This week when I was volunteering at the food pantry one of our homeless clients stopped in to let us know that he had gotten a job. He was happy and proud of himself and wanted to share his good news, but he also had a request. He wanted to know if we had any wipes so he could keep himself cleaned up and he wanted some food, especially food he could take to work to make him “look normal” to his coworkers. Luckily we were able to provide both due to recent donations. We gave him some wipes and a few cans of Chef Boyardee and stew and a can of Spam. We even gave him a cantaloupe to celebrate of his good news! Overall this interaction was positive, but his request to “look normal” tug at my heartstrings. All he wanted was what most of us take for granted; he wanted to fit in, to be an accepted, productive member of society.
In our society we have a tendency to ignore or even shame people in poverty. We look past the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk or avoid making eye contact with the mother with the child who is asking for something to eat because he is hungry. Or worse, we look at them with disgust or harsh judgement. There are many reasons why we behave in this manner. Maybe we are frustrated because we are working hard and not getting ahead and we worry that one day that could all too easily be us. Or maybe we look away because we desperately want to be of assistance, but feel powerless to truly help these folks out of their situation. Some may tell themselves this homeless person or single mother is responsible for his or her situation due to the poor decisions he or she has made in life, and therefore deserves no further consideration. Whatever our rationale, the result of our actions is to push people living in poverty to the edges of society, to segregate them.
I admit that at times have been guilty of such actions myself. I admit to looking past a homeless person or pretending not to hear the heartache in a mother’s voice as she responds to her child’s pleas of hunger. I regretfully chose to look away because, at best, I could only help them in the moment, but do nothing to change their situation. Initially, when I started volunteering in the food pantry I was worried about how to interact with the clients. I didn’t want them to feel I was patronizing or pitying them. In the end I settled my nerves by telling myself to just smile and greet them, to acknowledge them like I would any other person I would meet in my day. I didn’t quite understand the power of that act until our client’s request to want to “look normal.” He didn’t want anything special. He just wanted to be regarded and treated like everyone else. He is not alone, as I imagine most people living in poverty, in addition to wanting a path out of poverty, want to be treated with humanity and acceptance.
This longing to appear “normal”, I’m sure, is felt strongly by children. They may not understand why some children can have so much, but they do not. Whenever we can we try to make sure a client with children gets the boxed mac and cheese with the Star War noodles or the Frosted Flakes. We sometimes get donated boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes or sweets that are out of season, like the packaged peppermint bark we got right after Christmas. It is always fun slipping these items into a family’s monthly groceries, knowing the joy it will bring to a little one whose life holds few treats. This past week we were able to ensure a young girl got a birthday party thanks to someone who donated a birthday party in a bag, which included cake mix, birthday candles, plates and napkins. (What a great idea this is!) This young lady’s birthday party will be on Saturday and I will happily think of her getting to celebrate her birthday like a “normal” kid.
When I think what a food pantry provides I have been defining my answer in the broadest terms. A food pantry provides food and other supplies to someone who is in need. After this exchange with our homeless client, I realize what we provide is more than just food. This gentleman came back to us to share his success, not only because he needed items, but because he knew he would be acknowledged and treated “normally”, that we would be happy for him and celebrate, as well as help him with his request. One doesn’t have to volunteer in a food pantry, however, to have this interaction with people in poverty. The next time you see someone struggling with poverty, certainly assist them if you can, but equally important, remember they want to be seen and treated as “normal”. A smile and a friendly greeting can go a long way in making someone feel that they are accepted and belong.