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“Callie, you’re such a saint,” Sara sighed in my ear. The phone was carefully balanced between my shoulder and head as I held the remote to flip channels. I grabbed a handful of popcorn with my other hand as I tried to scoot into a more comfortable position on the purple couch. I smiled.
“Oh, come on,”
“No, think about it. You’re spending your valuable summer vacation slaving away at a soup kitchen while the rest of us sit on our butts and go to the pool all day. You’re a freaking volunteer. Definition: no money. Way to make everyone else look like lazy, selfish potato sacks,”
“Potato sacks? Seriously?” I laughed. Sara faked exasperation.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” I turned serious. A paused for a moment to let this sink in, and mustered up a weak reply. “But it’s all for the people, you know?”
When I signed up to be a summer volunteer at ASK, the soup kitchen in my hometown of Ariston, college was fresh on my mind. I had just visited Princeton with my parents over spring break, and all the beautiful scenery and “prestigious-ness” had gone to my head. I just had to make it in, but wasn’t sure it was possible.
I examined my grades and classes (mostly A’s with a few B’s, multiple AP classes) and figured they were decent, and my figure skating plus stints in French Club and pep band were an added bonus. But this was Princeton we were talking about here. I needed to beef up my resume, and I only had two summers to spare before application time.
Some time in May I pulled up Google on my laptop, like usual. I wasn’t exactly sure what I should search, so I just put in “Ariston volunteer positions” and hit enter.
The first link that popped up was one to Ariston’s website. It turned out there was a volunteer page on there, where any business, organization, or random person could advertise open positions. I scrolled through the list. “Boy Scout pack leader.” Nope. “Volunteer mail carrier position available.” No way. “Tutor math students.” Yawn. I was beginning to lose hope, and you know whenever that happens you are about to stumble upon your answer. “High school students – soup kitchen position,” was the very last link on the site.
Interested, I clicked on the link and a form popped up with all the information. Time: 9 AM to 3 PM, months of July and August; Main Responsibilities: shelving canned foods, secretary work, distributing meals, assorted assistant duties; Age: high school. Classic and reasonable, I thought to myself. Nice. Quickly checking my calendar, I filled in the application form and pressed send.
Two months later, I found myself plopped down in a desk, a large pile of papers in front of me, and an obnoxious telephone ringing piercing my ears non-stop.
“Okay, here you are Callie: this will be your temporary desk for the month.” Marissa, the volunteer coordinator explained to me on my first day. She was a fairly young woman with thick brown hair pulled up into a messy bun, a pen sticking out of her jean pocket. She had a cheerful manner about her, as if everything was wonderful and always would be; something I began to associate with ASK as the month went on. The aroma of office, some sort of mixture of stale coffee, perfumes, and fresh paper, filled the air, giving the place a distinctive smell.
The whole month I was there, I never even handled the food, but somewhere in the back of my mind as I sat typing on the keyboard a little voice whispered to me. You are such a good person, Callie. Keep working; think of that college application. You’re practically a summer vacation martyr, giving up your time for this.
As I sat there, I never actually thought of the people I was doing this simple office work for. In my defense, it’s hard if you never even see them. But I was so self absorbed, so incredibly selfish in believing I was being selfless. But then Elyza showed up.
Jason, the flawless definition of health and good spirits, was sick that day. He was never sick. Ever. He was our main distributor; meaning, he stood out in the warehouse twice a day and handed out the food a different group had bagged up the previous day. There were a few others who helped him, plus others to help move the bags from the storage racks to the part of the warehouse where they could be distributed. But Jason actually handed the bags to the people, and so somebody was going to have to temporarily replace him.
Naturally, Melissa was very calm about the whole thing. After explaining the situation to the office section where I worked, she came up to me.
“Callie, since you’ve already finished most of today’s paperwork, can I have you go help down in the warehouse? I’ll have someone else help answer the phones.” Internally, I objected. I had really nice clothes on that day, and why would I want to run the risk of ruining them by doing physical work? And besides, I really didn’t want to have to deal with the people – what if they were rude, or dirty and sweaty? Instead, I answered politely, as I knew was expected.
“Sure, no problem.” I added on a wide, fake grin for emphasis and soon enough was on my way down to the warehouse.
The stairway was tall yet lacking in perimeter, and it had a metal, empty feeling to it. When I stepped down the stairs, each thunk of my feet echoed around and around, surrounding the circular steps.
When I got to the bottom, I came to a door reading, in large, capital letters, “W REHOU E.” The “A” and “S” had been worn away by time and thousands of grubby fingers pushing carelessly against them, minds focused on more important matters. I froze for a moment before entering. Should I go back and make up some excuse? No, I was too good of a person for that. Sighing, I pushed against the door with my shoulder until it opened.
