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The sun is just beginning to rise, but it’s still dark enough that the street lights on South 12th Avenue in downtown Phoenix remain lit from the night before.
Arizona State University senior religious studies major Johnny Martin has his hood pulled over his cap and his hands dug deep in his pockets as he chats with freshman psychology major Samantha Hill during a brief break from unloading boxes and bags full of donated items.
The desert air is brisk on this early December morning, but that hasn’t stopped Martin, Hill and others from making their bi-monthly visit to the area outside of Central Arizona Shelter Services, where they help to sort and distribute gently used clothes, shoes and other essentials to the homeless population of Phoenix.
Now an official ASU Project Humanities volunteer initiative known as Spontaneous Service Saturdays, the visits take place year-round, every other Saturday from 6:45 to 8 a.m. They began as a spontaneous day of service at the behest of Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English and director of Project Humanities.
After initially volunteering as part of a men’s group at his church, Lester said, “I saw the need to continue, so did, and began recruiting ASU students and others to join me.”
Meanwhile, Martin — who had previously worked with Lester and Project Humanities as an event coordinator — had been busy founding the ASU student group Sun Devils Are Better Together (SunDABT), the university’s first and only interfaith student organization.
“We bring people from different religious and non-religious identities together to voice their values and beliefs, engage across lines of difference, and act together to improve the community based on shared values within different traditions,” Martin said.
But taking action to improve one’s community is often easier said than done. Luckily, Martin had stayed in touch with Lester and others he knew from his time at Project Humanities. So when SunDABT began looking for ways to engage with the community, Martin arranged for them to participate in the Spontaneous Service Saturdays.
“Our mission and vision are so aligned with Project Humanities that it’s very easy for us to find numerous possibilities to collaborate,” Martin said.
SunDABT group members arranged clothing drives and carpools, and watched as participation grew.
Anthropology junior and vice president of SunDABT Aspyn Adams attests, “First it was just three of us that went. Then it kept expanding each time we went with our own volunteers.”
At last count, Martin reported roughly 50 volunteers recruited by SunDABT. But it wasn’t just ASU students who were contributing to the day of service efforts.
"[The homeless] are real people equally deserving of dignity and respect, and they each have a story."
— ASU religious studies major Johnny Martin
“We have groups, families, student groups, couples, high school students and others coming out to help. We even have donations coming from Flagstaff, Pakistan, Rhode Island and New York,” Lester said.
“A particularly magical moment occurred when a mom of small children in Gilbert, Arizona, saw our story in Raising Arizona Kids and coordinated a shoe drive in support of our effort — gathering some 460 pairs of shoes! That was pretty special.”
Besides providing the city’s homeless with much-needed items, Spontaneous Service Saturdays also gives volunteers the opportunity to interact with them.
“It really humanizes them,” Martin said. “They are real people equally deserving of dignity and respect, and they each have a story.”
Adams recalls one woman in particular who was “so happy just to have a dress, and to look for things she can go to a job interview in.
“Being able to give them that basic human right of being treated with respect is the reason why I love doing community service,” Adams said.
For more information, to participate or to assist with Spontaneous Service Saturdays donations, visit the initiative’s website.