Grand Central Outreach Offers a Meal—and Genuine Caring—to Homeless and Hungry
Jonathan Ramirez ’18 has been working tirelessly to tackle the homeless epidemic in New York City. Every Tuesday during the academic year, and occasionally during the summer, Mr. Ramirez rounds up a few other students and heads down to Manhattan, where they assemble bag lunches for distribution to the homeless in Grand Central Station. Inside the echoing marble halls of the vast terminal, the students head straight to an atrium, somewhat removed from the tourists and commuters, that has become a gathering place for people with no place to live.
Students set out the bag lunches on a few small tables, and those in need quickly join and begin eating. The volunteers introduce themselves, sit with their visitors as they eat, ask about their lives, and share stories. When they are finished, the students move on to other areas of the terminal and the surrounding streets, looking for any others who might need a meal.
It was a First Year Experience seminar that opened Mr. Ramirez’s eyes to the plight of people whose circumstances can take an unexpected and dire turn, rendering them homeless. “I used to believe that if you were homeless, you were either an alcoholic or a drug addict,” he says. “But since I’ve begun working and conversing with homeless people, it’s completely changed my outlook.”
Mr. Ramirez has done his share of volunteering with Midnight Runs and soup kitchens, but this program, he says, is different. “Our purpose is more than just giving them food. We try to show them that someone cares. The conversation they have with us might be the first one they’ve had all week.”
Daniel Hrubes, Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology, observes that the practice helps not just the receivers, but also the givers. “The most obvious benefit is that hungry people are being given nourishment,” says Dr. Hrubes. “But the students are also offering the emotional satisfactions of a friendly conversation. As social beings, we all need human interaction. The way this project is designed means the people being served are both physically nourished and emotionally supported.” He continues, “The students also benefit. Over time they move from feeling sympathy for the homeless—which is good, but a little removed—to feeling empathy. As they engage in conversation, the students begin to understand these individuals and how they are feeling. This aligns beautifully with the Mount’s mission to address the whole person, and is a great example of how people experience growth as they engage in selfless activity.”
All students are welcome to join, but Mr. Ramirez makes a special effort to recruit commuter students, who typically spend less time on campus. “Our commuter students juggle many demands every day, which might include traveling more than an hour each way to school, working a part-time job, caring for family members, and studying for a rigorous course load,” says Matthew Shields, Director for Mission and Ministry. “It’s truly inspiring that many, like Jonathan, will take the time to help others. The Commuter Volunteer Corps was set up to enable students to make an impact in their local communities while rallying support through Campus Ministry.”
As more students learn about Grand Central Outreach, the program continues to grow. “Next semester I want to recruit more students,” says Mr. Ramirez. “I want to let them know that what we do is not only fun, but it will open your eyes and expand your borders.” While the occasional new volunteer might feel shy about making eye contact or shaking hands with a homeless person, Mr. Ramirez offers encouragement. “I tell them to just start a conversation—ask them about their day, or where they are from, and they will start talking. In fact, they have a lot to say.”