For many years now, members of my church have volunteered a few times a year to provide a meal at a local homeless shelter. Different churches and organizations take turns cooking and serving a meal at the shelter. I have never been able to participate because our church's turn always came up on a weekday. I have to work for The Man on weekdays. However, this time around it (a lunch meal) was scheduled for New Year's Eve and since it was a Saturday, I had the day off. I added my name and my daughter's name to the sign-up sheet.
Treat bakers were also needed, so I signed us up for that, too. I bought a couple boxes of brownie mix and told my daughter to get started. She did most of the baking on her own, but I set (and watched) the oven timer carefully because I'm pretty sure she'd leave something in there for a hundred years if she was wrapped up in some tweenie show on Netflix at the time.
When Saturday morning rolled around, it was a struggle to get her out the door as usual. We had to be there at 11:15 so, you know, not the crack of dawn or anything. Honestly, the real heroes of the day were the volunteers from our church who got there two hours before we did in order to chop/bake/cook. We were serving some sort of ham casserole, bread, salad, fruit salad, and dessert. The kid and I took our spots behind the serving windows. I would dole out the salad and she would handle the fruit. Our friend Paul stood next to us on dessert duty. In addition to A's brownies, there were some odds and ends (biscotti, chocolate chip cookies, etc.) from our church bake sale the week before, and some other newly-baked goodies that had been added.
A typical meal at the shelter serves a couple hundred people. It is all very orderly. They opened the serving windows at precisely 11:30. Folks grabbed a tray and then worked their way through the line, starting with the casserole and ending with dessert. Some passed on the salad and made jokes about not being a rabbit. I smiled and made jokes about what their mom would think of them not eating salad. When each person got to the dessert spot, my daughter would pipe up and say, "I made the brownies!"
Unable to resist the allure of the chocolatey goodness made by the jovial sixth grader, almost every person said, "Well, I'll have a brownie then!"
Some folks said very little as they came through the line. Others chatted us up quite a bit. Virtually all were very polite. The thing about homelessness is that there is no single adjective that fits all. There were families with children. Veterans. Old people. Young people. A few who appeared to have mild developmental impairments.
A couple of people asked me what kind of dressing was on the salad. "Italian," I said. We did have some standby salad that didn't have dressing on it, so we offered that up as needed. I certainly wasn't going to knock anyone for being a bit picky. Just because you are homeless doesn't mean you all of a sudden like Italian dressing. One man approached the dessert tray and pointed at one of the biscotti. I think he said, "One of those" or "What are those?"
Paul said, "It's biscotti. I hear it goes great with coffee."
The man responded, "I know what biscotti is." There was a tiny bit of indignation in his voice. No one was assuming that a homeless man wouldn't know what biscotti is, but I think he interpreted it that way. Hell, I only heard of it fairly recently myself so I don't think it's necessarily on the list of "things everyone knows."
Once everyone had been served, a shelter employee made a call for seconds. Lots of people lined up and many of the same faces came through the line. Some who didn't want salad the first time through decided to give it a try on the second pass.
At exactly 12:30, the rolled shades came down and covered the serving windows. Lunch was over. Other volunteers came in to clean up the meal and we were free to go. My daughter and I hopped into our car and headed to Chipotle for lunch. On the way there, she asked me how people become homeless. I did my best to explain some of the complex socio-economic reasons why some people in our community don't have homes. For some, it's a lost source of income that sends them into a tailspin. For others, it could be mental illness or medical issues or any number of factors. Homelessness may be short term for some (ideally) but others may be in dire straits for much longer.
I think she understood. I didn't want to be transparent and say that I wanted her to appreciate what she had. Our reason for volunteering, first and foremost, was that our church needed volunteers to help with the meal. However, there is also that little bit of "teach my kid gratitude" leaking into the situation. We are not wealthy people but as childhoods go, our kid is having a pretty darned good one if you ask me. She's got her own room and a closet full of clothes. She has a cell phone and various other electronics. She participates in a choir (which will cost us $2000 this year) and is about to start guitar lessons. I mean, she could have it a lot worse. Next time she is inclined to complain that the wifi signal doesn't always reach her bedroom, maybe she'll think about the children who came through that line on Saturday. She is a good kid with a good heart but still, kids are kids and reminders certainly don't hurt.