When the new $12.9 million Blanchet House opened for its first free dinner last month, volunteers from Central Catholic High School were there.
For three years, students, staff, parents and alumni from the Southeast Portland school have come to Old Town on Monday nights to serve and meet homeless guests. This night was different.
Instead of eating in what now seems like a serviceable cave, diners sat in a well-lit, open room. Food came from a roomy kitchen, not the cramped galley of the century old building that served as Blanchet House from 1952 until this fall.
The ministry was founded by University of Portland students and named after Oregon's first archbishop.
The old Blanchet dining hall held about 40 diners. Hundreds waited in line outside for a spot, rain, snow or shine. The new room holds more than 80 — with room between tables — and has space for an indoor queue. Massive windows let in light and offer a view of the Steel Bridge.
Tyleur Kotzian-Upshaw, a senior, says the more dignified setting must make the diners feel better about their lives, like they matter more.
"I like talking and listening, so I hear people's stories," said Kotzian-Upshaw, who intends to work in the juvenile justice system.
"It's kind of powerful to see how people who are poor live," said Allie Cichoke, a senior.
"It's interesting to see a different side of Portland," added James Ellis, also a senior. He envisions supporting Blanchet House for years to come.
In the kitchen putting pizza on plates on this night is Valerie Harrington, a member of All Saints Parish and wife of Central Catholic's president. She finds the new Blanchet House notable for its aura of hospitality.
"I would think people feel very welcome here," Harrington said. "It puts everyone on an even playing field."
Paneling in the Blanchet House dining room is made of wood reclaimed from the building that stood on the spot previously. A Central Catholic graduate owns the reclamation company.
"We get to serve, but the folks here serve us more," said Alisa Sinnott, director of Christian service at Central Catholic. She was waiting tables, as she often does. Her son was in the kitchen serving up desserts.
"People here create an awareness of how people end up on the streets," Sinnott said. "It's not by choice."
Homeless people, despite their situation, also teach the Central Catholic community about joy and appreciating gifts, said Sinnott. On top of that, students and other volunteers from the school form a tighter community.
"We get kids from Central Catholic who finish school, then come back on spring break from college to volunteer again," said Robert Kelsheimer, floor supervisor at Blanchet House.