Edited by Naomi Grant
It’s one thing to study the theory–it’s another to put it into practice. For IDEV student Francesca Realacci ‘23, volunteering locally is how she puts her money where her mouth is.
“Theory is great, models are great,” Realacci said, “but you have to put into practice what you’re studying and what you say your beliefs are.”
Homelessness in D.C. is impossible to ignore. Walk in any direction and you’ll eventually encounter a tent, a sleeping bag, some blankets, a grocery cart filled with necessities—hallmarks of the unhoused who find shelter in the crevices of buildings, in parks and squares, in alleyways and archways of public structures. Of course, homelessness is more than meets the eye—being unhoused doesn’t always mean living on the street. But those exposed to the elements and to the ever-present threat of eviction possess a unique vulnerability.
Students of international development are familiar with concepts of inequality, poverty, structural barriers to employment, resource shortages, institutional failures, and the myriad of other challenges that can lead to homelessness. But while many seek to apply these concepts abroad and in the workplace, there’s no shortage of these issues right here in D.C. For Francesca, reaching out to the homeless community in D.C. was more than an opportunity to do good–it was a responsibility.
“We are in a very expensive university, and we turn around the corner, and people are in tents,” Realacci said, “so we should do something.”
Co-organizers Max Rappoport and Andrew Lee agree. “There is a lot of potential for our student body to be a force for good in the local community,” said Rappoport. “[‘Volunteering is] also a way to balance the more abstract schoolwork at SAIS with very tangible work that directly benefits individuals.”
“My hope is that more SAIS students can develop a service mindset, which I believe is essential to a professional career in government,” added Lee.
Francesca was also motivated by a sense of frustration with her peers in development over the distance she saw between their work and their beliefs, which solidified her belief that “every person that wants to work in development should be doing development.”
“Sometimes, I’ve heard some controversial conversations [where] people say stuff like ‘Oh, yeah, I just donate to people that have disabilities and are homeless because the others should just stand up and find a job.’” To Realacci, “this is the exact opposite of what we study. We should know how inequality works.”
In March 2023, Francesca sought out the support of collaborators to create SAIS Volunteers, an unofficial initiative among students to coordinate opportunities for and create a channel for communication on local volunteerism. With the help of like-minded co-organizers including Rappoport and Lee, Francesca formalized an ongoing collaboration with the D.C. branch of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic organization dedicated to supporting impoverished, marginalized groups around D.C.
In addition to Francesca’s prior relationship with the Rome branch, where she volunteered back in Italy, Sant’Egidio appealed to the group because of its proximity to SAIS and emphasis on personal connections.
“What I really liked was this personal approach that they have…it’s not just going and giving these people food, and blankets–no. You go there, you talk to them, you care about them, and they feel it,” said Francesca. “That, for me, was very important…these are people. You need to take care [of] their feelings, to give them the warmth and recognition as human beings that they often lack due to their situations.”
Through SAIS Volunteers, every Friday evening, SAISers can sign up to volunteer with nearby encampments. After gathering at a local church in Foggy Bottom, students travel to local groups of unhoused individuals to provide necessities like wet wipes, blankets, warm food, and toiletries, as well as the dignity of personal connection and respect.
In addition to working with the homeless, the organizers have recently debuted another volunteer opportunity for SAISers with the Community of Sant’Egidio: spending time with the elderly. On Sundays, students can now sign up to volunteer at a Dupont Circle nursing home.
Dani Clark, the coordinator of the local Sant’Egidio branch and SAIS alumnus, told the Observer how much they appreciated SAIS Volunteers’ work.
“The students were helpful, respectful, and engaged in understanding the reality of the vulnerable people we serve. They helped in myriad ways from making sandwiches and serving food, to connecting in friendship with the people on the street and nursing home,” said Clark. “As we’ve emerged from the pandemic, connecting in person, especially across boundaries of age, race, and background is sorely needed in our local communities. SAIS may educate people on the macro level policies, histories, and contexts of our world, but nothing beats interpersonal encounter[s] when it comes to understanding humanity.”
While some of the organizers are graduating this month, others will be hanging around a bit longer, which begs the question: what comes next? SAIS Volunteers is not an official club, and given that they started in March, they won’t be able to become one before next semester. Currently, organizers coordinate these opportunities and volunteer entirely on their own time on top of all the different responsibilities SAISers face—projects, readings, job-hunting, internships, and more. With club status, the group could formalize in ways that may increase the amount of outreach they can do, while reducing the individual burden of coordination—not to mention the benefits that come with a budget.
But today, Francesca’s not worried about the future. The engagement among SAISers with the initiative has been remarkable, with 97 group members and counting, many of whom find and promote other volunteer opportunities around the city in the group themselves. With such an appetite for outreach among the student body, Francesca has no doubt that in some shape or form, SAIS Volunteers will stick around.
“You can’t study at SAIS and not care about people suffering,” said Realacci.
But it’s more than an obligation. “It feels good,” she said. “You feel that you did so little, but the impact was so big.”