The “Yale Hunger Heroes” is student group that is part of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and Dwight Hall. During the school-year, the group partners with DESK to serve dinner on Fridays and Saturdays in the parish house of the United Church (next door at 323 Temple St.). This is a wonderful partnership that has benefited both the New Haven and Yale community for over a decade. In May 2017, the group’s student coordinators, Rob LaRose and Brandon Hudik, graduated from Yale. Though we wish them well, they and their efforts to serve those who are most in need will be greatly missed! Thank you, Rob and Brandon, for your commitment and outstanding work over the last four years, and congratulations!
Below, Rob and Brandon share some thoughts as they reflect on their work with the Yale Hunger Heroes.
Beyond Charity: In Search of Justice
Growing up, I had always felt a strong pull toward serving people who are homeless, downtrodden, or food insecure. I initially got involved in high school, spending dozens of mornings serving breakfast at a downtown Minneapolis overnight shelter. I arrived in New Haven in 2013 and quickly found a similar opportunity in the Elm City: coordinating the student-run weekend soup kitchen that operates as an extension of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. For four years, this has been by far the most significant and meaningful aspect of my time here—and I’d imagine the same could be said for my best friend who has served alongside me as co-coordinator.
In the 500-plus hours I’ve spent at the Hunger Heroes kitchen, I’ve had the tremendous fortune of getting to know some incredible people who have come through the doors. I’ve gotten to hear their stories and their jokes, witness their smiles and sometimes their tears, and most importantly share in their lives as they also share in mine.
As tremendous and incredible as this has been, it’s also been heartbreaking. If the world worked as it should, we wouldn’t need ongoing food assistance in this way. People shouldn’t have to come every night to soup kitchens. I’m fortunate to have gotten to know the guests over these four years, fortunate to have had the chance to learn their names, fortunate to hear their stories. But, in a more perfect world, they would have passed through once or twice, for a down-on-your-luck meal every so often, and then quickly bounced back on their feet. Unfortunately, as many of us know all too well, this is not the world we live in. There are much larger, structural forces that make this idealistic dream of quick recovery often unattainable.
This is why we must do more than simply serve meals and provide shelter beds to those in need. Yes, these are both very good—and fundamentally important—critical support that must continue; however, we must be wary of the temptation to allow these actions to serve as moral badges to assuage our guilt or absolve our responsibility to give more of ourselves. We cannot let ourselves walk out of the kitchen, pat ourselves on the back, tell ourselves job well done, and then proceed to forget our neighbors until the next time we receive an invitation to volunteer. In other words, we cannot become satisfied with simple charity; we must strive to go beyond that in search of justice.
Such a mission is by no means be easy. It requires more work, more energy, more dedication, and more perseverance than many of us will want to give. It requires phone calls to legislators, tough conversations with neighbors, fundraising, advocacy campaigns, marches, community organizing—the list is endless. It requires sustained effort to guarantee that one day, one by one, the people we serve at kitchens and shelters will not have to return in search of charity—because they’ll have received justice.
To this end, our commitment to justice requires three things: humility, understanding, and love. In those three things, there exists endless energy, endless motivation, and endless passion. This is what will sustain our work. This is what will sustain us and everyone committed to the same goal of justice.
To a large extent, this is what I’ve learned in four years at Yale. More importantly, this is what I’ve learned in four years in New Haven. And this is what I hope to carry with me, no matter where I go, no matter who I’m with, no matter what I’m doing. And I hope you will do the same.
In the meantime, sign-up to volunteer at DESK or any kitchen/shelter for that matter. Do it. Today. It’s where you’ll find me, and it’s where you’ll find countless others committed to this work. And most importantly, it’s where you’ll find humility, understanding, and love.
And hopefully one day, it will be where you find justice.
Separate Plates, Same Table
For the last few years, my college roommate, Rob, and I have been co-coordinating Yale Hunger Heroes, a student-run soup kitchen partnership between Yale and DESK that operates during the academic year every Friday and Saturday. Thinking about this program, as Rob and I wrap up the year as the coordinators, has become a sort of reflection on my time here at Yale, with the both humbling and enlightening memories of Hunger Heroes at the center.
Every Friday and Saturday at the soup kitchen, a part of the Yale community gets the chance to stand a bit closer to the community that lives—and sometimes sleeps—right outside their doorstep. And each night, volunteers are shown that those who come to the kitchen for food are not very different from us. Oftentimes, by just a twist of fate, many of them go hungry while we grow accustomed enough to privilege that we find ourselves seriously complaining about Yale Dining.
It’s been humbling to see that the little differences between our neighbors and ourselves are apparent in the things we don’t think twice about: having some cash for a Chipotle burrito, having a room to come back to, having parents who’ll help pay taxes, or even understanding English.
And yet, even on the wrong end of those differences, there are guests at the kitchen who write poetry for our volunteers, who stay until closing to help clean up, who dance to our lame Disney music, who sometimes cry in thanks, who simply smile back. Heck, if I was struggling to get by financially, battling addiction, illness, or disease, or just losing my grip on the comfortable place I sit in the world, I think that smiling and thanking and dancing and cleaning up and writing poetry would be at the bottom of the list of things on my mind. To me, it’s a testament to how tough times can bring out what’s most human in people.
In difficult contexts, simple expressions of humanity become extraordinary.
I know our time in New Haven has been but short, and that in the grand scheme of things, we’ve had little impact on the lives of New Haveners—but I know I’ll carry with me the lessons I’ve learned through the kitchen. Ignoring hunger, ignoring someone asking for money on the street, ignoring ears eager for someone to listen—this is ignoring ourselves. If a few little things in life hadn’t gone our way, we might be on the opposite side of the serving line. And if we ended up on that opposite side, the one thing I think we can all agree on is that it would be nice for a change if the world gave us a bit of love, a bit of food—bits of what we would give ourselves if we could.