The little boy walking down a Seattle street could have been one of Kevin Malgesini's daycare kids. After all, the child looked like he was about 2, just like many of the children Kevin cares for at his part-time job.
But the Seattle Pacific University freshman didn't even get a chance to smile and say hello. The boy's father made sure of that.
"I started to say hi to him, and his dad pulled him to the other side of the sidewalk and walked past," Kevin, a sophomore, says. "It hurt so bad. I think it was all about how I looked."
And that day, Kevin didn't look like a typical college student. He had shed his usual clothes for ratty jeans, an old pair of running shoes, a rain jacket and a sweatshirt turned inside-out—an outfit he'd worn for several days straight. He hadn't showered in awhile. Nor had he eaten a filling meal. Instead, he'd spent the weekend wandering the streets of Seattle.
Kevin was one of 17 SPU students who spent one weekend last year getting a feel for what it's like to live on the streets. Twice a year, SPU sponsors Urban Plunge, a program designed to give students a taste of homelessness. Participants are grouped in threes or fours and sent out on the streets of Seattle with the clothes they have on their backs and about $2 in cash. Although they spend the night at a pre-arranged church location, they're on their own during the day.
"Urban Plunge was started to give students the opportunity to put a human face on homelessness," says Michael Muto, assistant director of Campus Ministries. "What these students are doing is really imitating Christ. They're leaving their comfort zone to learn and experience what it means to be homeless."
For some participants in last year's February Plunge, that meant flipping a hat upside down on the sidewalk and using it to attract spare change from passersby. For others, it meant seeking out a meal at homeless shelters. But for all of the students, spending four days on the streets meant toppling stereotypes, swallowing prideful feelings and learning—in a very real way—powerful lessons about compassion.
Taking the Plunge
As soon as she heard about the program, SPU junior Katrina Amann knew she wanted to take the Plunge.
"It's just something I've always wanted to do," she says. "I thought it would give me a different perspective on how other people live and how blessed I am." For others, though, the decision wasn't as easy.
"I came really close to changing my mind," senior Elizabeth Koch says. "I felt that Satan was trying to get me to come up with all these excuses why I shouldn't go. I was stressed out about school at the time, about grades and stuff. I needed this three-day weekend to get caught up, and I knew if I went I wouldn't be doing any homework at all."
Taking a break from homework wasn't a problem for junior Scott Gronholz. But the thought of participating in yet another service event was.
"To be honest, I wasn't very excited about going," says Scott, who's been on numerous mission trips. "I thought, 'Here's another trip.' While I'd signed up to participate, it was just another thing to do."
The weekend, though, ended up being more than just "another thing to do."
Welcome to the Jungle
Before they hit the streets, all participants attended several meetings that addressed safety issues and offered spiritual encouragement.
"They didn't want to tell us too much about what to expect," Eliza beth says. "We spent a lot of time reading Bible verses about poverty, about homelessness, how God is the father of the fatherless and the widow. And we spent a lot of time in prayer."
Then on Friday afternoon of President's Day weekend, the groups were loaded in the school van and dropped off at various places around Seattle.