A tenth-of-a-mile separates O’Farrell Street from Geary Street in the heart of San Francisco. In the few minutes it takes to walk from one end to another, those who pass by know better than to expect the San Francisco seen on postcards and re-runs of Full House.
Instead, they witness an urban underbelly.
Used needles left in sewers. Empty sleeping bags underneath store façades. Trash heaps left in alleyways. With each step down this stretch, an already crumbling aesthetic culminates into a dark narrative.
Some locals call this side of town “Little Saigon” or “The L’s.” Kids who grow up in the neighboring suburbs of San Mateo know it as where not to go during trips to the downtown theater district. But, to just about everyone in the Bay Area, it goes by one name: The Tenderloin District.
Standing at the mouth of Tenderloin, Catholic Memorial alumnus Mr. Matt Carroll ’04 gathers his group of 20 high school juniors from nearby Sacred Heart Schools Atherton on a nearby sidewalk. Mr. Carroll, the Service Learning Coordinator at Sacred Heart, pauses before leading their walk across its concrete expanse. Looking left to right, he scans the crowd to make sure none of his students wander out of sight.
Then, reaching into his pocket, he hands each student two dollars and a simple set of instructions.
“Go find dinner,” he says.
“But, be sure to pay attention with your eyes, ears, and nose along the way.”
The students nod their heads, naïve of what to expect next. After all, most of them grew up in homogenous communities where their biggest worry meant what was for dinner. Few, if any, questioned if there would be dinner.
For Mr. Carroll, whether his students ask this question proves the difference between success and failure in his Urban Plunge excursion. To him, it proves the ultimate lesson in his innovative service-learning classroom model.
Scheduled once in the fall and once in the spring since its inception in 2015, the Urban Plunge program sends Mr. Carroll and his students deep into Atherton’s neighboring urban communities. There, students spend their morning serving the community at need- based agencies and then switching roles with those who they served in the afternoon.
A typical plunge begins at the crack of dawn for Mr. Carroll and his students. The day starts with a 6 am wake-up, a short prayer service, and a 7 am bus ride from Atherton into either San Francisco or San Jose.
Before noontime, they travel to two service sites in the middle of the city. The service sites vary year after year. One site, St. Anthony Foundation, sees students serve meals to hundreds of homeless men and women. Another, Project Open Hand, exposes students to homebound hospice patients in need of a meal and some company. At both sites, the students sit and interact with those they serve. They hear stories of broken homes, mental illness, and the lingering effects of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
The first half of the Urban Plunge experience proves no different than any other service opportunity at Sacred Heart Atherton- an independent Catholic School located in one of the nation’s most affluent zip codes. Before graduating, students at Sacred Heart must fulfill four service requirements over the course of their four years. For example, freshmen participate in a Class Service Day and sophomores commit 25 hours of service work at a community partnership. The partnerships, coordinated through individual school advisors, expose sophomores to food and homeless shelters, low-income schools, and subsidized government programs. Regardless of the site students choose, all students must keep a journal.
The journals encourage students to reflect on the sights, scenes, and interactions that they encounter. Some journals tell stories of students from low-income families playing basketball while they wait for their parents to pick them up after school. Others capture the process of preparing a meal for recovering drug addicts who also need a place to sleep for the night. But, few journal submissions demonstrate students pausing and wondering why they see the same scenes unfolding week-after-week.
Seeing this, Mr. Carroll dedicated the second half of his Urban Plunge program to guide his students into this deeper reflection. In 2017, this began when he altered the school’s curriculum and made the Urban Plunge mandatory for every member of his Social Ethics course. The class, designed to put students’ initial reflections within the context of Catholic Social Teaching, empowers students to question the circumstances surrounding those who they serve.
“As an educator, we’re trying to draw out wisdom,” said Mr. Carroll.
“It’s my job as a religion teacher to take my students to see where God exists among the poor and marginalized.”
So, how does one show another where “God” exists on the margins? Simply put, Mr. Carroll decided to take them there.
“The majority of the kids at our school don’t think twice about where their next meal comes from, or how they get home from school every day,” he said.
“How do we get them to put these issues on their radar? How do we make them see eye-to-eye with the people at the homeless shelter? Well, for starters, we put them in their shoes.”
By the end of their experience, Mr. Carroll wanted his students to take the elements of compassion and social justice that they read in the Gospel and apply it to everyday life.
When discerning how to best put his students in the shoes of the marginalized, Mr. Carroll looked back at his roots on Baker Street. He grew up in Roslindale and attended CM from 2000 to 2004. During his junior year at CM, his theology teacher, Mr. William Hahn, bridged his understanding of Christian Ethics with the service work he performed in the Greater Boston community.
The way in which Mr. Hahn presented the material left a lasting impression on him.
“I remember there was a bluntness from Mr. Hahn’s class that I loved,” said Mr. Carroll.
“He was not afraid to call out or highlight, in a compassionate or concerning way, the hypocrisy that we might have in our thinking. At the end of the day, the compassion that we have for one group shouldn’t be exclusive to others.”
