Building Partnerships in Northwest Philadelphia
Last fall, through the COVID-19 pandemic, social work major Victor Peterson, ’21, has continued working on behalf of those experiencing homelessness. His work in this area parallels the career path he intends to follow upon graduating from La Salle University.
Peterson was interning with Face to Face, a Germantown-based organization that offers free services to more than 2,500 low-income, food-insecure, or housing-insecure individuals each year. Three days a week, Peterson supported clients by distributing food and helping them obtain state identification cards, birth certificates, and social security cards. Every interaction with those who Face to Face serves, he said, was rewarding.
“It makes a huge difference to be out in the field, actually seeing what they’re teaching us in class,” said Peterson.
Each person has different needs. Some need housing. Some need ways to stay in the housing they have. Face to Face offers what they call wrap-around services, like legal assistance, to help those experiencing homelessness. I learned that without those wrap-around services, a lot of times, you don’t have a successful transition.
Peterson is among many members of the La Salle community who over the years have answered the call to perform service rooted in solidarity and justice with Face to Face. Just one mile is all that separates Face to Face from La Salle’s campus, but the differences in the life experiences between those Face to Face serves and the students, faculty, and staff who volunteer can seem vast.
“Partners like Face to Face give our students the opportunity to develop relationships with our neighbors and accompany them through struggles and triumphs,” said La Salle Director of University Ministry, Service and Support Regina Gauss Kosiek, ’01, whocoordinates University volunteer efforts with Face to Face. “This helps our students see how systemic challenges impact individuals while doing work to directly meet the needs of the local community.”
While the pandemic has forced Face to Face to reduce and alter its services, La Salle volunteers typically serve a variety of roles—from providing nursing support in the health center, to working in the dining room and social services department. In some cases, students have led special projects, like conducting market research aimed at helping Face to Face better serve those in need, as part of a service learning Marketing Research course taught by Meghan Pierce, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing. At Face to Face, volunteers work with an organization that isn’t merely looking to do good, but also make a profound impact on the lives of those it serves.
“This is not a place for do-gooders to come and do things for the poor,” said Face to Face executive director Mary Kay Meeks-Hank, who previously served as an adjunct professor of sociology at La Salle before joining Face to Face in 2007. “It is for people who care about social injustice. They come and meet people who have experienced social injustice and marginalization very regularly and learn from them, stand with them, and are transformed by them.”
Among the student volunteers, those with Pheed Philadelphia are a steady presence in Face to Face’s kitchen and dining room. In addition to preparing and serving meals, they spend a significant amount of time socializing with guests, with whom they often discover that they share a great deal more in common than they might have imagined.
“A lot of the students find friendships with guests they maybe wouldn’t normally meet from being at La Salle or just in their life,” said volunteer coordinator Becky Messa, M.A. ’04, who worked with La Salle University Ministry, Service and Support, and received her master’s degree from La Salle. “There are so many myths and stereotypes about people who experience poverty and those are quickly washed away when the students realize, ‘He likes the Eagles just like I do,’ or ‘He plays the piano like I do.’ I think for the students, it’s a real shot of humanity.”
In addition to Meeks-Hank and Messa, a number of current Face to Face staff members and volunteers have La Salle connections. Social services center director Ryan Ridley, ’18, is a La Salle graduate; health center director Donna Whitehead, ’02, is a graduate of the nursing program; and Molly Mahon, ’16, volunteers as a footcare nurse and formerly served on Face to Face’s board of directors.
Face to Face was the 2017 recipient of the La Salle Alumni Association’s Signum Fidei Medal.
Face to Face was the 2017 recipient of the La Salle Alumni Association’s Signum Fidei Medal. The Signum Fidei Medal, the Association’s highest form of recognition, has been given annually since 1942 to individuals or groups who have “made most noteworthy contributions to the advancement of humanitarian principles in keeping with the Christian-Judeo tradition” and “in harmony with the established aims of La Salle University and the objectives of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.” The Medal derives its name from the motto of the Christian Brothers – “Sign of Faith”.
Mahon, who volunteered in the dining room as a student, is a prime example of the transformative outcomes Meeks-Hank said volunteers should expect through working with Face to Face.
“It has completely transformed not only how I view the world, but just how I live my daily life,” said Mahon. “I’ve learned that when we really work together, with mutual respect and dignity and providing people opportunities to be equals, there’s very little that we can’t accomplish and overcome.”