While many are yawning awake at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to put a turkey in the oven, Joel Menendez is already on a bus with his family and 50-plus high school students, headed for the St. Francis Breadline on 31st Street in New York City. It's a trip they take on Christmas Eve, as well. During each visit, the group passes out 500 backpacks that they filled the night before, loaded with hats, gloves, toiletries and sandwiches.
"During Christmas, we stand on the steps of the church and sing carols," says Menendez, a second-year Doctor of Physical Therapy student. "One year, a man asked me if he could sing with us. He started belting out 'O Holy Night,' and it was amazing. He had so much talent, and yet here he is needing food and clothing. It put into perspective for me how much we take for granted," Menendez recalls.
It's an outlook that he plans to bring to his professional practice, as well. "When my family and I serve our community, we are thinking about how much these people are in need," says Menendez, who has spent his holiday mornings at the Breadline since he was in eighth grade. "As a physical therapist, my patients' needs will be at the top of my priority list," he adds.
Named a Servant Leader Scholar by the Seton Hall Center for Vocation and Servant Leadership, Menendez is also active in his community as a board member for the Franciscan Community Development Center and the Rebeka Verea Foundation, which educates teens about reckless driving.
"I am not the kind of leader that stands in front of the room and commands attention," Menendez says. "I'm quieter. I like to let my actions do the talking."