Hello! in 2018, I’ve decided to start my own personal writing challenge based on “Acts of Connection,” something I hoped to further develop after hiking the Camino de Santiago. You can find the whole story here.
I’m a tad behind here, so get ready for a two-post week!
On the first night of my Camino in 2017, in a massive old Cathedral-turned-pilgrim hostel, Christina and I poked through a table of hiking gear left by previous pilgrims. After that terrible trek over the Pyrenees, you’re usually willing to give up that “just in case” sleeping pad or $200 extra pair of shoes. Anything to make your pack lighter. For so many of us, those tables were god-sends. When my hiking socks left me with a new blister every day, I found a new pair of unused socks that rescued my poor, desperate feet.
At the end of most days, a family or local restaurant pooled their resources and cooked a low-cost or donation-based dinner for all us carb-starved pilgrims. The generosity never failed to bring half the table to tears. Maybe we’re just an emotional bunch. When the volunteer chef entered the dining room with that giant pan of paella, you better believe the whole room cheered.
Last week, when I found myself in a particularly low mood, I took another shift at our local soup kitchen in Montclair. I started volunteering there after the election. Full of rage and desperation for hope, I realized I couldn’t sit around anymore feeling hopeless about humanity.
On a normal morning, the soup kitchen prepares massive meals for approximately 3-4 organizations in the area, both for their own lunches for the homeless and for struggling neighborhoods where a basket of fresh ingredients goes a long way. But on this particular morning, I found myself in the back of the dining room–as all the chopping and food-prep roles were set for the day. Also, I was in a terrible mood and needed some good ol’ manual labor to shake off my crappy energy.
And so, I found myself organizing the donated clothing table. With each pile I sorted, I thought of my fellow pilgrims–those that had left things for me when I was in pain. I eventually switched over to sorting some produce for a “backpack” program that sends food home to low-income families. Some teenagers from a local school came in to help us pack and organize. By the end of the morning, I scrubbed pots and pans covered in the remnants of soup for guests later that day. In the Camino-energy, the group around me gave their time, their effort, their food, their clothing. Most importantly, they gave their attention–attention to a part of society that is often ignored. This could have been a simple morning. I could have stayed home and felt separated from society.
Of all my “Acts of Connection” from this writing project so far, volunteering in a soup kitchen brings me closest to my pilgrim self. In long-term Camino life plans, my final hope is to volunteer as a hospitalera, cooking for and welcoming pilgrims in one of the public hostels. What better way to learn how to help those traveling through difficult days than in a soup kitchen? It takes a talented person to manage these meals. I am not yet that. And so I watch the women around me–those who’ve been doing this for forty-plus years.
Something happens in volunteer situations such as this. The playing field levels, no one is above doing any task and you say yes to anything you’re asked to do. It’s a bit like theater. You only have what’s available to you on that day, and only have a certain amount of time to make it happen. You don’t expect anything in return. And most importantly, you treat people you serve with respect.
If you feel disconnected from the world, or if the current decimation of social programs gets you down, get yourself into a soup kitchen. For me, I had a hard time getting past the “but how do I volunteer?” and “Where do I even start?” What did I do? I googled it. I wrote an email, and they wrote back enthusiastically. Write a few emails when you start out–some places are slammed and don’t have a ton of administrative support. OR you could reach out to your social circle for advice:
I have to give all credit for my new-found love of working in soup kitchens to Emily Litman, a fellow Drew friend. Every year, she gathers her friends at a shelter in Hoboken to buy and make meatloaf for the local shelter. Once I did one of these nights, I broke out of my introverted fear of jumping into a new situation like this. Emily, you rock. I volunteer because of you.
Do you have a favorite volunteering resource in your area or even a national website? Please feel free to comment here! If you have any questions about helping out in soup kitchens, send me a message!
Thanks for reading, all. Week 6 post coming soon!