Love Thy Neighbor

In 2010, a St. Edward’s student envisioned creating a day of dignity for South Austin’s homeless. Now in its third year, Reach Out is being handed over to new leaders.

By Lauren Liebowitz

Matt Wolski '13

Whenever Matt Wolski ’13 wonders whether Reach Out has made an impact, he remembers an encounter he witnessed at the event. One of the homeless patrons recognized Father Bill Wack, CSC, pastor at St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic Church in Austin, from meeting him years ago at a homeless shelter in Phoenix.

“The man still remembered everything Father Bill had done for him,” says Wolski. “It was incredible. It taught me that even though we’re not giving them a permanent house, we’re doing something of meaning for them.”

Each March, hundreds of volunteers from around Austin spend a Saturday at St. Ignatius serving food and fellowship to their homeless brothers and sisters. Reach Out volunteers are often students at St. Edward’s, but local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, St. Ignatius parishioners, and volunteers from the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes join in to help the cause, too.

“For this program to outlive us, we have to pick replacements,” Wolski says, who’s facing the same challenge as billionaire investor Warren Buffett: finding and growing successors. “One of my mentors once told me our most difficult task as leaders would be to allow someone else to take ownership of the project.”

As hard as it is for Wolski to let go of something he’s poured his heart into, he recognizes that it’s inevitable if he wants the organization to outlive his time at St. Edward’s. 

Shelby Jasso '14 and Zach Gil-Mata '14

Wolski is already ahead of Buffett and has two co-coordinators waiting in the wings: Shelby Jasso ’14 and Zach Gil-Mata ’14. They have been involved with the organization, but Wolski will mentor them this year to prepare them for their new roles.

“It is inspiring to see a group of college kids organize an event that gets larger as the years go by,” Gil-Mata says. “Having done this for two years now, we know what to expect. Plus, this role will allow us to grow more as leaders.”

From November until the event’s date in March, members of Reach Out raise awareness — and funds — through discussion, bake sales, a raffle and a panhandling event, during which students pose as panhandlers on campus. They display cardboard signs that share facts about homelessness with classmates who often go out of their way to avoid eye contact.

What does a guest at Reach Out receive? With help from local Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Mobile Loaves & Fishes, volunteers provide: a backpack with a blanket, water bottle and one-day bus pass; showers; haircuts; foot messages, etc.

Involvement with Reach Out has had a profound impact on all of its volunteers, especially Matthew Aragones ’13 and Chandler Sager ’14, who will assume roles as the directors of fundraising and community outreach, respectively, for the 2012–2013 school year.

For Aragones, the most important lesson he hopes participants will take away from Reach Out is that the homeless guests are human beings “just like you and me,” which he thinks many people overlook.

“What makes Reach Out special is that we actually communicate with our guests,” Sager adds. “Giving them food or money isn’t a connection, it’s a transaction. When you actually talk to them, that’s where the love and the healing takes place.”

When Wolski looks back at his time with Reach Out, he can’t help but look forward — and within. “I’m thrilled it has touched the lives of more than 1,300 homeless people and 300 volunteers in three years,” he says. “It has provided me an incredible avenue to try and be the hands of God in our world. It’s an affirmation of my belief in the Holy Cross philosophies that have led me each step of the way.”