Perspective gained by volunteering

Posted Jan. 28, 2010, at 6:30 p.m.

At first glance, the gathering could be mistaken for some kind of a multigenerational, intramural sports event. The same kind of anticipatory energy runs through the crowd, calf muscles subtly flexed as the rules and positions are explained one more time. Only the aprons give it away: This group isn’t learning last-minute tactics for some obscure sports game. We’re volunteers prepping for the lunch rush at the largest soup kitchen in Maryland.

Given that Our Daily Bread’s hot meal program serves anywhere between 500 and 800 people every day, that pre-meet atmosphere is not unwarranted. With the exception of the two hired coordinators who are corralling us into action, the kitchen is staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

Since 1981, Catholic Charities has fed people at Our Daily Bread, an enormous building tucked between the somewhat grim surroundings of the I-83 overpass and a barbed-wired Correctional Center. The soup kitchen is open 365 days a year, no exceptions, which partially accounts for the huge numbers of people it serves. The meal program isn’t the only resource within these walls, though. Our Daily Bread is a comprehensive resource center for the poor, with a whole array of unemployment, education, referral and emergency services combined in one large building.

Today, I’m just here to work the soup kitchen. Coming in through the big front doors, I am immediately given an apron and directed toward the main hall, where I join the throng of people.

“The dining area is divided into four quadrants,” explains Hannah, a perky blond Texan here on an AmeriCorps grant. “Teams of six people will work each quadrant: a server, a runner, a cleaner, a bread person, a tea person and a water person. The server is essentially your team captain: if you have any questions or problems, go to them first. If everyone sticks to their positions, the two-hour lunch rush should go smoothly. If you have any questions or issues, let us know. Chances are, we’ve seen it all.”

The teamlike efficiency is necessary to keep the turnover of volunteers working smoothly together. It’s also fun and energizing. People get really into it.

“Bob,” my team leader in the “blue quadrant” of the dining room, clucks over the five of us like a mother hen, readjusting our name tags and going over our individual jobs again. I’d guess his age to be around 70; he wastes no time in telling me all about his kids. “That’s my wife over there,” he tells me, pointing across the room. A tiny woman with curly white hair waves before disappearing again behind the enormous breadbasket she’s carrying.

The volunteers, as at other soup kitchens I’ve been to, are mostly older folks: Retirees form the backbone of the volunteer work forces. Small packs of high school students come in fairly regularly to log the hours required for them to graduate. One person is here, he tells me, on a community service sentence.

I’m impressed that an operation this large is almost entirely volunteer- and donation-run. At least 30 people are needed for the lunch rush — volunteers on the floor, doing dishes and making up plates of food. I ask the other coordinator, Aaron, whether more people began volunteering with the recent wave of unemployment. “A few people, yeah, sure,” he tells me. “But it’s not been substantial. Mostly we just get people who routinely have free time from 9 to 1 on a weekday. Not too many of those. A few self-employed people, and a whole lot of retired parishioners.

“Just to give you an idea of who the people are that we serve and what they are dealing with,” Aaron says, “about 30 percent of the clients are homeless. Thirty percent are struggling with mental illness, and 30 percent struggle with substance abuse.

“We ask volunteers to call everyone sir or ma’am. We’re not here to change people — we don’t have the power to do that over lunch. We’re here to offer them a place of respect and dignity. If they’re ready and want change in their lives, they can find a supportive environment with us.”

To my surprise, the two-hour shift flies by. As I go from table to table, offering people the selection of donated, day-old bread, at least a dozen ask me to look for the softest bread I can find. “I don’t have any teeth. Are you sure you don’t have any Wonder Bread, or something soft?” I can’t imagine searching for my next meal with the added difficulty of major dental problems.

At 12:30 p.m., we close the doors. Food is put away, places are cleaned, and slowly, the hall empties. Volunteers gather to eat the leftovers, standing and sitting around the kitchen with our own plates.

Before I leave, I talk to the man doing mandatory community service again. “This felt really good,” he said. “It really puts things in perspective, seeing this place. I’m supposed to do this three more times — 16 hours in all — but I think I’d like to come in after. Just for fun.”

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. She may be reached at meg@margaret-adams.com

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