The charity at Kayrós Yellow House on the outskirts of Milan (Photo: Giovanni Dinatolo)

Kayrós: Is this truly enough?

An evening with those who prepare dinner for the young people welcomed by Fr. Claudio Burgio. In the April issue of Traces, the story of charitable work in the community on the outskirts of Milan.
Paola Ronconi

An unusual characteristic marks the Kayrós homes: there are no knives. If you decide to make risotto with pumpkin for the ten or so residents of the Yellow House, you have to peel and cut the pumpkin with a knife loaned to you by the neighboring house, the kind with a rounded blade. It’s hard going, but safety is the top priority for the young people hosted here and those who come to cook. We are in the outskirts of Milan in the Vimodrone area. Fr. Claudio Burgio founded Kayrós, a residence for minors in difficulty, sent there by the juvenile court, social services, or law enforcement. Today it hosts young people in the midst of ongoing criminal proceedings, in collaboration with Milan’s Center for Juvenile Justice. The Yellow House hosts new arrivals, so it is the facility with the youngest and often the most rebellious residents. The interior bears the signs of the residents’ moods: a few kitchen cabinets are missing their doors and an educator walks by with a new toilet seat.

Stefano and Agnese are at home here. He is doing his doctorate in physics, and she teaches math. Every two weeks they come to fix dinner for the residents. For some years now, various groups have been taking turns doing charitable work at Kayrós. It’s 7:00 p.m. Before they start cooking, they stand at the kitchen counter and read from The Meaning of Charitable Work. “Charity is the law of being and comes before natural likes and dislikes and feelings.” Some residents poke their heads in; there’s a quick exchange of handshakes and hellos, and they disappear. “We can ‘do for others’ while lacking any enthusiasm. There may very well be no so-called ‘concrete’ result. For us, the only ‘concrete’ attitude is attention to the person; that is, love for him,” they read.

“Charity, attention to the person,” Stefano repeats, and then comments: “But is this truly enough? No, the way I see it, in loving there needs to be some recognition; you need the other in some way to perceive what you’re doing and to give back in return. If I pay attention to you and you don’t even realize it, I have to wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Here, we constantly feel transparent; it’s rare for any of them to enter into a relationship with us.” He’s got a point: it’s a provocation to be dealt with. Stefano continues: “I wonder what these evenings at Kayrós have to do with my life and my fiancé.” They relate to his life because they teach him another way to love: gratuitously. Once Fr. Burgio told those who come to do charitable work that his kids need “normality,” people they can treat “normally,” because they’ve always lived in violent contexts and dramatic situations. But you can’t take for granted that they understand what “normal” means.

“They rarely say ‘thank you’ to us,” though Agnese says it happens when they’ve eaten particularly well. One evening Myrko (the names used here are not their real names), a Roma boy, agreed to cook with Stefano. That evening they were frying potatoes. Unfortunately, Myrko dumped the cut potatoes all at once into the pan, causing the oil to cool, so that the result was a yellow mush. After dinner Stefano said, “It didn’t turn out very well, but did you like cooking with me?” The reply was, “No, it was disgusting.” Stefano didn’t take it personally, though, maybe because he’s learning that “it is not we who make them happy,” as the booklet says. This is doing for others, not out of enthusiasm, but just doing it.

Since September Agnese has been teaching in a school well known for its student body from the elite and very wealthy families of Milan. “My students have problems that appear different from those of the residents here, but deep down, they are alone, too. They have lots of money and the designer clothes that the Kayrós kids would like, but they’re on their own in living the difficulties of life.” It is a challenge for Agnese to see the gap between one of her classes and this kitchen, between kids who have everything and others who often have nobody outside these walls. “I come here and do charitable work, and the next day I ask myself, ‘What did I see?’ Maybe just a lot of anger. When I think about my students, I hope that they encounter someone at school who cares about them. This is why I prepare dinner here at Kayrós, to learn this hope.”

Alex comes into the kitchen. Each and every finger is tattooed, and he has a cross tattooed next to his eye. He keeps his sweatshirt hood over his head and is more taciturn than usual. He’s hurting, and won’t even kick a soccer ball around with the others after dinner, but his gaze… His eyes don’t disclose what he has seen in his young life, but speak of an abyss filled to the brim with the wrong things and a need for redemption. Only an exaggerated good can fill this abyss and give him peace, a bit like the Samaritan woman, who had filled her pitcher with five husbands, and now was trying with some water when He arrived.

Stefano tells us that one evening “an educator, pointing to Samir sitting in a corner, told us, ‘It’s not a good evening for him, leave him alone.’” That day Samir’s friend had died, hit by a train. Even so, Stefano asked him if he wanted to talk about it. “Do you really give a shit?” the boy asked. When Stefano said yes, Samir pulled a photo of his friend out of his jeans pocket. “Not even a good-looking girl would cheer me up.” That eveningAgnese understood the words of the booklet: “I do not know what the other truly needs nor can I measure or possess it. It is a measure that I do not possess; it is a measure that is in God.”

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In the meantime, the risotto is bubbling away. In a pan next to it the sausage for the non-Muslims is sizzling. Stefano and Agnese also work on getting the table set. Everyone sits down and enjoys the risotto. The conversation, some of it quite off-color, ebbs and flows. Stefano stands up and interrupts them to make an announcement. “I’ve given my girlfriend an engagement ring. I’m getting married!” There is some halfhearted applause and congratulations. The comments around the table reveal that getting married is something very far off, not only because they are young, but because it is so “normal” that it seems impossible.

It is time to go. People get in their cars to return to their own homes with the faces and eyes of these kids in their minds and a feeling of pained love at the thought of each one. I’m reminded of a friend’s words: “I wish some of them would fall in love with what we’ve fallen in love with! But for this to happen, we have to burn with passion for people, that Christ may reach them.”