Nikita Kariuki worked at a bank in Pittsburgh, Pa., for a decade, but when the economy began to spiral downward the Kenya-born man was laid off and ended up in Spokane.
“We all go through rough patches,” he told three Salk Middle School students volunteering at the Union Gospel Mission. He also added a piece of advice: “Don’t fold to peer pressure.”
Leadership students from the north Spokane middle school have been visiting the Christian-based shelter each Tuesday for the past three weeks as part of community service project. Salk is one of a handful of middle schools in the region that teach why the act of giving back to the community is important.
“It helps students understand that there are many people in need in Spokane,” said Salk’s leadership teacher, Jennifer Saunders. “Volunteering at the Union Gospel Mission provides a tremendous real-life lesson in learning how to give to those who are less fortunate – a lesson that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Throughout the region, middle school students also volunteer at animal shelters, collect donated school supplies, distribute food, paint over graffiti and pick up litter.
“Volunteering is positively contributing to community and society. It builds good character and it’s a win-win,” said Melanie Rose, spokeswoman for Central Valley School District.
When the Salk students visited the Union Gospel Mission on Tuesday, they were given a tour, introduced to a few residents, then served lunch and ate with the residents and other guests.
The experience made 13-year-old Lexi Grimmer realize she’s pretty lucky in life. “Before, I took things for granted, and I thought the people out begging on the corner were just lazy.” Christa Boone, 14, added, “People here are like normal people, they are just down on their luck.”
Robby Robertson, one of the temporary residents, said the kids “are refreshing. These guys get sick of looking at each other.”
During a previous visit, Saunders heard one man tell a group of students: “It’s like someone opened the door, and let in a ray of sunshine.”
Kariuki, who goes to the shelter just for meals, talked with the three teen girls about traveling around the United States, future careers and sports, in addition to how his life took a side step.
“It’s good for them to come here and see how the other half lives,” he said. “It motivates us and it gives us a chance to tell them what not to do.”
Saunders started the community project at Union Gospel Mission last year and has been pleased with the students’ response.
“What I love,” she said, “is how their perceptions of homeless people change.”