50: Soap Kitchen

50: Soap Kitchen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Soap Kitchen

Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.

~Nido Qubein

For years my husband worked a very good job that allowed me to stay home with our two girls and gave me plenty of time to volunteer at our local food pantry. Every other Monday I would go and help in whatever capacity they needed me. Sometimes it was stocking shelves. Sometimes it was carrying food out for older folks. Sometimes it was working the registration table.

Over time I got to know many of the regulars, but I never got to know their stories. I had no idea what led to them needing this kind of help. I also got to know the other volunteers and was very discouraged when I would hear them snickering in the back workroom about the people who were coming in for help. They would complain about their body odor, make fun of the way they were dressed, roll their eyes at the ones using a cell phone, and make many other snide comments. I too wondered why so many had not taken the time to bathe or shower. Why would they come in wearing clothes that looked like rags? Had they given up on life to the point where they did not care?

Then, I found myself on the other side. My husband lost his job and since I had not worked in over ten years we quickly went through what little savings we had. Now I was the one seeking help. The food pantry would give us what they saw as a month’s worth of food, but in reality it only lasted about two and a half weeks.

After two months of job searching we ended up getting government assistance to buy food. Prior to having the food card I never purchased soft drinks or certain snacks. Now we were eating things we never could have afforded on our own budget. We felt like we had hit the lottery.

However, I also quickly learned that keeping ourselves, our clothes, and our home clean was a challenge. No one offered us a way to get laundry soap. We ran out of toothpaste and I searched the Internet for ways to make our own with baking soda and peroxide. My husband did his best to shave with a dull razor, but over time gave up on that for fear of hurting himself. I will spare you the details of what it is like to have three women in the house with very few feminine hygiene products.

That was when I realized that the others at the food pantry had not given up on life; life had given up on them. It is hard to go for a job interview when you no longer have the means of properly showering. When the laundry soap ran out I did my best to hang the clothes outside to air out any body odors. It was discouraging. How were we to get ahead and find a good job when we barely felt human anymore?

We were a middle class family in America, and while we were fed well, we could not take care of our personal hygiene needs. I went to the directors of the food pantry and explained to them that the need for soaps, tissues, toilet paper and other personal items was as great, if not greater, than the need for food. One gentleman joked that they were a food pantry, not a “soap kitchen.” I couldn’t hide my emotions and the tears welled up in my eyes.

A nun who served on the board noticed and put her arm around me. Then I told them my story and how not being able to properly clean myself was hindering my job search. It is very difficult to face a potential boss when you have not showered in three days. You do not know embarrassment until you can no longer find a dress shirt that has no stains or wrinkles. It is hard to feel presentable while wearing way too much perfume or cologne to cover up your own scent.

The food pantry directors listened intently to my story and began making a plan. It took a few weeks, but they began collecting liquid hand soap, razors and Laundromat-sized boxes of detergent, as well as toilet paper and facial tissues. They were ready to begin handing them out at Christmas.

In the meantime, I had taken two part-time jobs and my husband had found another job and we were at least able to keep the lights on and the roof over our heads. But it also meant I no longer had the time to volunteer at the pantry. On the day they began giving out the soap and hygiene products I made it a point to be there.

When I handed an elderly lady her bag she saw the bar of soap and the roll of toilet paper and she gasped, grabbed my hand, and cried, “Thank you! Oh, thank you!” It was as if I had handed her a million dollars. “You have no idea how much this means to me!” she cried. With tears streaming down my own cheeks I smiled and told her that I did know what it meant to her. I would never look at someone in need the same way again.

~Janice VanHorne-Lane

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