Two years ago, I began volunteering at afood pantry. Since all the volunteers and coordinators are quick with ajoke, there’s never an idle moment. I’ve enjoyed workingthere.
After volunteering behind the scenes for a year, I startedworking at the front counter and dealing directly with clients. This wasa job I had discreetly but successfully avoided. I was unsure of how togreet them or have a friendly conversation without embarrassing them orme, or how to respond to unwanted attention.
Previously at thepantry I had worked on the database, entering financial donations andprinting thank-you notes that always included recent statistics. All ofa sudden, I was face to face with some of the people those statisticsdescribed.
The food pantry supplies 5,000 bags of food each monthto 1,200 families. The statistics also show that for every 500 familieswho find they do not need our service anymore, 460 more apply forassistance.
Even though I feared the worst as I stepped behindthe counter, my co-workers and most of the clients were very cordial andglad to be there. (The food pantry has received many awards in its 25years, since it provides balanced food choices.) However, I could notshake the feelings of despair and frustration at hearing the sadtales.
The first woman in line had driven up in a Mercedes Benz,walked in wearing a beautiful mink coat, and somberly asked for mealassistance. It turned out her husband had died and left her in such debtthat she was in danger of losing everything. At this point she couldbarely afford to purchase groceries.
Two brothers walked upnext; they were only 14 and 17 years old. They were “emancipatedminors,” escaping an abusive family. Young women arrived withtoddlers and newborns in tow, describing how their boyfriends hadabandoned them and their children.
I met middle-aged wives comingin secret, too afraid to tell their husbands they could not affordnecessities. One woman’s husband’s salary was too low andhis pride too high. Another’s husband was a compulsive gambler androutinely spent grocery money on his habit.
Clients told verydifferent stories, but all had one thing in common: they were isolated.Some had fled their families, others had been neglected, and some hadput their own pleasures before prudent choices. The final effect wastotal desperation and a lack of money.
Money was something I hadtaken for granted. I had never questioned having enough to purchasealmost anything I wanted, let alone needed, including groceries. Havingsuch good fortune, I realized, was not a universal condition. Most ofthe clients (according to the statistics) are hard workers, some holdingdown two, or even three, jobs. They have trouble making ends meet,though, because few employers will hire unskilled hourly workersfull-time. Without benefits, these people are often forced to choosebetween paying for housing or medicine, and eating.
Istill volunteer at the food pantry, but my outlook on my work haschanged. Instead of seeing the statistics on the thank-you notes asnumbers, I see the clients and hear their stories. I have come away fromthis experience with a newfound gratitude for my blessings.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.