Yesterday, for the first time in several years, I volunteered at our local soup kitchen. Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, the sponsoring organization had updated the homeless shelter and other areas, including the kitchen. It was now quite functional with four sinks and a commercial stove with eight large burners. I was impressed.
Volunteers help to prepare and serve one meal a day. I was recruited to fill the slot of a regular volunteer on this particular day, when my church was on the schedule. My church usually supplies five volunteers, but yesterday there were only two, plus two regulars from another church.
I was somewhat apprehensive as I approached the building because so much had changed – I didn’t even know which door to enter! But I was apprehensive mostly because the kitchen manager had berated all the kitchen volunteers the last time I was there, a few months ago, when I had been asked to fill in for a volunteer who was not available. Apparently, volunteers were not coming in early enough to please her. She was unpleasant and appeared quite nervous, and I did not want to be around her. Fortunately, I was able to leave that day, because there were enough volunteers without me.
This time, however, was different. Our “boss” was a very large black man, who was pleasant and clearly in charge, although he did not always share with us everything we felt we needed to know, such as the day’s menu. One volunteer spent all morning peeling and cutting potatoes, never being told that the potatoes were for the next day’s meal. The former manager was in and out of the kitchen, but she did not interact with us.
The work at the soup kitchen is not hard, but we work steadily for several hours, on our feet without a break. Before the renovation, we had an active role in cooking the food and even helping to plan menus, but now we just did what we were told, and that did not include cooking. There was a large bin of donated fruit on the counter, so it became my job to make a fruit salad. The menu was hot dogs, fruit salad, vegetable salad and chips. It seemed to me that clients ate much better in the old days, but I decided I shouldn’t judge from just one day.
At 10:30 the clients began to arrive. Because of the pandemic, all meals were takeout only, so we had to pack them into styrofoam boxes. New rules required clients to sign in first, and they came to our counter one at a time. When we had volunteered earlier, the clients had lined up and we made up the plates as they came, often serving over 100 people in one hour. It was not as many yesterday.
Most of the time, when I first volunteered, my late husband, Jerry, came with me. I was pleased that one of the volunteers present yesterday remembered us. As in so many other times in the last year and a half, I wanted to hurry home and tell him, “Jerry, guess who I ran into today? Do you remember….” But Jerry is not there, and a special time that we had shared is gone forever, like other occasions before it. I wonder how long I will keep thinking of things to tell Jerry. I smile as I remember how seriously he had taken his volunteer job. He was one of the few male volunteers, so he had to lift the heavy pots. He bought special hot pads because he did not think the ones they supplied were adequate.
After the clients were served and the food was gone, we cleaned up and went home. The soup kitchen had fed people another day. I heard they have ribs to go along with the potatoes for tomorrow. Now that’s a meal worth showing up for.
Each day, a new crew of volunteers goes in to help out. I will not be among them, but I will keep my status as a substitute. Things have changed just a bit too much for me.