While most of us take food and shelter for granted it was eye opening to see that a very large part of our community cannot. The San Jose facility of SHFB serves six zip codes in which thousands of families rely on fortnightly nonperishable food pickups and weekly perishable grocery pickups. The needs of different types of families is so well researched and responded to that it makes you want to give a big crisp hat tip to the men & women behind SHFB who have worked tirelessly to put so much thought behind their actions.
Our group arrived at 9am and we were promptly guided through registration, getting name tags and being assigned a project appropriate for the size of our group. The efficiency of this place made the German in me perform a happy dance three times over! We were assigned a volunteer leader, Mike, a humble regular volunteer in his late 60s, maybe early 70s who was continuously lending us a hand throughout the three hours we were there. Mike graciously welcomed us, gave us some background on the work the permanent and drop-in volunteers do for the community and then explained how we could help today: 80% of the food going through this center goes to families that have access to cooking facilities. 20%, however, is delivered to individuals or families that are homeless. Our first task of the day was to pack food and toiletries into brown bags for these homeless people that didn’t have any possessions and hence would have no way to use any perishables or even cans that required a can opener. Each bag was designed to contain proper nutritional values within the confines of not being able to add any fresh fruit or vegetables. Mike had already set up a “production line” for our team. On top of a series of long metal tables he had placed baskets full of brown bags, cans with hearty protein, soups cans, peanut butter jars, walnuts, trail mixes, graham crackers, toilet paper and ziploc bags with basic toiletries.
My sister was the pacer of the group, starting with the brown bag and filling it with protein cans. That bag then traveled down our assembly line with each person adding the thing or two they were responsible for. After adding the last item I was then heaving the bags onto three-tiered racks, each rack packing about 54 brown bags. Mike and another team member were our re-stockers. Anytime our assembly line was running out of supplies they found backfill in the very well organized warehouse and replaced our empty basket with a new one full of supplies. In just under an hour we had packed four racks – that’s more than 200 brown bags!
It was time for a break. Mike showed us the break kitchen that was stocked with tea, coffee and a variety of snacks for volunteers to replenish themselves. I loved that SHFB thought of this place as an inspiration for volunteers to learn from other volunteers’ experiences. The walls were lined with pin boards of quotes and testimonials of past volunteers. Reading through some of them raised the feel good factor in my heart a tiny bit more because I know people are watching out for other people – completely selflessly.
Like clockwork we went back into the main warehouse after our 15 minute break and were greeted by Mike again. He walked us outside and gave us a brief tour of the produce section which looked like a well stocked interior of a large grocery store. As we walked around the corner of the building we saw a little wood-framed box that was being used as a kitchen garden. Mike told us that this is SHFB’s initiative to teach the recipients of their donations how to be self-sufficient. Many families in the zip codes they serve have been given these wooden frames to plant in their front yards and volunteers have taught them how to grow their own vegetables and fruits in them. This is how community service can go beyond providing fish. They are teaching them how to fish.
Armed with all of the info about fresh produce we went back into the building and commenced our second task: Mike had neatly decked out our metal tables with a clean white paper tablecloth and he rolled a giant palette of boxed corn on the cob to our area. We were given latex gloves in all sizes, a selection of large knives and plastic bags. Our task was to cut of the slightly wilting ends of the corn on the cob, clean up the husk a bit, pack five in each plastic bag and knot the bag before putting it into a large container. Our practiced team rolled up their sleeves and over then next hour and a half we processed a whole palette full of corn. This was food that grocery stores would have thrown away because consumers don’t like buying vegetables that look like they are about to wilt but in reality there was nothing wrong with the corn and its kernels. We just took of the ends and husk to make it look “pretty” again.
So the next batch of volunteers would find the place as neat and clean as we did our last task of the day was to clean up. We each grabbed brooms to swipe the floor or knives to wash and within 10 minutes the space looked the way we had found it.
A mere three hours, 8 pairs of hands and the will to help someone else than yourself! That’s all it takes to make a difference. And you would be surprised that in the end the person that’s being helped the most is actually you. Nothing gives you as much perspective on what you have to be grateful for as experiencing other people’s plight. Having the opportunity to help them is a true blessing and I hope I continue staying blessed.