Cardarelli, who studied there in the late 1980s, “but going downtown to high school, you’re face-to-face with poverty every day.’’

It is a shock for many students, especially those who grow up in wealthy suburbs.

On a recent lunch hour, four freshmen scooped spaghetti from big tin foil trays and handed out warm slices of garlic bread to a steady line of men holding out plates, eyes down as they moved along the linoleum floor.

“How you doing today?’’ Joseph Fitzpatrick, 15, asked as he ladled meat sauce onto slick piles of noodles. Sometimes a man would pause, and smile. “Not bad, not too bad.’’

It was a short glimpse of the worn paint, rat traps, and sad stories of McKenna, but one that left an impression.

“I definitely want to do it again,’’ student Patrick Myers said. “I’m not quite sure why. It just felt good, to help someone who didn’t have much.’’

John Sullivan, now 17, isn’t sure what prompted him to sign up for a weeklong immersion program at the McKenna Center his freshman year. Maybe it was just the guilt he felt walking by homeless men on his way to school.

He slept at the church at night and helped prepare lunch during the day. One thing shocked him: He felt a connection with them right away. “They’re just regular people, just like us,’’ he said. Last summer, he ended up volunteering every day.