For the past month, weather permitting, I have been volunteering in two local food pantries. They serve our area and are part of the larger county food bank network. The setting for each pantry is different. One is affiliated with a church and the food pantry is the only service provided at that building. It is also on the outskirts of town, so most clients arrive in a car. The other is located in a building that houses other social services. It is located in town and many clients walk to the pantry.
Each of the food pantries has its own mix of clientele, but all walks of life are represented. There are large families, usually multiple generations living in one house and clients who live alone. There are children and senior citizens. There are Hispanics, Caucasians, and African Americans. There are those who are disabled and the able bodied. In many households someone is suffering from an ailment, sometimes something chronic like diabetes, sometimes just a virus or the flu. Except for those with disabilities or who have retired, at least one person in most households was employed. Those who were unemployed were looking. One client even asked me if I knew anybody who was hiring.
My primary task is to assist clients with getting their food. The food in each pantry is similar, often identical, because most of it comes from the same agencies. The differences that exist are due to what each pantry orders to serve its unique clientele and the donated items it receives. There are guidelines about what and how much clients can take, but clients also have some input in what they receive. More often than I expected they do not take all to which they are entitled. Most only take what they need right then. Additionally, several clients I encountered came only when they were truly running short on food. In other words, they do not make appointments to come when they do not need the extra assistance, even though they would still qualify to receive that assistance.
Many of the clients initially seemed wary of me, probably because I am a new face. I imagine being there is not easy for them. One of the other volunteers told me that when clients sign up to use the food pantry, particularly for the first time ever, they always cry. I try to do whatever I can to put them at ease. I look them directly in the eye and smile. I make small talk, no talk or offer a handshake. I try to catch their name so I can address them properly.
The manner in which I complete my tasks at each of these two food pantries has been different, due to the constraints of each location. What has not been different is what I take away each time I have volunteered. I always feel that warm feeling you get in your heart when you help someone else, but there is more. I also feel inspired by the manner in which these individuals meet the adversities in their lives. With each encounter I have I learn more about the reasons people find themselves at a food pantry. Consequently, I find myself more committed than ever to this endeavor.