GENEVA — Shortly after 10 a.m. on Jan. 23, five students walked out of their classrooms at St. Francis-St. Stephen School. Although they piled into a waiting car and left the school grounds, they were not juvenile delinquents playing hooky.
Instead, the students left their school to go to Geneva’s First United Methodist Church, where they would spend the next two hours volunteering with the Geneva Community Lunch Program.
The lunch program is run by Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes, and each weekday it provides a hot meal for Geneva’s needy, said Marge Shanahan, program coordinator. The meals are prepared and served by volunteers from various churches, businesses and community organizations in Geneva and the surrounding communities.
Every other Monday, one parent and four or five eighth-graders from St. Francis-St. Stephen School volunteer with the program, said Mary Ann Bender, middle-school social-studies and religion teacher. They leave school at about 10 a.m. and head to the Methodist church, where they help lunch-program volunteers prepare and serve the meal. The students are usually back in class by about 12:15 p.m., Bender said.
This volunteer opportunity has been a part of the school’s eighth-grade religion curriculum for many years, she added. Catholic-school teachers need to instruct their students in church doctrine, but they should also teach their students to live out Jesus’ message in their everyday lives, she added.
“We must teach — as Jesus did — that one needs to serve others, and show them the many ways this can be done. Working at the community-lunch program affords students such an opportunity,” Bender said.
The students love volunteering at the lunch program, and some of them continue volunteering there during school holidays or after they’ve graduated from St. Francis-St. Stephen, she said. Younger students hear about the lunch program from their older siblings and friends, and look forward to the year when they’ll be old enough to help out, Shanahan added.
“It’s almost a rite of passage for them,” Shanahan said.
Amy Babiarz, Lauren Foe, Frank Hagadorn, Anna Liberatore, Ben Maher and parent volunteer Patty Maher helped out at the lunch program Jan. 23. Along with Shanahan, they joined Clair Schaffner, a veteran volunteer of 13 years, and Renee Kemp, who began volunteering in September.
That day, roast pork, turkey, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, broccoli, green salad, apples and brownies were on the menu. Shanahan obtains most of the lunch program’s food through Foodlink, but some of it is donated by local organizations and businesses, she said. Turkeys are always popular, and a local Presbyterian church donated the roast pork, vegetables and brownies for that day’s meal, she added.
“We get tons of turkeys donated. They’re still coming in from the holidays,” she said.
After wiping down the tables and chairs in the church’s basement, the students donned rubber gloves and started ripping lettuce and slicing cucumbers for the salad while Shanahan prepared gravy for the pork and turkey.
Frank said his favorite part of helping with the lunch program is chopping vegetables, because it’s fun and it allows him time to talk to his friends while working.
After ripping and slicing vegetables, the students washed the lettuce but weren’t sure how to dry it. Shanahan came to the rescue, pulling a pair of salad spinners from a shelf and demonstrating how to use them.
“Basically what you’re going to do is spin the water out,” she explained.
The students vied for the chance to be the first to use the salad spinners, then excitedly took turns spinning the salad dry with some help from Kemp.
“Who knew salad spinners would be such an attraction?” Shanahan said.
When the lettuce was finally dry, Ben, Frank and Maher cut the brownies while Amy, Lauren and Anna wrote the menu on a large chalkboard. The girls then set stacks of plates and silverware on the long serving table while Ben and Frank set out mugs filled with fruit juice, milk and coffee.
More than 25 people had lined up by the serving table before 11:45, when the volunteers began serving. Between 40 and 80 people are served each day, with most days seeing about 70 people served, Shanahan said. These people are from all walks of life and range in age from the very young to the very old, she added.
Amy dished out fruit salad, Anna and Lauren served turkey and brownies, respectively, and Frank and Ben handed out the beverages. Lauren said she’s sometimes saddened by the sight of so many hungry people right in her own community.
“Some people are so starved that they come back for like seven helpings,” Amy observed.
“You sort of feel bad for the people, but it’s nice to help them out,” Ben added.
Although being face-to-face with poverty is not always a comfortable experience, the students said they still enjoy volunteering with the lunch program.
“It’s fun to help out in the community, and it’s community service, so it looks good on college and job applications,” Ben said.
Frank said he enjoys serving people because he likes to be friendly and ask people how they’re doing. Volunteering with the lunch program has even made him consider joining other community-service groups in the Geneva area, he said.