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Senior works at homeless shelter

Aaron Steiner | Wednesday, January 31, 2007

For Notre Dame senior Sheldon Dutes, last summer was anything but ordinary. For two months of the respite between spring and fall semesters, Dutes worked in Kansas City, Kan. serving homeless men, immigrants and children.

Dutes participated in the Center for Social Concern’s (CSC) domestic Summer Service Learning Project (SSLP), a program which hopes to draw over 200 participants again this summer SSLP Director Andrea Shappell said.

Eight weeks of Dutes’ summer were spent on his SSLP assignment serving at the Shalom House, a shelter for homeless men. Dutes said that the experience pushed and challenged him from the start.

“I went in with a sort of idealist vision of making a difference,” Dutes said. “By the third day, I wanted to go home.”

That third day was disrupted by the violence of a substance abuser on site, Dutes said. Still, he was able to move past the incident and continue to help “those less fortunate.”

In a neighborhood that almost “always led the five o’clock news, never for anything positive,” Dutes said he worked with the center’s staff to help the 25 men who stay each night. The Shalom House a shelter that is a part of the national Catholic Worker House organization.

Cooking, cleaning and painting were some of the jobs assigned to Dutes, in addition to his daily task of cleaning the three shower stalls used by the residents daily. As a part of the experience, Dutes said he left anything excessive – from his iPod to laptop – at home, working to “better empathize with the community I was serving.”

“It was definitely a humbling experience,” Dutes said of the work.

He spent time with the men at the site, who arrived at 4:30 p.m. each day and had to leave by 8 a.m. each morning, sleeping in what “looked kind of like an old hospital ward.”

Whether playing a pick-up game of soccer, starting a game of chess or simply listening, Dutes said he learned a great deal from those he served.

“They weren’t homeless for the reasons we often think they are homeless,” he said.

Some were born into poverty and others had been hit by misfortune. But some of those he worked with even had advanced degrees, Dutes said.

The Shalom House caters to immigrants, Dutes said, and that helped him to see the plight of migrants in a new light.

“The experience deepened my understanding of the immigration debate,” he said.

In addition to his work at the Shalom House, Dutes said he spent time at a neighborhood learning club, tutoring children in first through eighth grade.

Dutes said the whole experience was well worth his effort and “very rewarding.”

“To see that they are no different that we are” was especially important to Dutes.

Shappell said there are important benefits to both those participating and those receiving services.

“Many students find these eight weeks as a spark to continue to be engaged in … a social issue, either as a career, as a volunteer or as board members for organizations,” Shappell said.

The SSLP program places students in approximately 200 sites around the country with the help of Notre Dame Alumni Clubs in area cities each summer, according to Shappell. Participants spend eight weeks immersed in a poverty experience, with “the opportunity to address the injustice of poverty,” while earning three Theology credits, she said.

Types of work vary from community to community, as chosen by the local Alumni Club, which also arranges for housing and food for participants.

“Many sites relate to persons who are homeless … and many involve working with children, but there are also sites who address the needs of [disabled people], youth in the juvenile justice system and even environmental projects,” Shappell said.

The program, often called an internship, provides students with supervised experience in a specific profession, including sociology, psychology, architecture, business, law and social work, Shappell stated.

In addition to earning three credits – which can now apply to the CSC’s new Catholic Social Tradition minor – students receive a scholarship for the fall semester after participating in the program.

“All SSLP students receive the $2,300 scholarship,” Shappell said. “The AmeriCorps Educational Award of $1,000 is also available for those students who do not plan to participate in a two year post-graduate service program.”

Shappell stated that there will be information sessions for the program held on Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. in the CSC building classroom. All students are welcome to attend, she said, even if they are not sure they want to apply. Past participants will speak at all sessions.