Today is the first BAH – Blogathon – Bloggers Against Hunger. It’s an effort to raise awareness about hunger in America. This blog is not fiction. I wish it was.
Volunteering at a soup kitchen is an experience – a heart-breaking, thought-provoking, heart-warming experience. I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer serving several lunches at a soup kitchen on Long Island, New York. What’s it like? Well, I’ll try and share that with you now.
The doors to the kitchen open at 11:00 a.m. Before that time, people queue up outside, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, usually without any major problems. As I walk by the queue into the warmth of the kitchen, I look at the people standing in line, waiting in the cold for a warm meal and a place to thaw out. Many carry their prized possessions; shopping bags piled high with god only knows what. When the doors finally open, they are directed inside, first to a table to secure their spot, then to the food line. The volunteers greet them with big smiles and welcoming words. Depending on the day, the food options vary. Sandwiches, soup, hot entrees, salad, bread, fruit, whatever can be put out is. The guests fill their plates, one to a customer, but they know as long as the food holds, they can get seconds.
They return to their seats, and a few words are spoken – a non-denominational prayer of thanks, announcements made about availability of social workers, housing, job opportunities, language classes, the week’s schedule for the kitchen. The guests begin eating, and for a moment, I see contentment. Here, they are safe, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Glancing around the room I take note of the guests. The ages range from newborn to senior citizen. The ethnic mix is similarly disparate – Hispanic, African American, Caucasian. Some are known to have psychological issues and are seated accordingly. All sit side by side as they eat their lunch. There is a buzz in the room as conversations are held and information conveyed. The guests maintain a cautious air about them, as if afraid to fully let down their guard. I watch as the young mothers feed their small children and wonder what life will be like for those little ones. The time goes quickly, and the guests begin to funnel out, many reaching for the bag that contains their dinner – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a piece of fruit.
As they leave the kitchen, I wonder where they go. To an apartment filled with a dozen other men, all sharing one room? To a car, where they spend the night huddled against the cold? To a shelter, where they are safe, but transient? What about the children? How do they do their homework or attend school with all the uncertainty of their lives? For those with mental illnesses or other physical ailments, how do they obtain their medications and take it on a regular basis?
I’ve spoken to some of the guests, trying to learn their stories, and each one tears another piece out of my heart. The woman whose mental illness caused her to lose her job, her husband, her home and her children. The man who lost his job and ran out of unemployment benefits and is just barely hanging on to his apartment. The Hispanic man who tells me through a translator about coming to America in hopes of a better life, and living next to a dumpster until he found a mattress in an apartment with 12 other men. The woman with three children whose latest man was arrested, leaving her homeless. Not all of the guests have hard luck stories, some are stories of stupidity, of foolishness and of criminal acts. But all the stories share the same result and one of the key factors for all of them is the lack of a safety net.
I spoke with a woman whose two young children played quietly next to us. My pocketbook sat on the table, next to where I stood. Easily within both watch and reach. I left it there intentionally, trying to combat my own fears. Trying to trust in the goodness of this place. The woman I was speaking with pokes me, “Is that your bag?” I nod yes. She says, “Hold on to it, you can’t trust these people.”
I spend a lot of time wondering about these people. About how to change things so that homelessness and hunger can one day be eradicated. The problems run deep. There are no easy answers, no quick fix solution. Money needs to be invested into our poor. Money to teach them basic life skills. Better help networks need to be set up and made accessible. More lower income housing and better social services for those in the neighborhoods. Education for parents and kids. Bilingual education for adults. Reasonably priced quality child care. Better public transportation. Health care that won’t force sick individuals into bankruptcy and homelessness.
When I get discouraged over this growing problem, I remember the amazing thing about all of this. You can make a difference. You can change someone’s life. You can help make this a better country. All it takes is a phone call and a couple of hours of your life. Call a food bank in your county and make a commitment to volunteer one afternoon a month. Hold a food drive for a local food bank. Call and volunteer to tutor some kids or adults. Call your legislators and demand that America invest in its poor. Look at what you have to offer and see if you can find a good fit. It doesn’t have to be a weekly commitment – whatever you can give helps. The more the merrier.
Together we can all make a difference.
Here are some links to organizations that may be a good starting point for you:
Share our Strength
America’s Second Harvest
World Hunger Year
The New York City Food Bank
This is my first blog for the BAH – Bloggers Against Hunger Project. Please join the group – we’ll be blogging again in the fall, trying to call attention to hunger here in America. I’ll be posting links to all the blogs later today, so take some time and read how other folks address the issue.
Here are the blogs posted so far – please check them out!
You still have time to post yours – just let me know so I can put a link up for you!
Chances Are, You Won the Lottery
Bloggin Against Hunger
In The Ghetto
I Don’t Know How They Do It
By: Lauren J. Walter 6/18/08