Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What I've Learned from Volunteering at the Food Bank

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've been working at the food bank for about nine months now. I'm not one of the stalwarts who work there as a full-time job, though, I just volunteer for a four-hour shift on Tuesdays. Here are a few of the things I've learned.
  • When you're restocking desserts, everyone's your friend.
  • There are a few obese people, but not nearly as many as you'd expect. And they're not always the ones picking up a dozen cupcakes, either. That person is likely to be a mom who is thrilled that she will have cupcakes to take to her kid's school on his birthday.
  • The kids who accompany their parents to the food bank are, on average, far better behaved than the kids I see at the grocery store.
  • For every person who is there looking for full-fat milk and white bread, there is someone else that is thrilled there is hummus and almond milk this week. Well, OK, that's an exaggeration. Probably for every TWO white bread people there is someone who wants hummus, but you get the idea.
  • I don't need to rush around in a panic to get everything out. I'm almost over my bleeding heart panic stage (HURRY! THE POOR PEOPLE ARE ALMOST OUT OF ORANGE JUICE!). If I take my time and wait patiently when there's a knot of people I need to move through, everyone (including me) is happier and less stressed. And if I take my time, I notice people more, the real individuals, not just a crowd.
  • Many of our clients are funny, kind, and intelligent. Some of them have obvious physical disabilities or illnesses. For the most part, they are patient and grateful. Occasionally I hear entitled griping, but not nearly as often as I hear genuine gratitude for the work we do.
  • There's such a thing as helping too much. I was guilty of this several times when I first started (and I still have to fight it). Example: not long after I started, a trans woman showed up. I can't even imagine how much courage it takes to live in this small, conservative town as a trans, so I was practically falling all over myself to help her find things. I think it came across as condescending, though, because she's avoided me ever since. My new motto is to be friendly, kind, and patient, but hang back a bit and wait till someone asks for help. As should have been obvious from the start, most people are pretty competent to figure things out for themselves.
If you ever need to use the food bank, pay attention to how things work and ask questions (politely) to help you figure things out. There are better and worse times of day to come based on when deliveries arrive and what's happening generally. Much of the food we distribute comes from local grocery stores, so the week after a holiday is a great time to pick up desserts (after Valentine's Day, we were practically shoving pink cakes into people's carts). Local fishermen donated so much fish last fall that people were getting sick of it (salmon? again?).

I was thinking while I was restocking milk and juice today about Jesus's phrase "The poor you will have always with you." It's used too often as an excuse to not help the poor and disadvantaged. But where it works best for me is in learning to moderate my own desire to help against the endless need out there. There's no way to phrase it without sounding smug and complacent, because obviously I could do more than I do. I could do way more. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, it's a little silly that I should make any claim at all that I've done enough to deserve a break. But at some point I can stop. Maybe that's all I will say about that.

1 comment:

Cheery-O said...

I love your insight about "learning to moderate your own desire to help against the endless need." I tend to feel guilty about every volunteer opportunity I don't sign up for, and occasionally I remind myself that God is God, and I'm just one of his children, not second in command or "god-in-training." The guilt thing really does rule me if I'm not careful.