The kids and I finally got out for some long overdue volunteer work.
Our lives are busy. It's a lot of work to run our own store. We have violin, choir, piano, orchestra, rehearsals, concerts, Army weekends, homework, practicing, projects, exercise... The daily grind alone of meals and laundry and cleaning for five people plus walking the dog is enough to fill an average day, even without an unexpected monkey wrench thrown into the schedule to make things harder.
But I've always felt we should be making time somewhere to help others because we have so much. We never want for food or clothes. We have a home, our health, and most importantly we have each other. I don't know how people alone in this world get by. Too many among us aren't so lucky.
Last week Ian took over the last few hours at the store for me one day, and the kids and I joined a family down the street to a Catholic church downtown where they hand out meals to people in need. I'm so glad we did.
Aden got to hand out desserts, and loved being able to tell people in line they could take two. I handed out bread. Mona was nervous and stuck close to me. She took her job handing each person a plastic spoon and fork very seriously. Quinn stood at the end of the table and handed out packets of salt and pepper. After about 45 minutes we got to take our turn in line and go eat with the same people we'd just served. Then we returned to help dish out the last of the food.
Most of it was as I expected. The volunteers were friendly. It's heartbreaking to see so many people in need. Several had sleeping bags with them, and I explained to my kids that was because they sleep on the street. It felt good to be doing something. It felt bad to know it was not enough.
The number of kids in the line was depressing, but there was also something reassuring about being reminded that kids are kids. One little girl specifically asked Mona if she could have the one blue plastic spoon in her tray, and Mona happily obliged. Mona herself had saved out the one clear plastic fork to use when it came time for her to eat.
Something I was not expecting was to have trouble making conversation during the meal. I think of myself as someone who can talk to almost anyone, but I couldn't find anywhere to start. It seems weird to ask, "Where are you from?" somehow. "What do you do?" isn't really on the table. Clothing doesn't provide good clues since it's possible they didn't have much of a choice about what they were wearing. The weather isn't even a safe topic, because for me to note that, "Boy,
it's really starting to feel like fall" has different meaning when the
person I'm talking to is directly impacted by the drop in temperature
and I will go home to my nice warm house where the weather is
irrelevant. The best I could do was talk about the food in front of us. We speculated about the flavor of a colorful cake, and Mona and I agreed with the man across from us that it was probably banana. I'm hoping next time something will occur to me, or maybe someone else will know where to start. Surely there's a way across that divide.
I don't think enough people realize how precarious our lives truly are. Most of what separates me from the people we were helping is blind luck in terms of who I was born to and what opportunities were available in my life. I'm not more deserving or better. I'm lucky. The most important insurance I have against winding up in the food line as a guest rather than a volunteer is my family. I am
fortunate to have a strong family and if disaster were to strike there are many
places to which we could turn. Even family members from whom I am
currently estranged I believe would step up and assist before seeing my
children end up on the street.
But what if that weren't the case? How many places are there to go and feel safe? I wonder how hard it is to work toward the kind of life I lead without a shower or a bed or regular meals. The people I handed bread to were appreciative. A few were funny. Many seemed tired. All of them seemed entitled to better.
I'm still exploring other volunteering options closer to home because I'd like to help people in our own neighborhood. In the meantime, however, I think we're going to put it on our monthly schedule to go back to St Ben's if they can use us. I'd prefer a more secular organization, but help is help regardless, and that church is doing good work.
Besides, even before we were done for the evening, as I stood beside Aden as she dished out salad and I topped it with dressing, she looked at me and said in earnest, "This is good. Can we please do this again?"
"Yes," I assured her. "Of course we can."