High School Students Serve Homeless Teens
Published: December 18, 2008
Blessed Trinity students (background, l-r) Anthony Mazzanti, Anya Javadi, Alejandra Mejia and Leigh Clouser serve a homeless young person going through the food line at the Atlanta office of StandUp For Kids. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
ATLANTA—Tucked beneath the iconic Coca-Cola sign that looms over the Downtown Connector is a small building with bars on its windows where one night a week teens living on the streets grab a meal, uncover job leads, find a safe place.
In the small cafeteria are piping hot casseroles, chicken, lasagna, pasta, along with brownies and salad. Teenagers from Blessed Trinity High School, one wearing a Santa cap, are spooning out the evening meal, encouraging the young diners to take more.
“Eat up. We have plenty of food,” says one as a beat-up stereo plays “The First Noel.”
Wednesday is the one night of the week when the nonprofit StandUp for Kids opens its doors. And as they have been doing monthly since the spring, students from the archdiocesan high school prepare and serve the food—or box it up for leftovers—for the homeless teens. Some 2,500 young people under 21 are believed to be living on the streets of Atlanta.
The students are members of the Roswell high school’s St. Vincent de Paul club. They have taken the mission of StandUp For Kids to heart. Among them are Thomas Langa, 16, and Geoff Crisanti, 16, two enthusiastic friends, ready to take on the world. Or at least, help peers living on the street.
“These kids are on their own. These kids are my age,” says Geoff. “They don’t have parents. Sometimes they are supporting their siblings.”
The gritty southwest Atlanta neighborhood where StandUp for Kids works is far from the leafy high school campus. Nothing would draw the suburban teenagers there except nearby Turner Field to see the Atlanta Braves play.
Cállié Roberson turned 21 years old last month and she has been a frequent client of StandUp For Kids for some four years. Here she converses with StandUp For Kids’ center supervisor Wendy Sheffield.
StandUp for Kids is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization founded in 1990. It is working in more than 20 states to link the teens with social services that will help them get a high school equivalency diploma, a place to sleep and medical care. The organization is raising $70,000 to renovate a downtown Atlanta facility that could be open daily.
But Dale Alton, the StandUp for Kids’ volunteer executive director, said the teens helped by the organization and those that serve the food are not all that different.
“They have the same dreams and goals. They just haven’t had the opportunity to have parents, or a nuclear family to be with them,” she says.
That is why Thomas and Geoff want to search the streets to find teens who don’t come to the shelter, a more hands-on service of the nonprofit. The two friends met on the lacrosse team, where they convinced skeptical teammates in the spring to volunteer at a drug rehab facility. They are leaders of the St. Vincent de Paul club. Thomas wears a red and white Santa cap. Geoff had on a red T-shirt with Scripture from the Gospel of Matthew, which reads in part: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Geoff says he wants to reach teens on the street because he can relate to his peers better than an adult, who may not remember the problems of being a teenager.
Thomas says, “I feel I can do so much more.”
As part of the outreach program, the two would seek out homeless teens, talk with them, deliver food and razors, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant and comb, “just so they can live,” says Thomas.
They completed two of five classes to become certified. The most important lesson they’ve learned is to be approachable and be down to earth. The training opened their eyes. Young people are homeless for a lot of reasons, maybe they were pushed out of the home because of unplanned pregnancy, bad grades, being gay.
After the meal Blessed Trinity High School’s St. Vincent de Paul conference coordinator, theology teacher Toni Vilardi, third from left, speaks with the students about their next service project. Listening in (clockwise from left) are Zac Ritchey, conference spiritual director, parent volunteer Linda Javadi, Leigh Clouser, Alejandra Mejia, parent volunteer Shelly Langa, Anya Javadi, Anthony Mazzanti, Stephen Lago, conference treasurer, Thomas Langa (sitting), conference president, and Geoff Crisanti, conference vice-president.
“For a lot of kids, it’s not their fault,” says Thomas.
Cállié Roberson, 21, one of those served, wears a picture of her daughter, who was adopted by another family, around her neck. She has been coming here for four years.
“They made me feel like I had a family because I’ve never really had my family with me,” she says.
It is the kind of place where, when her days are filled with anger, she is met with an embrace, she said.
“StandUp for Kids has given plenty without getting anything in return,” says Cállié, a self-described “couch surfer.”
The relationship between the program and the school took off after a chance encounter at the annual Hunger Walk. Toni Vilardi, a theology teacher at Blessed Trinity High School and club faculty sponsor, spotted the purple T-shirts worn by the StandUp for Kids volunteers and started to ask about the program.
The school’s St. Vincent de Paul club, with its 30 active members, adopted the project. Students committed to making monthly dinner for their peers. And some of the students will give up their Christmas vacation to tackle a project here.
“I thought it’d be bigger. As small as it is, it makes a huge impact,” says Thomas. “Now the reality hits. It’s a big thing what these kids suffer.”
To help StandUp for Kids, send contributions to: StandUp for Kids/Atlanta, c/o Dale Alton, 83 Walton St., Suite 100, Atlanta, GA 30303. For more information visit http://www.standupforkids.org/