Do More Than Just Lip Service

Small-scale service efforts don’t resolve structural inequities, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t volunteer at all.

By Margaret Gadek

One of my earliest memories is helping my grandparents pack bags of food for homeless individuals in downtown Chicago. As I matured, I sought out similar opportunities to serve others. Even still, this first exposure to public service has been my biggest motivation to make positive change.

With this background in mind, I joined the Homeless Food Run when I came to UChicago as a means of taking action and helping my new community. As a volunteer, I emulated my grandparents’ efforts. Now, in my current role as co-president of the Homeless Food Run, I aspire to continue to take action and to guide others to do so.

In the recent Chicago Maroon article, “Service Starts at Home,” the University of Chicago’s response to homelessness is critiqued. The writer, Kathleen Cui, depicts encounters with homeless individuals close to campus and suggests that the current student and university-led efforts to combat homelessness and food insecurity are “unsound.”  She further expresses that UChicago should do more to aid the homeless population of Hyde Park. Ultimately, while the article rightfully highlights the many challenges of Chicago’s vast homelessness problem, it needlessly antagonizes the existing infrastructure students use to serve Chicago’s homeless population. We should be celebrating rather than degrading current charitable projects.

The University of Chicago boasts over 50 Community Service Registered Student Organizations (CSRSOs), in addition to many RSOs, athletic teams, and Greek organizations that are engaged in their community. The variety of community-oriented organizations provides an opportunity for service in almost every area of interest. The impact of their altruism is not limited to the confines of Hyde Park but reaches the rest of Chicago and the entire world.

There is nothing “unsound” about supporting those who reside outside of the narrow confines of campus. The Homeless Food Run distributes food downtown because it can reach a larger homeless population. While it would be ideal to feed homeless people in every Chicago neighborhood including Hyde Park, we at the Homeless Food Run aim to use our finite time and resources pragmatically. Homelessness is a complex problem that we as one RSO could never expect to fully resolve. But through our efforts, we are able to distribute hundreds of meals each year to individuals in need, which certainly helps us “gain awareness from proactive service.”

In addition to the Homeless Food Run, it is exciting that UChicago Dining has begun to tackle both food waste and insecurity. UChicago Dining donates leftover food to the Pacific Garden Mission, the largest homeless shelter in Chicago and the United States’ oldest rescue mission. The Pacific Garden Mission distributes 2,000 meals each day; thus, the donations by UChicago Dining can help several thousand homeless people each year, including the one in 10 youth Cui references who experience homelessness each year. This outreach certainly works to connect the University of Chicago’s “claims of community involvement and its actions,” and that merits appreciation.

UChicago encourages rigorous inquiry not only of Plato, but of our environment, too. It is crucial to examine our communities and the world around us. Yet, critique can only take us so far. It is not feasible for one person, one CSRSO, or one university to tackle all of the significant issues facing the world. It is counterproductive to fight those who are trying to advance your ideals. While Cui states, “the homeless in the immediate vicinity should not have to turn to the initiative of students and student-run organizations for their next meals,” this does not mean students should not act, and sit idly in discourse.

We can serve the community in many ways: through one-time commitments, like volunteering on the MLK Day of Service, or recurrent efforts, like volunteering as a tutor with the Neighborhood Schools Program. If the selection of opportunities to serve others at the University of Chicago does not address a problem you are concerned about, lead the charge to make the change. One of the most valuable aspects of the University of Chicago is the ability for students to pursue their passions in any area. If you feel that key issues are being overlooked, ensure they are addressed by starting a new CSRSO or RSO, or joining efforts with an existing organization to make change in a new way. The University is well funded; students can and should utilize this wealth to advance their altruistic ideals.

While one individual can make change, even larger progress can be made with teamwork. As co-president of the Homeless Food Run, I have worked with organizations ranging from Alpha Phi Omega to Asian American InterVarsity. By working together, we have engaged more University of Chicago students in issues of homelessness. While we have done significant work to support homeless individuals in Chicago, the efforts of numerous other organizations and individuals is still needed to solve this overwhelming issue. To best address large-scale problems like homelessness, it is crucial that organizations and individuals work cooperatively and collectively to make change, instead of merely critiquing and competing. As we move forward and undertake serious issues, it is essential to reflect on the experiences that have inspired us to serve others and to believe in our ability to act unitedly.

Margaret Gadek is a fourth-year in the College majoring in biological sciences.