Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Not so very far away


Today I had one of those "count your blessings" types of days that are probably too few and far between. As you know, I am not independently wealthy and therefore must work for a living. What are you gonna do, right?  I'm part of a team that builds websites and other tech-y things. This morning, I met with a new client. My co-worker and I (he's the sales guy, I'm the project manager) drove to the client's location to kick off this new project.  They run a large food bank and are in need of a new website.

Our meeting was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. We got stuck in traffic, so we pulled up right at 9. We could see a line forming outside the building.  It quickly became clear that the food bank was just opening for the day. We filed in through the door with the rest of the folks and then let a receptionist know that we had arrived to meet with the director.

She was running a bit late, it seemed, so we stood in the lobby and waited. More people filed in. They went up to a desk and received a numbered slip from the friendly gentleman behind the desk. Everyone then sat down and waited. Many of them had empty bags and boxes tucked under their arms.

I was not staring, of course, but I was interested in learning about the process. The more I know about an organization, the better equipped I am to deliver a website that truly meets their needs. I watched as the people with numbers were then called to a different window. I'm not 100% sure what happened at that point, but it was clear that the whole process was very orderly and precise. First come, first served.

I spotted a young woman who stood out from the other folks simply because of her youth. I wondered what her story might be. I saw other food pantry clients who, if it is not too unreasonable to make an assumption based on appearance, certainly seemed to fit the description of being "down on one's luck." I saw families. I saw elderly couples. Fat people. Thin people. Each with his/her own story, I'm sure.

Later, during the meeting, I asked a few questions about the program. While some people make use of the food program over generations, the average client needs the food pantry for about two years.  Each client must complete an interview process in order to be accepted into the program. They must show proof of income (or lack thereof, I suppose) and show a social security card as well. If someone uses the program for an extended period, they must be re-certified periodically. Clients are allowed to come to the food pantry once a week.

We passed the food distribution area on the way to the meeting room. The recipients don't "shop" the pantry like one would at a grocery store. They are offered specific items at a counter (milk, bread, etc.) and they can either take all of the items or decline some of them if they wish. I suddenly felt pretty darned fortunate to have the opportunity to choose from 486 types of pasta at my grocery store.

Anyway, here is my observation. I know that my Republican friends subscribe to the whole "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" thing, and I get that. I really do. I truly do believe that most people want to work if they can. I can tell you that some of the folks I spotted in that lobby . . . . let's just say that I don't think employers are lining up to hire them. And I don't mean that in an unkind way, but when you are missing teeth and have limited resources for housing/bathing/necessities, perhaps getting a job is not as easy as some might believe.

I am mostly agnostic so I don't get into God stuff a lot, but I have always kept the saying, "There but for the grace of God go I" in mind.  I don't think of it as "whew! so glad it's not me."  I think of it more along the lines of it being a pretty thin line for most of us before we tumble down the rabbit hole, too. Sure, I'm fortunate to have had some pretty decent opportunities in my life. I own a home and a car. I have a college degree and a job. Nothing truly catastrophic has thrown me off course, but that is not the case for many. I have seen families toppled by medical debt. I mean, medical debt can take a family from prosperity to homelessness. It's crazy.  For some, the path to the food bank might be more mundane: a lost job equals inability to pay rent. Getting a new apartment is tough when you can't scrape together the deposit and first month's rent. I think these things happen every day.

Are there some folks who are perfectly happy to get their bread from the food pantry, with zero motivation to work, to pay rent, etc? Yes, I'm sure those folks exist. But, we don't get to paint everyone with the same brush. It's just not right.

Standing in the food pantry today reminded me that in the end, it wasn't my business why they were there or what their specific circumstances were. If I donate to a food pantry (or to any other program), I don't get to weigh in on how the recipients use those resources. It's not my business if the folks in line had cell phones.  Maybe the phones were a gift - I don't know.

When I was around 20 years old, I was driving to work when I passed a convenience store. I saw a homeless man out front with his dog. I decided to stop and ask the man if I could go inside and buy some dog food for his dog. He said, "Sure."

So, I walked into the store and picked up a few cans of food for the man's dog. When I handed him the bag, he looked inside and said, "Well, I don't know if she likes this kind." I think he probably said thanks. For a moment, I thought, "What the hell?" but later I thought, "Well, maybe his dog really doesn't like that kind. Just because they are down on their luck doesn't mean the dog can't be a little picky."

It's a good lesson, I think. Charity should never come with strings attached. Even at 46, I benefited from a reminder of that.

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