By Katie Sobiech
It was a cool, fall evening when I joined four students, a teacher and the Director of Service and Outreach at Hoban High School to venture out into the city to meet the homeless.
This group goes out every Wednesday after school to serve food and stir up conversation with the less fortunate. Local, grassroots efforts to meet the homeless where they’re at and offer help and friendship have been on the rise lately.
All were busy baking pizza, tossing salads and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be given to those they met that evening.
Mr. Greg Milo, a Social Studies teacher, and Mr. Jason Horinger, Director of Service and Outreach, take the teens into a world that is unknown to many: the tent cities and other places homeless dwell.
Their 3rd year anniversary which they celebrated this past Thanksgiving allowed the students to realize once again, just how much they have to be thankful for.
They leave counting their blessings at the end of each the night.
It all started in September of 2009 when Mr. Milo thought ‘there must be something more’.
“I was kind of looking for something new. It was about my 5th or 6th year of teaching and I wanted something different just to change the pace,” he said.
Horinger came to his classroom saying “I have an idea”…
And that’s where it began.
Steve, a Custodian at Hoban High, inspired this endeavor.
“Steve said ‘it’s all well and good you guys are tryin’ to raise money for Haiti or Brazil right now…but what are you doing for the people here in Akron?'” Horinger recalls.
“I (told) him ‘the students are doing an excellent job with their Christian service hours’,” Horinger said, “And I started to think a little more and when the next year rolled around my focus was to be more active in Akron and really plant our roots a little bit firmer.” He continued, “We really had no idea what we were getting into – we were just open to the moment.”
One Thing Lacking
Hoban High does many things for countries such as Haiti and Bangladesh, and though there’s nothing wrong with those activities, it was recognizing a desperate local need that spurred them into action.
“One thing we were lacking was consistent, active engagement in the community, and this is one of those ways to really step outside of the school. Step outside of your comfort zone. Look at the reality face to face, rather than having that distant dollar bill that’s going to benefit someone,” Milo said of actually going out and meeting the homeless rather than handing them some change.
“You take out the middle-man which is that dollar bill and you’re face to face with someone who’s in need,” he continued, “I thought this was something that was needed here and that the kids would benefit from.”
Taking Their First Trek
Before venturing out for the first time, Mr. Milo and Horinger had no idea what to expect.
“I had a strange vision, almost a fear of what (we) were about to see. But maybe the reality is much scarier than what you thought of in your head,” Mr. Milo said of the tent cities.
“The first time we went out we didn’t really know exactly what we were doing but we were driving along the railroad tracks and found a guy named Prez,” Milo said.
So they sat for a while and talked with Prez.
The next year on their anniversary they went to visit the same spot and Prez was still there, sitting in the same spot.
“We hadn’t seen Prez since the previous year and there he was on basically the exact same day a year later, sitting in the exact same spot,” Milo said.
“Sitting in the exact same spot from the year before, sitting, drinking a beer,” Horinger added.
“It was just one of those moments where (we knew) there’s just something bigger,” he continued.
A Time to Reflect
Before and after heading out on their journey every Wednesday night the group gathers to talk and reflect on what they’re about to do and what they’ve encountered.
Before leaving Horinger sat the kids down in a small, chapel-like setting, saying “What we do is very small, on a very ‘bubble’ level, but anything that happens, that’s worthwhile. Big things don’t just happen – it’s tiny, little steps. Every day, what are you doing? How are you treating people?” he asked, creating a bigger message.
“Project Hope is not a one day thing. You start and hopefully your eyes are going to be opened a little bit more and that veil’s gonna be pulled back a little bit. And as time’s going on it’s ‘how are you treating people here at Hoban?'” he continued “We can all take more time to reflect on that. Then hopefully good things happen from there. It all snowballs.”
Before venturing out into the unknown the teens showed me their “Scribe Book”.
“We keep track of everything – what goes on tonight,” Alex Wills, one of the students said.
The book was so full of stories and drawings from students that there was barely room to hold the night’s upcoming adventure.
“We go rain, shine, thunderstorms, tornadoes…,” Wills said, “One time in the summer the tornado warning sirens came on.”
“And we were in the middle of the woods,” John Rudiales, another student, added.
They are a very dedicated group.
Homelessness Impacts Teens
On the way, Horinger encouraged the students to introduce themselves to anyone they would meet and to start a conversation. Creating relationships is the theme of their outings.
The teens continued sharing stories of how this has impacted their lives.
“Before I (did) this I would just look and discriminate or judge (the homeless) and now that I know their own personal stories I have that insight and can look at them with a newfound love rather than ‘why are you not trying to help yourself?'” Wills said.
The teens strike up conversation with the homeless and have bonded, even creating friendships with some.
“We’re not just an accessory to their lives, we’re part of it,” Lindsay Huth, another student said.
“We’ve become part of their life. It’s not like we’re just going out and giving them food, we’re forming relationships. Perch told Mr. Milo and Horinger that they were like his best friends, all he had, and the ones he could turn to. It was like a wake-up call to me. I didn’t realize how big of a part of their lives we were,” Wills said.
“We’re really close to (the homeless),” Huth agreed, “If they ever need a ride somewhere they have (Mr. Milo and Horinger’s) phone numbers so one (of them) will just go give them a ride or help them move into a house or something like that. Anything they need really.”