When one of my closest friends from home found out about my 30/30 Birthday Challenge, she jumped at the opportunity to recruit me as a volunteer for the nonprofit organization she works at. “Have you ever volunteered at a food bank before?” she inquired. While I had participated in a variety of different volunteer opportunities throughout my teens and early 20’s, I scanned through my memory and realized that a food bank had never made the list. In the spirit of being open to trying any new opportunities that come my way during the 30 day challenge, I enthusiastically agreed to dedicate day eight to seeing what it was like to volunteer at a food bank.
However, my willingness to volunteer had come with one tiny request: I wanted to be able to blog about the experience. This meant I needed to get the full behind-the-scenes picture of what takes place at the St. Vincent de Paul of Seattle/King County (SVDP) headquarters. Danielle Johnston, SVDP’s Marketing and Communication Manager (also the close friend from home that I previously mentioned), graciously agreed to serve as our tour guide, providing us with information about how the organization operates and what sort of services it offers. I have fond memories of tagging along with my dad to the SVDP Burien thrift store as a kid, spending what seemed like hours scouring the shelves of the book section for something that caught my eye. But as I learned on my tour, the thrift stores are only one of the many ways that the St. Vincent de Paul mission to “offer person-to-person service to the poor and the suffering” is carried out.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, SVDP offers a variety of services to people in need across Seattle and King County, reaching over 230,000 people in 2013 alone. Part of our tour included seeing volunteers in action on the direct helpline, which serves callers from throughout the county by connecting them with the appropriate St. Vincent de Paul program or community partner. One particular SVDP program that impressed me was the “Conference Services” program which is composed of groups of volunteers in each neighborhood who provide home visits to their neighbors in need in order to prevent evictions, assist with funds to avoid utility shut-offs and more. However, these are not short-term, band-aid solutions. If during the home visit it’s revealed that unemployment, mental illness or inadequate education are at the source of the problem, individuals and families are referred to case managers who can offer short and long-term case management to help overcome these barriers.
The food bank is another one of the many services offered by St. Vincent de Paul. My mom had joined in on the chance to volunteer at a food bank (her first time too), and we were both greeted with open arms and a table full of delicious, homemade food to keep our bellies full during the four hour shift that we were signed up for. Before we hit the floor, all of the volunteers were brought together for a short meeting that served to introduce the first-timers, announce any important news and provide us with a pep talk before the doors opened and the fun began.
At this meeting I learned that SVDP employees spend their first day on the job at the food bank so that they can see firsthand the people that their work is ultimately going to help. I could not think of a better way to help employees become more engaged in their work than by putting a face to the people they’re helping and thereby increasing their commitment to the St. Vincent de Paul mission. After spending only four hours in the company of employees and volunteers, I too felt committed to the organization’s cause. And I discovered that I wasn´t the only one who´d felt this way after volunteering at the food bank. Throughout the morning I had the chance to meet numerous fellow volunteers who are passionate about the work that SVDP is carrying out. Many of them are thrift store employees who come in to volunteer on their day off, while others, despite having begun their volunteer work due to court-ordered community service, have continued coming back to help long after their community service has ended.
And I can certainly see why they would choose to return every Tuesday and Thursday. While I had expected that the individuals coming in would be dragging their feet, heads down, a look of shame or frustration in their eyes, what I was greeted with was entirely the opposite. Many of the people coming in actually had smiles on their faces and even those who spoke very little English responded with a polite ¨no thank you¨ when I tried to offer them cans of sweet corn or kidney beans. However, it was soon easy to see why the environment left them grinning. Volunteers work hard to make sure that a visit to the food bank is not an unpleasant or uncomfortable experience. The non-stop joking of the veteran volunteers with the regular customers made the time fly by and even made me forget the sad reality of the situation that many of these visitors to the food bank were facing. St. Vincent de Paul is doing something remarkable by creating an environment in which individuals can possibly even look forward to coming in and picking up food donations for themselves and their family.
However, between the laughs and smiles there was still plenty of heart wrenching reality to let sink in. Although not everyone visiting the food bank is homeless, many of them turned down foods that would require refrigeration or access to a kitchen for cooking. And many of those being served are immigrants from SE Asia, who hesitated to accept the canned vegetables I offered to them, explaining that they didn´t even know what to make with them. I couldn´t help but reflect on the tragedy of this situation. Of the many people who after having relocated to the ¨land of opportunity¨ may find themselves in a situation that requires them accept donations of foods foreign to them. It makes the frequently cited complaint of a lack of organic peanut butter, and other American middle class staples, in Spain seem trivial.
One of the biggest surprises during my time at the food bank was to see that most of the people coming in for food only took what they needed. ¨I´ve still got some at home, ¨ ¨I don´t know if I´ll like it, I wouldn´t want to waste it, ¨ and ¨someone else might need it more, ¨ were among the types of comments I heard coming from people who turned down food. But it was the note on which the day ended that really blew me away. At 2pm the doors closed and an announcement was made that it was now the volunteers’ turn to go through the line to fill a bag to take home with them. As it turns out, those smiling, laughing faces that I had been working alongside all morning were also people in need. Person-to-person. The St. Vincent de Paul mission statement could not be more accurate.
While I won´t be able to return to the SVDP food bank until next summer, I encourage everyone in King County to consider signing up to volunteer. You can learn all about how to get involved at the food bank, as well as other volunteer opportunities available at SVDP by visiting the Volunteer Descriptions page on their website. And if you’re unable to commit to a volunteer position at this time, there are other ways to help St. Vincent de Paul as well. Besides a monetary donation, the best way you can help to support the organization´s programs, such as the food bank, is to shop at their thrift stores which serve as the main source of funding for their various programs. To learn more about St. Vincent de Paul and how you can help make a difference, visit their website here.
In the past few years since moving to Spain, I´ve let my passion for community service fall to the wayside, despite the fact that I’m well aware of how it benefits society and even my own mental and physical health. Studies have shown that it increases gratitude (which has many benefits in itself), provides you with a greater sense of optimism and happiness and can even add years to your life. But what I really needed was the actual experience of being side-by-side with other volunteers, and looking into the eyes of the people that I was helping. No statistics on the benefits of volunteering can substitute the warming of your heart and the awareness of our humanness, which only comes from getting out there and giving volunteering a try yourself. Thank you to all of the staff and volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul for reminding me of this and for allowing me (and my mom!) to be part of the food bank team on Tuesday, August 19th. “I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people living ordinary lives” –Tracy Chapman.
Interested in getting more involved in your community, but living outside of King County? To find volunteer opportunities across the United States visit Volunteer Match.
For those of you looking for a way to combine travel and volunteering outside of the United States, please read the following articles on questions to ask before pursuing a voluntourism program. Go Overseas offers a directory of overseas volunteer opportunities reviewed by individuals who have participated in them themselves.
- Voluntourism, Who Are You Helping?
- As Voluntourism Explodes in Popularity Who’s it Helping Most?
- Voluntourism.org offers a tool to help you rank and organize all of your volunteer abroad options.
In Madrid? Check out this post for a list of volunteer programs to choose from.