Immediately, the smell of bread and stale meat rushed over me. I was in a large, dimly lit room with fluorescent lights humming on the ceiling. To my left were shelves. Many, many shelves, all piled high with canned items. On the other side of the warehouse was a large cart with four metal wheels, carrying a mountain of brown paper bags. Each had either an ‘H,’ ‘T,’ or ‘V,’ which I quickly determined to mean “ham,” “turkey,” or “vegetarian.” I saw a couple people moving back and forth bringing in these bags, and as I was watching them I heard a creaking sound behind me. I turned around.
A boy about my age had come out of the door I had just exited. He was wearing a t-shirt and cargo shorts and had sweeping hair that ended just above his eyes, which were a dusty gray. Upon seeing me he stopped and flashed a smile.
“Hey, are you who they sent for Jason?”
“Great!” He grinned again, showing off nearly a nearly perfect set of teeth. “Well if you’ll come over here to the service area, there’s already a line for lunch. I’ll show you the basics, but I think it’s pretty self explanatory.” The boy, who I later learned was named Eric, preceded to show me the area and my new workspace. He demonstrated how to recorded the people who picked up their food on a checklist, how to check their current meal plan, where to find their food preferences, and how to register new visitors. It was all pretty simple, and I picked it up quickly.
Soon, it was time to start distributing the paper bags to the visitors. Glimpsing outside, I saw a line of around thirty people winding its way around the service area. My first surprise was that they seemed really… normal. I was kind of expecting to see men and women dressed in raggedy clothing with circles under their eyes, clutching screaming babies and trash bags full of their only belongings. Instead, they all looked like people you would see everyday just walking around the mall.
It was after I had already given out a couple of bags that I saw Elyza.
I first realized her by those unmistakable fiery red curls. Sighting them, my eyes shifted inconspicuously towards her, disbelieving. She was towards the middle of the line, talking on her cell phone. I couldn’t make out her words, but she seemed to be laughing about something. It couldn’t be her. Not the same girl I ate lunch with everyday, that wouldn’t make sense. But once I saw she was wearing that familiar blue striped hoodie, I knew it was Elyza.
I was still incredulous when she reached the front of the line. Without even looking up from her phone, she stated her last name.
With an awkward lump in my throat, I replied.
“Three ham, one vegetarian?”
“Yup,” She didn’t recognize my voice. She was still looking at her messages while I got her meals ready.
“Here you go,” I was still hesitant, waiting for her to look up. When she did, I didn’t get the reaction I thought.
“Oh, hey Callie! I didn’t know you worked here.”
Stammering, I forced a reply.
“W-well, volunteer actually,” I could have smacked myself, but that’s what came out of my mouth.
“Cool,” She smiled and took her brown paper bag from my hand. I kept staring at her, and she must have felt the awkwardness too.
“Anything wrong…?” She was still smiling, the perfect face of composure.
“Do you come here a lot?” I blurted. I was such an idiot.
“Yeah, you could say that,” she replied. When I didn’t say anything else, she added. “My family’s at a little financial bump in the road right now.”
“Oh.” After a moment, I realized she was still standing there and asked, “Why don’t you tell anyone?” For some reason she found this funny and started laughing. Her pale blue eyes crinkled up, and she looked just like the Elyza I knew from lunch. Something in me clicked right then, but I wasn’t aware of it at that point. I was too busy blushing out of utter embarrassment.
“Do you tell people where you get lunch every day?” She said this as if it was obvious; as if she wasn’t expecting a reply. Once she had stopped laughing, she reached up and squeezed my shoulder. “Well, see you at school, Callie.” She flashed a grin, and turned around to walk down the street. Her sunshine curls bounced behind her until she was only a spec in my peripheral vision.
That night, I sat on that same purple couch, exhausted from volunteering. I had a new respect for Jason and everyone in the warehouse – I definitely could not handle that much physical and social work everyday. When I clicked on the TV, I felt a vibrating in my pocket. Fumbling, I pulled out my phone and flipped it open, checking the Caller ID. It was Sara.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothing much. How was work?”
“Volunteering, you mean?”
“Yeah, whatever. How was it?”
“Pretty good.” I flipped the string from my sweatshirt around my finger, coiling and uncoiling it. I considered telling her about seeing Elyza there, but something stopped me. “I had to work in the warehouse.”
“Ugh, isn’t it all dirty and cold down there? And didn’t you have to deal with the people?”
“Yes and no,” I thought for a moment. “It’s not that bad.”
“Well, yeah,” Sara was being kind of obnoxious, and I tried not to notice how much her words reflected my previous thoughts. “The people weren’t that bad.”
“I mean, some of them are kind of like us. They’re not even all homeless.” Sara had no response to that. After a moment, she changed the subject.
“So, did you get your school schedule yet?”
The conversation continued on its normal route, and I went along with it as usual. But something in me changed. Maybe I wasn’t a completely selfless angel like Sara thought I was, but Elyza had shifted something in me.
Before I went turned off my light that night, I made a vow to myself. Tomorrow, I would ask Melissa if I could switch my position to the warehouse.