Mr. Carroll held on to this newfound social consciousness when he left CM for Boston College in 2004. It led him to join countless groups committed to social justice and service work. After his senior year at BC, he committed himself to the Jesuit Volunteer Core (JVC) in Los Angeles where he worked as a Case Manager for Fr. Greg Boyle S.J. at Homeboy Industries.
At Homeboy Industries, Mr. Carroll worked one-on-one with former gang members and recovering addicts. He assessed their needs and worked to provide each person with sufficient employment opportunities. Along the way, he learned what it meant to serve without judgment.
“As soon as we put a qualifier on the situation of those we serve by saying, ‘Well they did this, well they committed this crime,’ then it takes away that element of compassion,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s tempting to paint an image of God in a vengeful manner. It’s much harder to give a person a second chance. But when we imagine them as a brother, mother, sister, it becomes a lot easier.”
After earning his Master of Divinity from Santa Clara University in 2012, Mr. Carroll sought to instill this same mindset in the hearts and minds of those he taught. He joined the theology faculty at Sacred Heart that August with this mission in mind. Five years later, upon integrating the Urban Plunge program into his Social Ethics course, he designed the latter half of the program in the likeness of this mission. Above all else, he wanted his students to tear down the power dynamic between the “server” and “served.”
To accomplish this, Mr. Carroll decided to flip their roles.
When his students finish working in the urban food kitchens and homeless shelters during the first half of an Urban Plunge, he designed the second half of the program so that his students depend upon the same resources provided by the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In a given week, low-income individuals receive $40 from SNAP to last over the course of 21 meals according to Mr. Carroll. So, handing each student two dollars, he instructs the students to spend the afternoon finding a single meal for dinner.
Under the supervision of a chaperone, the students then wander the urban markets and experience life through the eyes of someone looking to survive below the poverty line. That way, the next time a student prepares a meal or works in a homeless shelter, they identify with the circumstances of those they serve.
Midway through their quest for food in the Tenderloin District, the shopping lists of Mr. Carroll’s students look underwhelming at best.
A few students find packs of Ramen Noodles that cost under a dollar at a local convenience store. Others have less luck. They wander from store to store in hope of finding a cheap pack of cereal or some cold cut meats. In a city where a loaf of bread, on average, costs over $3.50, this proves no easy task. Disappointed, they arrive back to their chaperone with a small bag of potato chips.
The reality of going to bed hungry creeps up behind them after every store visit. As their hunger mounts, students start to notice the sights and sounds of those who walk beside them. They see homeless men and women smoking from makeshift pipes. A few amputees sit behind dumpsters, vomiting, and speaking to air. The glazed faces of addicts crashing from their morning high stare at them from afar.
“It’s all about what they see in between stops to the stores,” said Mr. Carroll.
“They see the realities of the opioid crisis. They may see people defecating or vomiting. With withdrawal it’s incredibly difficult to witness. Kids are in shock.”
Of course, those who they walk with often try to interact with them. In these instances, Mr. Carroll instructs his students on how to respond with respect and dignity.
“If they ask for money, I have them say, ‘my chaperone won’t let me give’ and then have them point to me,” he said.
“By ignoring them, we can exacerbate the problem. If the people in front of you are ignoring you, it makes those who already feel marginalized think that they are even more disconnected from reality.”
Mr. Carroll wants his students to smile and say hello with each interaction. He wants them to recognize the hunger of those they serve as their own hunger too. Only then can they serve with compassion and not judgment—just as he himself learned on Baker Street and in Divinity School years ago.
“We want our kids to see them as the victims of crimes and not as the ones committing the crimes,” said Mr. Carroll.
“The Tenderloin District is a community, not a prison.”
At 3 pm, Mr. Carroll gathers his students one last time. He brings them back to their parked van where they travel to a local parish. Dead silence fills the vehicle. Nobody says a word.
Mr. Carroll sits in the silence and prepares for the reflection ahead. He recognizes that many, still in shock, need his ministry to fully grasp the wide-scale issues of addiction and homelessness experienced in a 12-hour span.
At the parish, he instructs his students to share whatever food they bought with the two dollars. He sees students passing around sealed wrappers of pringles, pretzels, and candy.
The nutrition facts on their back labels prove unfit for an adult dinner, let alone that of a teenager.
But, if anything, the snacks provide each student with food for thought. Together, they reflect on the prevalence of diabetes and eating disorders among homeless populations. They wonder how the homeless afford to pay for treatment when they struggle to pay for a healthy meal in the first place.
These questions alone deepen each student’s newfound social consciousness. But, Mr. Carroll knows that, with his student’s heightened awareness, he needs to instruct them on how to best advocate for change on a macro and micro scale. Of course, this takes weeks of class planning for Mr. Carroll. He wants to see his students engage in case studies of how homelessness and addiction occur in the first place.
Compartmentalizing the challenges of these lessons in the weeks ahead, Mr. Carroll takes a deep breath. He also takes solace in the impression left on his students. He believes that, at the end of the day, his students arrive back home in Atherton with a new perspective on their tiny bubble of a world.
That, to him, makes his job as an educator all the more worthwhile.