43: Full Circle

43: Full Circle

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Full Circle

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

~John F. Kennedy

A fellow volunteer and I were at a home visit for the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, seated at a young mother’s kitchen table, reviewing her financial situation. “Thank you so much for coming out to help,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “You have no idea what we’re going through.”

My heart went out to her; she had no idea how much I did know.

Only a few years before, I had been a struggling single mom. When someone knocked at my front door one day, I secretly hoped it was some wonderful surprise like flowers being delivered. But it wasn’t flowers. It was a man from the electric company coming to shut off our power. I handed over our food money to avoid the shutoff.

Things got worse. The child support stopped and I didn’t have enough money to cover our basic expenses. Our rent was overdue and way too expensive for the income I earned.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’d been down and out. Years before, I had sought help at the Women’s Opportunity Center in Mount Laurel, New Jersey when my marriage ended. I had been laid off from my job and forced to sell our home. The Center had provided me with a mentor, food, scholarship information and business suits. I returned to college and earned my bachelor’s degree. It was a major victory when I landed a job in the nick of time — just as the unemployment ran out. Then I secured a loan to get a decent car. With child support and my new steady income, I covered the bills and provided for my daughters. I thought my financial problems were over.

Now the child support had stopped, and that made all the difference. I couldn’t make the rent and pay bills on my small salary.

With one daughter still in college and my youngest daughter at home, I had to do something. I needed help right away. Then someone told me about Saint Vincent de Paul.

With a heavy heart, I called them. They set up an appointment for their volunteers to come over for a home visit. I was so embarrassed. What if I knew one of them? The doorbell rang. With shaking hands, I opened the door. I sighed in relief. I didn’t know them.

The woman and the man introduced themselves as I led them to the kitchen table. They were gentle, compassionate and courteous. Soon they were reviewing my financial information.

“Do you need food?” the woman asked. I looked in my cabinets. There were only a couple of items left.

“Yes.” I felt like a failure.

After they finished their assessment the man said, “We can tell you are trying hard to be financially responsible and this situation is only temporary.” That made me feel a little bit better.

After our session I realized I was living way above my current means. We concluded that I should start to look for a more affordable place to live, and I was grateful to receive a phone call a few days later saying that their board had agreed to cover my rent for a month.

The first time I went to pick up food was so embarrassing. It was at my church, and again I was praying I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew. But the volunteers at the center were so kind that my fears melted away. They gave me two large bags of food and told me to keep coming back until I didn’t need help anymore.

Because of these kind volunteers, my girls and I made it through a very tough time. A few years later, my youngest daughter and I were doing much better, and the child support was consistent again. I was able to save a little money after paying our bills. Eventually I would be able to move out and buy a home.

Life was good, but something was lacking. I couldn’t stop thinking of those volunteers who helped me when I was down and out. I needed to do the right thing and give something back. I picked up the telephone.

Soon I found myself volunteering once a week at the very same center that had helped me. The first thing I did was help pack bags in the food pantry. It was impressive how organized the volunteers were. Every item had its place and there were specific rules about what went into each bag. After filling bags for a while, I decided to help give bags of food to the people who lined up at the center.

I was amazed to see the staggering number of people who showed up for food. Many of them were seniors, struggling to get by on meager funds. Others were young families, with the moms apologizing for asking for help. There was a homeless man who could only carry one bag at a time. I was shocked by the huge number of people who desperately needed assistance.

It impressed me that there were so many generous people in our community donating their time to the food pantry. I saw Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, school groups and caring individuals bringing food and helping out. People donated bread and even fresh vegetables to the families. Others gave money to purchase meat and stock the pantry.

I volunteered to go on home visits. I was the person sitting at the table this time, interviewing people about their financial struggles. It was so strange being at the other end listening patiently. I could totally empathize with what they were feeling and going through although I never told them why. And now, as I listened to the young mother’s story and remembered what it was like to be in her shoes, I realized that I had come full circle.

Life can change in an instant. One minute you are in famine and the next you are feasting. You never know what challenges life will bring. Sometimes you are humbled and sometimes you are lifted up. I’ve been in both places, and one thing I’ve learned is that volunteers are so important. If it weren’t for the volunteers at Saint Vincent de Paul and the Women’s Opportunity Center, my children and I might not have made it through our tough times.

Volunteers can be the difference between whether a family eats or not. They can bring hope when there is despair. When you think about it, volunteering is probably the most important thing you can do in this lifetime.

~L.A. Strucke

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