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Students learn by serving others

Outside the St. Vincent DePaul Society Food Center, the smell of spaghetti and garlic bread beckons the hungry and homeless to come inside for a noontime meal.

They respond _ about 450 men, women and children. Most come by foot, a few by car.

Inside, volunteers are ready to serve. On this day, they are teachers and ninth-graders from the Hamilton Disston School for youth with emotional problems.

As they stand over the hot steamers loading plates of food, there is little time for chatter. Their faces are flushed from the heat, their eyes focused on the task at hand. They work hard, but they are learning about life beyond the classroom. And they enjoy it.

"This is an earned privilege," teacher Connie Braithwaite said. "They (students) have to work hard and control their behavior to volunteer."

Susan Cornell, 15, said: "It's nice to get to help people who are less fortunate than you. I really look forward to it. One week, I didn't get to come and it really upset me."

The students have been volunteering the last Friday of each month since December, when teacher assistant Julie Maloney took bags of dinner rolls to the kitchen. When she returned, she described what she had seen and the class decided it would like to help.

Student Robert Govoni said the experience has led to a greater appreciation for his own life.

"It made me realize I was lucky to have food and clothing . . . things I just took for granted before," he said.

Besides serving food, the teens make salad, wrap plastic cutlery, date cans, empty the garbage, set out doughnuts and prepare tea.

"They're doing a beautiful job," executive director Lola Walker said.

"They've learned so much . . . and this fills a real need for volunteers," she said. "Every time someone is exposed to the truly needy, their lives and hearts are changed. They may not realize it immediately, but later in their lives they will."