What surprised me most the first time I volunteered to serve breakfast at our homeless shelter, a year and a half ago, was the children: Girls with their hair done in braids and barrettes, wearing sparkle backpacks, school uniforms neatly arranged. Toddlers in pajamas. Wide-eyed babies in strollers. I really was expecting the wild-eyed smelly bearded guys, not the adorable little kids headed for another day in second grade.
The first time few times I volunteered to serve breakfast at our local homeless shelter, I was wondering, "What do I say? How do I make these people comfortable with going through a soup kitchen line?" The more I returned, the more I realized that almost all of the guests at the soup kitchen know the routine, and they felt more comfortable there than I did (usually as in "stable", and rarely as in "entitled").
Over time, I've built relationships and sometimes even friendships with the people who come in. Not the "I need a few bucks" kind of a relationship I thought I'd have to be careful about -- not one person has ever hinted at money to me -- but a face-lights-up, "oh! Glad to see you", kind of relationship. I've tutored one guy in math, traded bike stories with another, read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the bus to a bunch of kids.
And after getting used to the stability of it all, it's disconcerting to have people just disappear. A guy named Teddy and I developed a routine of talking about bikes and about strategies for cold-weather biking. One day he asked me to "Pray for me; I've got a job interview today. I hope it goes well." And then I never saw him again. Moving out of the shelter and back into "mainstream" life is the point, of course, but it's disconcerting just to have someone I like vanish into thin air.
In the material sense, I've come to learn some neat stuff about what goes on in large kitchens. I love the giant dishwashers, the ladles and stainless steel trays, the machine that washes and peels potatoes (super cool!), the ease with which things get labeled and sorted and stowed away in plain sight. Cleaning the kitchen there after serving breakfast to 100 people is faster and more intuitive than cleaning the kitchen in my own home.
Kind of ironically, serving people food that has been donated to the shelter is now my most significant regular contact with trash and waste. We use washable plates and glasses, but disposable (plastic) tableware and disposable (styrofoam) bowls and disposable (paper) napkins. Also disposable hair nets and gloves (although washable aprons). We fill several large trashcans each day with uneaten food, with packaging, and with disposable products. Sigh.
And of course, for N-son, volunteering at the soup kitchen over the summer has been transformative. He's decided (as only a teenager can decide) that he wants to go into the culinary arts, so much so that he now spends half a day at a culinary training center as part of his high school curriculum. But he learned so much more: he learned about overcoming obstacles, about persistence, and about how all that can lead to compassion. As I wrote in September,
[N-son] came home talking about making mac-n-cheese from scratch, learning to cut fruit quickly, the importance of no-skid shoes, the proper technique for mopping (or "moping", as he spelled it). He interviewed the cooks about what it had been like to be homeless, and he heard story after story of wanting to make amends, to give back, to make the most of their second chances.I go there once a week now, and it's a part of my routine that I look forward to each week. And N-son goes back whenever he gets a day off of school. Next semester, my teaching schedule will mean I can't serve breakfast there, and I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out whether I can fit a lunch-time volunteering routine into my academic schedule. We'll see!