Servizio Fotografico Vaticano

How the St. Thomas Shelter Crew Met the Pope

While all University of St. Thomas students have the option to travel to Rome, where the Minnesota school has another campus, it’s not every day that one of them makes the trip to Italy and gets to meet the pope. However, that’s what happened for Taylor Fox, a junior who became involved with the institution’s Shelter Crew initiative during her sophomore year. 

“Meeting the pope was surreal,” Fox said. “I’ll remember it forever and it was a cool way to start such a moving and inspiring week.”

Fox was one of several students from around the world who had the opportunity to visit Rome for a week, attend Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and meet Pope Francis. The students were even able to take a picture with the pope, a rare opportunity that can only be described as once in a lifetime.

This journey to Rome started on the university’s St. Paul campus.

The Center for the Common Good at St. Thomas applied for the Uniservitate Award 2022, which recognizes quality service-learning projects of Catholic higher education institutions. The Center for the Common Good focused their application on highlighting Shelter Crew, a community engagement initiative that invites students to advance housing justice by joining in solidarity with their neighbors who don’t have access to safe, permanent housing. 

Shelter Crew was chosen as the focus of the nomination due to its incorporation into service-learning courses, engagement with faculty and students, and evidence of being a mutually beneficial collaboration between the university and the community.  

Dustin Killpack, associate director in the Center for the Common Good, noted that students who volunteer with Shelter Crew learn how you move away from the “savior mindset” into the mindset of “No, these aren’t people in need, or people who need to be saved. “These are fellow brothers, sisters and neighbors,” Killpack said. 

“Not many students have the chance to engage with the homeless population. Before they join Shelter Crew, many have stereotypes of what that looks like,” Killpack said, “but then after they participate, they start to realize that if their life circumstances were different, they could be in that person’s shoes, so it’s helping students to gain empathy.”

St. Thomas’ Shelter Crew initiative was selected as one of the 14 worldwide winners this fall semester that received 5,000 euros and complimentary travel to the III Uniservitate Global Symposium in Rome. Fox and Killpack traveled to Rome to participate in the conference and accept the award on behalf of St. Thomas.

The Uniservitate Award recognizes institutions that combine theory and practice to make students agents of social change, while at the same time carrying out projects to provide solutions to problems detected in their communities. The winners hailed from the seven regions that make up the global network of universities of the Uniservitate program.

“The coolest part was I felt that everyone there had passions about service-learning and bettering their community,” Fox said. “One thing that resonated with me was how community engagement looks so different in different places,” she said. 

“It was interesting to see how necessary service-learning is everywhere, but how many shapes and forms it can take, while being impactful and important,” she added.

“At a Catholic institution your mission is more than just educating students,” Killpack said. “Ours includes the language of advancing the common good. Not only what are you going to do for you, but what are you going to do for your community, for your neighbors and for others.” 

For Fox, her takeaway from this entire experience was how much of an impact small things can have and how much of a privilege volunteering is. 

“The more I became involved in Shelter Crew, the more I saw what an impact helping communities has,” said Fox, who remembers what the presenters said about the winners. “They said, ‘You guys are the hope for the world’,” she said. “That’s something we often forget because we see so much bad and seeing all of the other projects was like inspiring to me to create something new.”

Students interested in becoming part of Shelter Crew can email and sign up at the beginning of each semester through an application form on TommieLink.

Shelter Crew partners with Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Habitat for Humanity Twin Cities. Students who participate in the program have the opportunity to work with Catholic Charities shelters and meal service locations throughout the Twin Cities and participate in homebuilding projects through Habitat.