13: Handled with Care

13: Handled with Care

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Handled with Care

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

~Neale Donald Walsch

“Mom, I need twenty service hours for this school year,” my daughter Piper said, her voice quavering. As an introvert, Piper had struggled with volunteer work in the past — not from a lack of compassion, but from fear of new situations and talking with strangers. That evening, while researching volunteer opportunities on the Internet, we stumbled across multiple postings: assisting disabled children with sporting activities, reading books to hospice patients, visiting nursing home residents, and babysitting children at a women’s shelter. They were all great causes, but Piper’s anxiety grew with each suggestion that required interaction with people she’d never met.

Exasperated from her stream of no’s, I searched the list again. “Wait, what about boxing food for the food bank?”

She asked, “Just boxing food?”

“Yes.”

“So I don’t have to talk to the people getting the food?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, unsure of all of the details but hopeful that she’d feel comfortable.

“You’ll come with me, right?”

I nodded and registered us for a shift at the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Honestly, I feared the work would be boring, and how beneficial could it be to merely pack food? But I wanted to support my daughter, so I volunteered.

Arriving at the agency, Piper walked behind me, using me as her shield. The woman at the front desk directed us to the warehouse. I glanced at Piper, fearing she’d ask to leave. “It’ll be fine,” I assured her.

The warehouse manager pointed to the break room. “Have a seat, and I’ll be in shortly to give you instructions.”

When he joined us, he said that a group of thirty volunteers had canceled, and there’d only be five volunteers for the afternoon shift. With that, the tension in Piper’s shoulders eased. But as we watched a video on the mission of the agency, Piper looked uncomfortable.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Piper whispered, “One out of six people fear they won’t have enough food to last the month?”

The term “food insecurity” was foreign to us; we’d never had to choose between paying for housing or medicine or food — a tough choice that many faced according to the statistics flashing on the screen. As the video continued to portray the growing hunger crisis in our country, especially for children, I watched Piper blink away tears through my own misty eyes. While we knew that people struggled with receiving proper nutrition, we didn’t realize how much hunger there was in our own community.

“Let’s do this,” I said, energized by the video, and Piper boldly followed.

For the next three hours, we packed boxes of cookies, candy, and snacks donated by local stores — not quite the “we’re-going-to-fight-hunger” experience we were primed for. At the end of the shift, we didn’t quite know how we felt about our volunteer hours because the boxes lacked substantial nutritional value.

The warehouse manager must have read our faces. “I know that today’s deliveries weren’t exactly nutritional,” he said, “but we make good use of all donations. The next job will be more like regular meals.” He handed us a slip of paper with our cumulative numbers for the evening: 174 cases and 2,958 pounds of food passed through our hands. Despite it being snack-type items, Piper and I took pride in the pallets of boxes that would be shipped to agencies within a hundred-mile radius of the warehouse.

“You know, Mom, everyone deserves a piece of candy or a cookie every now and then,” Piper said as we made our way home.

She was right, I thought. Everyone did deserve a treat.

“When do we go back?” Piper asked.

I winked. “The day after tomorrow.”

“Good,” she said. “That was fun.”

That evening, as I opened my pantry door and viewed the myriad food choices, a twinge of guilt flashed through me. My biggest concern: Do I choose the mild or medium-spiced salsa? My shelves lined with food could feed several families. How many times had I said, “We have nothing to eat in this house” and then made my husband drive to the store for more choices?

That evening, our family offered a special mealtime prayer for those who sat at a sparse or empty table. Piper discussed the staggering number of hungry children as we enjoyed our hot, nutritious meal — a rediscovered blessing.

Never a fan of early rising, Piper surprised me with her eagerness to return to the food bank for a morning shift. This time, she led us through the doors and made her way to the break room without hesitation. Later, she beamed as the manager took roll call for the volunteers, referring to the two of us as “veterans.”

Our group of about twenty volunteers dispersed to several workstations. Piper and I spied the Gaylord boxes, brimming with food gathered through food drives and smiled, knowing the morning’s work would help provide hearty meals to those in need.

As background music played, we separated canned goods, paper goods, and food in plastic or glass containers. We needed to check expiration dates and the quality of the packaging for the safety of those seeking food assistance — something we wouldn’t have thought to do as consumers who purchased food straight from the grocery store. We had entered into an unfamiliar realm filled with concerns that hadn’t pertained to our lives. We’d been spoiled. Sheltered. Privileged.

We soon chatted with other volunteers, sharing items to top off boxes, holding each other’s boxes closed while securing them with tape, and assisting each other with the labeling. Piper now conversed freely with those around us: We had become a community of helpers focused on delivering food to those who sought relief from hunger pains.

At the end of our shift, the manager offered a tour of the facilities. Piper turned to me. “Can we go?”

“Sure,” I said, happy that she wanted to learn more about the agency.

As we toured the warehouse, the cooler and the freezer, we realized the number of man hours involved in running a food distribution center and how the behind-the-scenes folks played an integral role in getting the food from the warehouse to people’s dinner tables. Without volunteers, the food would remain on the pallets.

These days, when we pull out from the food bank’s parking lot, Piper and I know that we’re an important link in the pipeline from those donating food to those benefiting from the donations. Most likely we’ll never meet those we serve, but that in no way diminishes the importance of our service. Hunger is nondiscriminatory, and we can only hope that, if life ever hands us misfortune of such magnitude that we must seek food assistance, that the volunteers boxing our meals will do so with the same care and pride that Piper and I feel upon finishing our shifts.

~Cathi LaMarche

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