Holy Spirit seventh-grader has volunteered for homeless organization for five years
by John Schultz
Special to the Leaven
Saturday morning. For a lot of kids, it means an all-you-can-eat buffet of sugary cereal, mind-numbing cartoons, and a few extra rounds on the Xbox.
For soon-to-be 7th- grader Robert Dupin, however, Saturday mornings sometimes mean a trek into the inner city for a six-hour shift at Uplift, a Kansas City, Mo., homeless outreach organization.
“I volunteer the second Saturday of each month, and I’ve been doing it about five years now,” said the Overland Park boy. “I started when I was seven.”
For his efforts, Robert has accomplished something even his older schoolmates at Holy Spirit School in Overland Park haven’t been able to achieve: He was named Uplift volunteer of the month.
The honor means Robert got a memorial railroad spike to recognize his achievement, as well as his name on a plaque in the Uplift headquarters at 15th and Prospect. It also means ending the day feeling a little more fulfilled than one might with the average slate of Saturday morning childhood activities.
“It makes me feel better to help out homeless people whatever way I can, so that they can live a better life,” Robert said. “It’s crazy how many homeless people there are, and I really want to help out.”
So what drives the 12-year-old to defy the stereotypes of his age group and give up a Saturday each month to help the homeless?
“We have a theory in our family that you do good, and good comes back to you,” said his mother, Rita Dupin.
In laboring for Uplift and earning his award, Robert was simply heeding that theory.
‘Good comes back to you’
Frank Fiorini believes a lot of good has come back to him in the years since he started Uplift. His life, after all, is better for getting to work with his army of dedicated volunteers like Robert, he said.
“We recently celebrated our 20th anniversary,” added Fiorini, another Holy Spirit parishioner. “We started in ’91 with a few people that either volunteered or worked at other agencies and saw that enough outreach wasn’t being done.”
So Uplift set about the business of helping to meet the needs of the homeless where they were. The organization collects donated goods, loads them onto trucks, and routinely shuttles them to the homeless along several preset routes. The donations they can’t use go on to the Sisters of St. Francis in Independence.
“We try to meet all kinds of needs: clothing, hygiene,” said Fiorini. “We make lemonade for them this time of year.
“Our aim is not to propagate them on the street. We just help them get along; we help them survive.”
Over the years, Fiorini figures his organization has done as much good as it could, providing meals, securing eyeglasses, getting the homeless to doctors and dentists.
“We began very humbly. . . . When I started, we had one truck. We had ladies doing cooking. We had a cook for each night, and they put the food in pots and pans and kept it warm in blankets,” he said. “We were serving maybe 30-35 people.
“Now we’re serving 120-130. We’ll get as high as 160 people. We have three trucks, and we’ve just grown by leaps and bounds as far as our donations. We’re all-volunteer; no paid staff. We don’t get any state or city or federal funding.
“That’s just how we’ve progressed — doing a lot with a little.”
Volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization. The good news is that people are drawn to help the program fulfill its mission. Fiorini said he can never remember how many volunteers he has at any given time, so he always ballparks it at about 150.
“Boy, we’ve got some volunteers that have stuck with us for a lot of years,” he said. “They just keep coming back.”
The Dupins, as a family, keep coming back.
‘A little more responsibility’
“We foster this program on the second Saturday for elementary students so they can get service hours,” explained Fiorini. “A lot of the high school students are old enough to go out on our runs. The younger ones just stay here and help load.”
The Dupins, in particular, have embraced the student program. Robert’s older brother Richard, now 25, started with Uplift in the third grade. His sister Bridget, now a recent high school graduate, started, like Robert, in first grade.
The family knows Fiorini well. They’re fellow parishioners. Rita went to Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park with one of Fiorini’s sons.
And the Dupins’ dedication never fails to impress Fiorini. Neither does Robert.
On a Saturday morning in early July, Robert weaved his thin frame between the dozen or so older (in most cases, much older) volunteers in Uplift’s warehouse.
The mid-July heat wave was just beginning to make itself comfortable in the KC metro. Even with its doors thrown open, Uplift’s facility was only mildly cooler than outside.
None of that seemed to faze Robert. He attacked his job with gusto, jabbing donated clothing into plastic sacks like he was working a heavy punching bag; hoisting crates of cans like there was a prize for speed.
“I’ve seen him keep up with teenage boys loading trucks,” said Fiorini. “He’s a very humble little gentleman. . . . But he’s always just real anxious to do whatever you want him to do.”
Robert said his shifts “can be real busy — I’ve crushed boxes; I do socks, clothes, packing. I’ve had to organize canned goods; make donation tags. There’s a lot more stuff.
“But it’s a very fun place. It’s really a fun way to donate my time.”
Robert’s mom said her son has “always been excited to help. And now that he’s getting older, he wants to do a little more. He’s anxious to start taking on a little more responsibility.”
‘Heart of gold’
Robert’s desire for more responsibility is no secret.
Michele Watson, principal of Holy Spirit notes that volunteerism is an essential part of education at her school. In fact, it’s a requirement at some grade levels.
“But that’s for middle-schoolers prepping for confirmation,” Watson said. “All the service he does is of his own free will.”
“Robert Dupin has a heart of gold,” she continued. “He’s the boy in the building who always has a smile on his face and is always willing to help whenever it’s needed. . . . He’s just a really great kid. We need more kids like him in our world today.”
In his spare time, Robert runs track and plays soccer, and is a NASCAR fan. (Jeff Gordon is his favorite driver). He hopes eventually to become an engineer or a mechanic who works on and builds car engines.
In addition to Uplift, he also volunteers his time at Holy Spirit’s garage sale, the Walk for Life, and the Walk for Diabetes.
Considering his — and his siblings’ — dedication to service, Rita Dupin considers herself a lucky parent.
“I’ve really never had to pull or tug at my kids to do this,” she said. “If they’re tired and I think they’ve had too much in any given week, I don’t even mention volunteering. I want it to be something they want to do.”
“I’m mainly proud of them, just because they understand who they are. They understand their faith, and they’re very good to other people,” she added.
Robert said he sees himself sticking around with Uplift for a long time.
“There’s a lot I really like there,” he said. “If someone doesn’t know what to do to help, Uplift’s a good way to start helping.
“I know it was a good start for me.”
His mother says she thinks she knows why her kids have shown so much interest in helping the homeless.
“My approach is we have always looked at what we have. We have a roof over our heads — we don’t have a lot, but we have a roof and we have a meal on the table every night. My kids are very thankful for that, and they realize how lucky they are.”