My Volunteer Journal: Episode 17–A Lesson in Presumption while Passing Out Food

73071296Years ago I asked a friend to accompany me to a soup kitchen to volunteer for Thanksgiving.  Their avoidance, scared questions and presumptions about the homeless lit the fire in my head that would eventually lead to this blog and my mission to educate people about volunteerism.  So as I set out to serve food to the homeless in mid April I felt that at least my project had come full circle though it was far from being complete.

Arriving at a church* to help with their weekly meal I received a badge and was assigned to the cookies and oranges table.  My job was to talk to each person and then package the food they would like to take with them. I tried to organize everything as that afternoon’s patrons were let into the large banquet hall.  A line quickly formed at my table. Because I’m terrible at separating and opening plastic bags I blabbered like a moron to each person who approached the front of the line in an attempt to buy time. At one point a kind woman in a worn brown jacket took my stack of plastic bags from me and offered to pass them out to the other people in line to save me time.

The variety of people who are homeless or who just need a free meal would shock some who assume homelessness and poverty only effects certain races, age groups, or medical conditions. Perhaps it would be comforting to know the factors or “road” that leads to homelessness. If you new the path it could be avoided.  However, as the hundred plus people moved through my line I saw the fresh clean faces of individuals who looked like they were on lunch break from the office, the worn tattered faces of the long displaced, young teens, and older women and men who wheel themselves around in barely functioning wheelchairs.  Homelessness does not discriminate – all races, sexes and ages are welcome to participate. My mother often said that we are all one unfortunate event from homelessness, so true.

My station quickly ran out of food, so I moved to the toiletries table.  Although we were offering around a dozen items like soap, shampoo, and toothpaste most people would only take what they needed: a woman wanted conditioner and a comb, a man wanted deodorant and a razor.

The time flew and as everyone departed the building I realized I also had to leave or I would miss a conference call. I approached the hardworking director of the program while he was cleaning tables to say goodbye.  I thought I could also get a few more tid bits of information about this program for the blog. I picked a bad time to talk to him. He was busy. I was trying to quickly tell him how this website worked and about my mission to educate the masses about volunteering.  But instead of saying it concisely I started talking about how I was trying to use all media forms to educate including video.

Isn’t it amazing how a misunderstanding can snowball?  He started getting angry and as I tried to explain myself quickly so I could make my conference call I kept digging a hole.  Finally he looked up and snapped, “I don’t see why helping an actress advance her screen career is good for our mission work.”

Ouch. That shot hit me right in the solar plexus. I was stunned.  I didn’t know what to say. I wish he hadn’t known I was an actress. If I had been a doctor would he have understood? I had to leave.

As I walked to my car I felt that familiar emotional tightness in my throat.  I kept thinking about what I should have said, “I am trying to show people that it is easy and fun to help others.” As I repeated the phrase in my head I started to cry.  Well, some days it’s easier to help than others.  

It took me two weeks to write this blog.  Every time I started I quickly found something better to do: Oh, I need to finish another chapter in my children’s book! Oops, time to go jog. Wow, I need to bake some chocolate chip cookies.  The reasons were endless, but eventually I had to write this down or my mission would be stuck.

I urge everyone to volunteer at a soup kitchen at least once.  The individuals who attend the daily meal services are polite, cheerful, and thankful.  Inside a meal service hall you will see humanity at it’s strongest and best.

As far as the misunderstanding: I am an actress, but I am also a writer and activist. I realize a fine line exists between exploitation and education.  I’ll continue to walk the line and hope I don’t wobble.

*Name withheld, however, many religious as well as secular organizations run soup kitchen programs at least once a week – Click here to find one.