Several weeks ago someone in our small group at church had the good idea of serving at a local food pantry and it was just the kind of opportunity I'd been looking for. I don't know how many of you out there have looked on your own for volunteer opportunities before, but they can be awfully hard to find at an individual level. Volunteer organizations (Samaritan's Purse, Operation Christmas Child, Feed my Starving Children, etc) typically only accommodate groups of people so unless you're involved with a bigger group, it can be hard to find places to plug in. Anyway, I digress. We showed up at the People's Resource Center in Wheaton, IL on Saturday morning which, despite having gone to school mere blocks from this place for 4 years, I never even knew was there. PRC exists to help people in DuPage County by providing them with everything from food to computer and job training classes. Their food pantry is open almost everyday and anyone in the county can come and gather a load of groceries, no questions asked. PRC gets it's donations from individuals and business in the area and is also a member of the Northern Illinois Food Bank which gathers food from all areas of the state and distributes it to food pantries all over the state. The goal of the pantry is to provide people with food so that the money they might have otherwise spent on groceries can be freed up to be spent on other things like rent, medication, etc.
There were already people lined up waiting for food at 8:30am and after a short-orientation on how the whole process works, we were quickly busy helping people fill their shopping carts with food. During orientation, the leader asked for volunteers for various jobs and when there was an opportunity to work outside, my hand shot up. Sure it was only 25 degrees out and sure there was a biting northwest wind, but hey, the sun was out and being outside is almost always better than being inside. Besides, I had gloves, a coat and a hat. A handful of others joined me and our job for the subsequent 4 hours was to help people bring their food to their cars, load it into the car and take the cart back so another person could go through the line. It was a pretty simple job - nothing flashy.
In observing the people coming through the line, it was fairly obvious that many of these people are quite poor. It's probably not a stretch to assume that many of these people work tough and thankless jobs just trying to get by. Several of the families looked to be immigrant families and perhaps do not have jobs. I thought the coolest part of my job was that for a few minutes on a Saturday morning, I got to serve these people who are often likely the ones tirelessly serving other people and their own families. I'm just guessing, but I would imagine it takes a certain swallowing of one's pride to go to the food pantry and I made it my mission to make those people feel loved and appreciated.
More to the point of my post, helping at PRC really restored some of my faith in humanity. For one thing, there were a TON of volunteers there. Everyone did their best to stay busy, but often there were more than enough hands to help out on a given task. Also, the pantry was absolutely FULL to the brim with donated food. There was canned food stacked in boxes along the wall waiting to be used, the bread bins were overflowing and there was even some food being kept outside (so as to keep it cold and out of the way) until it could be used. During the 4 hours that we were outside, I would estimate that about 8-10 cars pulled up with donations of clothing or food. One guy stopped by and said that a group at his kid's school had conducted a food drive the night before and he was there to drop off several bags of canned goods and other items. A pickup truck pulled up and had a flat-bed full of food, flowers and other frozen goods from the local Trader Joe's. Another van pulled up with bread from Panera....and that was just in one morning.
More than helping the people - it was nice to see all of the generosity around. Every day I talk to people who are all about themselves. To be honest, I'm all about myself a lot of the time. You see road-rage, rudeness, bickering on TV, the back-and-forth in modern-day politics, the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality in the media...that all gets exhausting. It's life-sucking. But this, this was life-giving and left there with more energy than when I came. Other people is what life is about, helping other people, putting them first, giving the extra that you have to make up for the deficit that others face. I plan on going back to PRC - I found out that they don't just operate with groups, you can show up any day of the week and help. Sounds good to me.
"Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" -- Matthew 6:26