I decided one day to seek out some volunteer work and chose a great organization, Loaves and Fishes, because it is a place where the elderly and disabled can get a hot meal they may not otherwise have gotten. There have been many times when I have been given a meal when I had nothing and I know the huge difference the selfless people who served me made in my life. They were humble and joyful and so clearly happy to be giving something that so many others take for granted. In my experience on the receiving end, I always walked away feeling grateful that I received the meal and so much more. Sometimes it was a warm smile that changed my mood, or a few kind words that gave me hope, or a wise suggestion that ultimately aided me in breaking free of my temporary misfortune, but every time, I left with a full belly and one less immediate stress. I felt this site would give me a good opportunity to give back just a little of all I have been blessed to receive.
I was hoping that by volunteering, I would be able to not only serve meals, but also beam a warm and sincere smile and speak simple words of hope and encouragement that could lighten a heavy heart, give direction to a lost soul, or give strength to a spirit beaten down by the realities of daily life that can tend to be less fair to some than to others. My desire was to touch the lives of some of those who cross my path that day. My partner, Sherry, volunteered at Loaves and Fishes every Christmas day for years. She and her daughter, Ashley, would assist with the Meals on Wheels program and always felt more blessed than a blessing. The Meals on Wheels program delivers hot meals directly to the homes of the elderly, the handicapped and others who cannot get out and are, for one reason or another, house bound. That is what I really wanted to do, but without a car or a driver’s license, I figured I would more likely work at the site itself, preparing and or serving food, setting tables, or washing dishes. No matter the task, I was ready and willing.
Loaves and Fishes have many sites in the Metro area. The one I chose was in S.E. Portland because it was the most convenient to get to. It’s in a simple building across from an elementary school. Loaves and Fishes is only one of several different service agencies located in the building. As I walked through the front entrance, there was a colorfully decorated information desk to my right and a warm, cozy looking waiting area to my left. I was directed to go straight forward, down the hall opposite the entrance, all the way to the other end of the building. At the far end and to the right was the door to the large kitchen where the food is prepared. Its shiny, stainless steel sinks were in the back, several large yawning ovens on either side, a huge prep table in the center and the service counter, complete with heated steam tables, was in the front. On the other side of the service window was an enormous room with twelve round tables, each with eight chairs. These tables barely covered half of the space they were in. Several entrances to this area opened into the hall. On the left side of the hall, there were several smaller rooms in which different activities are planned for and available to the elderly and disabled. One room was a small library and had tables with board games and jigsaw puzzles on them for visitors to enjoy. A second room had aerobics and a third, a painting lesson.
When I first arrived, it smelled like fresh brewed coffee. The sun streamed in through the windows filling its path with a brilliantly dazzling glow. Several people were scurrying around in the kitchen, focused and working with a purpose. They were chatting and sharing and laughing together as they busily prepared for the day. The atmosphere was electrifying and the cheerful mood, contagious. There was such an excitement being shared that I almost didn’t notice the sounds of freezer doors opening and slamming shut again, the clink of silverware, ice being scooped, water running, a knife chopping speedily, or the sliding of many trays and pans of food from table to oven to clanking into the steam tables.
Though I had never met the workers or other volunteers before that day, they all welcomed me, included me in their conversations, put me at ease, and made me feel like I was right where I was supposed to be. These wonderful human beings ranged in age from 18 to 80 and I felt right away like we were all just one big family. There were no “cliques” as in high school or any political, religious, or ethnic boundaries put up by anyone there. As is unusual in this day and age, I felt neither inferior nor superior to anyone, but felt very much everyone’s equal. Finally, I was in a place where I could just be myself and was accepted without question and without the suffocation of expectations. The day could not have started out any better.
The first thing I did upon arriving was fill out a form with very basic information: name, date, address, phone number, emergency contact, allergies, and days/times I was available to volunteer. From there, I was given a quick tour, an overview of all that would be accomplished, and introductions to those I would be working with. I was given a hair net and an apron and once I was suited up and had washed my hands, I was given my first order of business—set the tables. Everyone was so polite, never failing to say “please” and “thank you” and always asking, “would you mind?” rather than telling or ordering demands. Setting the tables entailed more than I would have guessed. I started by laying down place mats, followed by plates for the hot food and bowls for salad. Napkins were folded in a specific way, silverware properly placed on either side of the plates, and the setting was framed by coffee cups, water cups, and cups for iced tea or milk. The final touches included a water pitcher, a vase with flowers and salt and pepper shakers.
When I was finished getting the tables ready for their honored guests, I had the privilege of greeting and seating them as they all began to arrive. I wondered why everyone was coming in so early, as dinner was over an hour away from being served, but my confusion soon cleared up as I watched people come in, hug each other, get their coffee, and sit around and laugh and visit, talking about their families, politics, plans for the day, or cracking jokes. I was summoned from one group to another, all of them ever so curious as to whom I was, where I worked, if I had kids and what did I think about Hilary running for president.
The women wore dresses and pumps and pearls and the men wore suit coats, ties and wingtips. It was as if they were coming to church on a Sunday morning rather than to a service agency to receive a free meal. It was for them, a very special occasion and each day was a new day full of magic and promise. Time melted away and the clock indicated that salads could start being served. Most took their salad bowls up to be filled, but some needed assistance getting their salad and returning to the table. Once the salad bowls were collected and brought to the sinks to be washed, we were ready to serve the hot food—meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans and warm, soft dinner rolls. I scooped the smooth and creamy mashed potatoes.
The whole process of the day didn’t feel like work at all. It was much more like a family gathering on Thanksgiving. I so thoroughly enjoyed myself and as I write this, I realize the irony of my experience. I went in expecting and intending to give of my time and kindness and to serve others as I have been served, but when it was over, it was I who had gained so much. I am anxious to return to Loaves and Fishes to volunteer again. Maybe even make it a once a week commitment.
Loaves and Fishes is an organization that prepares and serves hot meals once a day, 365 days a year, to the elderly and disabled. The meals are provided at no cost, but donations are welcomed. They also provide a place for activities to be held, such as exercise classes, hobby classes, dances and the like, not to mention a safe, warm place for the elderly to gather, hang out, and socialize. I personally feel they provide an amazing service to our most honored citizens, in a sense giving back to them for all they have given over the years of their lives. I hope that enough cash donations as well as volunteers continue to come so that this great service to our community may be ongoing for years to come. I for one will do my personal best to give what I can, both time and money, because in giving to them, they gave so much back to me. I had a wonderful day and it is one I look forward to repeating!