Rehabilitation and Human Services students work alongside Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services Garrett Huck to serve lunch at the Salvation Army soup kitchen in downtown Hazleton.

RHS students volunteer at downtown soup kitchen

A warm meal on a chilly day and a friendly smile can be just what a stranger needs.

That’s what Penn State Hazleton students in the Rehabilitation and Human Services program provided to clients of the Salvation Army soup kitchen as they connected their academic studies to real-world experience and interaction.

Five groups of students – 25 in total – headed to downtown Hazleton to serve lunch at the soup kitchen over the past few weeks. The opportunity developed out of a chance meeting when Penn State Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services Garrett Huck and Salvation Army Major Doris Gonzalez were seated next to each other on a plane ride and struck up a conversation. Learning more about what the other did, they saw it as an ideal partnership between Huck’s students at Penn State Hazleton and Gonzalez’ clients at the Salvation Army.

“This is a chance for the students to connect what they are learning in the classroom to the people they will actually be working with in their careers in the rehabilitation and human services field,” Huck said. “The students really enjoy having this experience and turning what they have learned into practical application.”

Senior Sam Koch said, “In our major, we’re serving the community and helping people who need services. Here at the soup kitchen, we are seeing people who are in need of those services and we now know a place they can be referred to.”

On a cold, dreary Thursday, a group of four students took their turn serving a meal of hot soup, pizza, peaches and dessert. But more than just providing a meal, they added a human element through their interaction with the clients at the Salvation Army.  

Major Doris Gonzalez said, “Most likely, the population that they are going to be working with is the same population they're serving today. Our clientele is composed of mainly homeless people, some with substance abuse issues. We also have low-income individuals who are very at risk to becoming substance abusers coming in.”

On a typical weekday, Gonzalez said, the soup kitchen serves between 60 and 100 people, with donations coming from a local food bank, Salvation Army funds and donations from the public. The kitchen has no paid employees and is run entirely by volunteers.

“I’m so excited to have the Penn State Hazleton students here to help,” she said. “Here in our community, it is so needed.”

Students who were helping at the soup kitchen agreed it was a valuable experience and worthwhile cause.

Senior Danny Brown said, “This is important because it helps you understand others who don’t have much and lets you put yourself in their shoes.”

Gabby Freed, a senior who was washing dishes, said, “I think it's important to give back to the community, especially as a college student. Many of us have our parents to help us and we really need to see what’s actually going on in the community. With this degree we will be helping people who are not going through the best of times. We're getting field experience and tying everything together here.”

Huck praised his students involved in the endeavor, adding, “All of the students have stepped up and brought bright personalities to this experience. Seeing them out of the classroom like this makes me even more optimistic about the future of our field,” Huck said.

Gonzalez invited other students looking to volunteer in a variety of capacities – including in the soup kitchen, as bell ringers or with the organization’s new after-school program – to contact her at 570-454-1631 or sahazleton@yahoo.com.