Ryan Lavalley was scared. Just a freshman, he was sitting in a car with some fellow students headed toward downtown. Their goal: take the sandwiches they made that afternoon to people living in a homeless area known as the Queensgate Camp.
To Lavalley, it was like entering another world. “We walked in and I saw couches and chairs,” he says. “There’s an area for the kitchen and for sleeping, like a house without walls. We’re under this overpass, and it’s someone’s home. I thought This is just weird, there’s dirty men sitting around.”
One of them was named Dog, who sat in the area reserved for games. “Do you play chess?” Dog asked. The board was already set up. So Lavalley, who considers himself a pretty good chess player, pulled up a stool opposite Dog, a rough-looking man, balding, measuring about 6 feet tall. They chatted as they moved their pieces around the board. Dog asked questions about what Lavalley was doing in school. Lavalley held back his game a little to be fair to the homeless man.
“Then he just beat me in 10 moves,” says Lavalley. “That moment, I’ll never forget it, it was the first time I saw them as more than just people who live on the streets.”
Lavalley’s comeuppance became his devotion. And he is no longer scared—cautious, but not afraid. Now he sees the homeless as people, just without homes.
Since that first Sunday evening two years ago, Lavalley has been a vital part of Labre Student Outreach, a group of students whose simple mission is to take food to homeless people every week and let them know they’re not forgotten.
“The people involved in Labre are dedicated and are looking for more than the soup kitchen experience,” Lavalley says. “What we’re doing is walking with these people through their experiences. We’re not trying to save them or make ourselves feel better.”
Labre was founded at Xavier two years ago by Tim Ogoneck, a graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, where Labre began in 2003. The group is named after Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th century Frenchman who lived among the homeless in Rome.
Each week, about 15 students sign up for the Sunday evening sandwich-making sessions and trips downtown. Xavier Dining provides the food, paid for by donations of meals off students’ meal cards. “The sandwiches are the key into the door of the homeless world,” Lavalley says.
Labre members have been sharing food and conversations with them for so long that they’ve come to trust each other. There are basic rules: Never pressure a person about anything. Don’t carry cash. When people ask for money, say, “We just have food. Do you want to talk?” And finally, students are told to never go off by themselves without another Labre member. The issue of safety is foremost, Lavalley says.
Labre now has about 200 members, and Lavalley is in discussions with Xavier’s Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice to explore how they can work together and become an officially recognized student group. The group’s consistency over the last few years is way beyond most student groups, and its focus on relationships, not just food, fits in perfectly with the Jesuit ideals. By being officially affiliated with the Center, though, it can receive advice, resources and ongoing support that it might not now receive. And, having the stability of an organization behind it can help prepare new students to pick up the mantle of leadership.
For Lavalley, an occupational therapy major with a psychology minor, Labre has opened up new possibilities for the kind of work he wants to do. “Labre changed me,” he says. “I know I want to work with impoverished people who are oppressed and help them regain dignity as a human being.”
But for now, Lavalley is committed to Labre. He organizes the Sunday evening food preparations and transportation, and he and a core group of veteran members also visit the camps during the week to check on the residents. And every week, he goes confidently to Queensgate to bring Dog dinner, share some conversation, and engage him in another round of chess. Sometimes, he even wins.