A soup kitchen during the Great Depression
I?ve volunteered a lot in my life ? from historical societies to book drives to events at my child?s school. Most of my volunteering has been around food justice ? forming a coalition to double SNAP coupons at farmer?s markets, cooking at soup kitchens, and holding bake sales for charities.
I?ve volunteered in the dead of summer in ninety-degree heat, on cold blustery days, and in clammy gymnasiums and I?ve learned a thing or two along the way, especially this: Don?t give your time during the holidays.
Right about now you?ve already gasped, thinking ?But it?s the holidays! There are so many people who need cheer! They deserve a hot meal in a warm place. They deserve joy too!?
And you would be absolutely right.
But I want to let you in on a secret: Folks deserve a warm place and a hot meal and ? yes ? joy the rest of the year too. But, in my experience, a lot of holiday do-gooders don?t think about that. And while charitable organizations are always grateful for help ? volunteers and donations are their lifeblood ? they?d be better served with help when they need it most and that might be a rainy day in April rather than on Thanksgiving morning.
I know this because for several years I helped out at the community feast that is held by a church in my town every Thanksgiving. I graduated from peeling vegetables to helping to run the kitchen to finally, one year, running the whole event with another volunteer.
In the four months of planning prior to the big day, I got to see the whole wonderful and awful gamut of human behavior. For every volunteer that gave unselfishly, there were those who came with an agenda. Some wanted to be ?in charge? of something, others wanted to be ?out front? so everyone could see their service. There was plenty of jostling to be on the serving line (side by side with the local politicians) right around the time the local TV news cameras came to cover the event.
Then there were the folks who wanted to teach their kids to be charitable by volunteering on that one day of the year. One lady got so angry when she showed up so late to do decorations that they had already been done. There was nothing for her kids to do and she demanded angrily, ?How will they learn to be socially responsible??
Another coveted position was any spot in the kitchen. We had so many volunteers we had to create 15 to 20 minute time slots just to give everyone a chance to peel a potato and feel they had contributed. Even though we had a team of professionals who could have put together the three hundred-person meal in four or five hours, it took eight or ten ? to give everyone a chance to say they had ?cooked? for the ?needy? on Thanksgiving.Carving the turkeys was another plum spot that people jostled for ? whether or not they had the knife skills to do it.
Ironically, the most important cooks were the ones who showed up quietly at 5am to pick up the turkeys we had seasoned, bagged and placed in roaster pans for them to cook in their home ovens because we didn?t have the space to do fifty-plus turkeys. They returned four hours later to deliver the finished birds without ceremony then went on their way.
Events like these put charity organizers in a tough spot. God knows we are grateful for the help and volunteers are critical. But it?s a tricky tightrope to balance people?s desire to feel good versus the work that needs to be legitimately done. Too often, I?ve found it can be especially hard to ask folks to do the jobs that are the most needed ? like washing dishes at an event serving hundreds, or taking out the garbage ? as opposed to the jobs that just serve their egos.
One year, I had a woman walk out because I asked her to tie up her long hair as she chopped carrots on a prep line that was cheek to jowl with volunteers. Some bristle at being asked to wear gloves. Others don?t like being told how we need the celery or onions chopped ? even by a professional chef.
Other local charitable organizations ? like the homeless shelter nearby ? have told me they are also inundated with calls from those who want to serve food on Thanksgiving. The director thanks them, saying they don?t serve Thanksgiving ? the community feast handles that ? but they?d be grateful for the help the day before or even after. He has very few takers.
And that?s a theme I hear a lot from food charities. The abundance of donations to food pantries or homeless shelters during the holidays is overwhelming ? and appreciated. But when it comes to perishable food, it?s also not sustainable. Come January when the larders are bare, the bounty of November and December is just a memory. And the phones aren?t ringing with calls from volunteers.
Don?t get me wrong, there are as many amazing, selfless ego-free volunteers as the more me-centric ones like I?ve described here but I?ve often asked myself what volunteers who come with strings are really after. When you work with stressed populations enough you understand something very quickly ? the holiday movie of the week moment when you?re serving food to a homeless man who looks like Santa Claus doesn?t come. No one takes your hands, with tears in their eyes, and says ?you?ve saved me.?
And nor should they.
The fact is that there are millions of people in America right now who are struggling. Not all are on the street, not all look ?poor? but without soup kitchens and food pantries, they couldn?t feed themselves or their families. That truth doesn?t magically disappear after the holidays. These are folks who live lives of constant stress and despair ? often they?re angry about their situations, or depressed, or just plain weary. They?re not here to be part of your Hallmark moment.
Volunteering is a wonderful thing. If you want to do it, you?d no doubt be welcomed with open arms. In its best iteration, volunteering does much to fill the soul of the volunteer while helping others. It?s a good thing to be connected to a community and to feel satisfied from your efforts. Certainly, volunteers who feel good about their service continue to serve ? and that is good for society at large. But do yourself and the folks you want to help a favor before you jump in: Examine your motives.
Do you want to help in order to really aid another person or just to check the box that says you?re a good human being?
Are you trying to assuage your own guilt for having enough or too much?
Ask yourself whether you?re willing to volunteer when it?s not glamorous and there are no accolades ? in other words when your help is most needed.
Are you willing to still do it without props and, sometimes, even bearing the brunt of a desperate person?s anger or despair?
Giving your time on Thanksgiving ? or Christmas ? is great. My friend who often volunteers with me is a wise man who points out that there is something more painful about being in need during the holidays. Because of this, he says, volunteers matter a lot during this time of year. He is right.
But if your chosen organization is full-up of help on the big days why not make a holiday pledge to give your time, effort, and donations in the run up to Thanksgiving or Christmas? Serve a meal at a soup kitchen during those hectic days of November and December when folks are rushing from holiday party to holiday event ? and those with nowhere to go feel particularly lost. Or consider making a promise to volunteer at some other time of year, when perhaps it?s needed more. Another great idea is to hold a Friendsgiving Event: Either on Thanksgiving or another day hold a dinner party or potluck in return for a donation to No Kid Hungry, an organization that feeds children all year long.
You?d be surprised how fulfilling it is to serve on any and every one of the other 365 days in a year.