This soup kitchen operates on the model of a restaurant. Volunteers, clad in the standard uniform of baseball cap, apron, and rubber gloves, prepare the food, set and wait tables, and clean up. Guests find a seat at a carefully set table where most of their hot and cold meal already awaits them. They eat, drink, socialize, and leave. Many ask for multiple helpings and – with the complete support and assistance of the volunteers – take home bags of extra food for later or tomorrow.
No stranger to soup kitchens, I was impressed by the smooth, efficient, and well-organized operation at this particular kitchen. Everyone was in everyone else’s way, but no one seemed to mind. Some of the people I met have been volunteering at this soup kitchen for many years; some were first-timers like me.
I was put in charge of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; an assignment I was happy to have and immediately enjoyed. One hundred and sixty sandwiches later, despite an aching back, I felt a sense of accomplishment beyond my expectations.
I also liked being a waiter for the guests at my assigned table. The eight men and women I served were no different than customers at any other restaurant. Their appreciation for the abundant food and attentive service was obvious and I was struck throughout the day by the quiet dignity that characterized the entire experience for both parties in this most meaningful enterprise. Being served by a ‘waiter’ while you sit at your table at a soup kitchen strikes me as an obviously superior format than standing in line with an empty plate and having each food item doled out to you.
So why am I writing this commentary about a four hour volunteer turn at a soup kitchen? “Big deal,” I found myself asking as I typed this late into the night. I suppose I wanted to share this with you because it was a reminder of how very fulfilling it can be to give of yourself in ways that are different and out of your normal routine. Perhaps this might encourage some readers to find a volunteer involvement of some kind that would provide similar satisfaction. Most people who volunteer their time and energy, usually to provide something to those less fortunate, report emotional responses unlike any other. One of my assignments as a disaster mental health volunteer for the Red Cross after both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina was to “debrief” first responders and volunteers returning from Ground Zero and New Orleans. Invariably, and in addition to stories of shock and horror at what they had experienced, came the reports of deep fulfillment and unparalleled satisfaction at having been able to help those in need and whose life experiences and circumstances were so very different from their own. Often, this provides a volunteer an opportunity to better appreciate his or her own good fortune and that is something of immeasurable value.