At Saint Vincent de Paul Free Dining Room in Oakland, Charlotte Huguenot and Dianna Mota scooped up mounds of potato salad from a giant bowl and plunked hamburgers and doughnuts onto cafeteria trays to serve a steady stream of hungry patrons as they lined up at the counter.
Sophomore Jessica Beltran watched as some diners wolfed down their food, walked out the door and then came back in for a second meal. The dining room serves nearly a thousand meals a day, and for many this is their only meal of the day.
"I have a lot of mixed emotions," she said. "I like talking with the people, but it's sad...the reason they're here. I feel like I'm going to cry sometimes, but I hold it in."
The students were among hundreds from Saint Mary's College, including incoming freshmen, who took time out during this year's Weekend of Welcome to help out on projects in Oakland, Alameda and on campus as part of the annual Saturday of Service sponsored by CILSA, the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action.
Incoming freshmen also pitched in to feed the waves of hungry souls. Agueda (Aggie) Gomez served grateful patrons from a metal cart loaded with meals, and Carl Dalmacio and Kali Hardcastle doled out water with a smile, even though they had to politely tell the diners that, no, there was "no more Coke."
A few blocks away from the free dining room, freshmen Will Dudley and Natalie Livingston, who went to high school together in Santa Cruz, swept up dirt and debris at a skate park in DeFremery Park, with a little help from Jaden, a 10-year-old who hangs out at the park.
"It's gonna be a lot nicer now that it's clean," Jaden said. "It was nasty!"
In another part of the park, freshmen Allie Madson and Evan Falco bagged up markers, notebooks and other supplies to distribute during a back-to-school party hosted by What Now America, which operates a free drop-in center for children in the West Oakland neighborhood. Like many of the Saturday of Service volunteers, both came to Saint Mary's with lots of experience in similar projects. Madson had cleaned up parks and even cemeteries with her church group, and Falco worked in an orphanage in Mexico when he was in high school.
In Moraga, a small army of student volunteers swarmed over the college's Legacy Garden to clear weeds from the rock-hard adobe soil, paint potting tables, nail together trellises, dig terraces and build retaining walls out of heavy chunks of recycled concrete.
Freshman Matt Belle attacked the stubborn weeds as if he had a grudge against them. He has plenty of experience with hard work -- he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity back in Dallas. "Always the hard manual labor," he said. "I love Habitat."
Kelsey Peterson, Nathalie Lambrecht and Krysta Worthen threw all their combined muscle into digging a trench for a retaining wall. They, too, came to the job with some serious skills. Lambrecht has worked with Rebuilding Together, and Peterson even had experience working on adobe -- she helped restore an adobe fort in an earlier service project.
"This is tougher," she said, as her shovel clanged against the earth. "It was easier breaking up a wall."
Other students on campus packed up school supplies donated during CILSA's "Plenty Enough Stuff" campaign to ship to children at a school in New Orleans that is still recovering from the long-term economic effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Back in Oakland, another crew of Saint Mary's volunteers dug up invasive plants and cleared a spot for a garden in South Prescott Park, a narrow slice of green wedged between industrial buildings and Interstate 880. As cars whizzed by on the other side of a concrete-block sound wall, the students attacked their projects with an intensity that bodes well for their success in college.
Senior Matt Zeidan jumped up and down on his shovel as if it was a Pogo stick to try to dislodge a particularly stubborn plant, as sophomore Kristy Abel and freshmen Dolan Kay and Steven Israel dug around the roots.
A park supervisor wandered up and admired their work ethic. "These folks are amazing," she said. "They took on the toughest jobs. They said they wanted a challenge."
A few miles away, dozens of Saint Mary's students pitched in to work on a newly planted garden of drought-tolerant plants for Alameda Point Collaborative, which provides housing and supportive services for about 500 formerly homeless people.
Afterward, they took a few minutes to break into groups and talk about why they signed on for the Saturday of Service and what they'd learned from it. One student said he was "impressed with everything that the WoW volunteers were doing to welcome us, and I wanted to give something back." Another joked, "I came for the free food."
Sasha Hicks, who lives in the Alameda Point community and works on the garden, marveled at the students' enthusiasm as she stooped to adjust the sprinkler system and smoothed her sweaty bandanna back from her purple bangs.
"They're so helpful and nice and willing to do anything," she said, shaking her head and laughing. "And the girls -- they really worked hard. I told 'em; â€˜You go, girls.' They can come back anytime they want!"