Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 194 - Volunteering at the Goodman Community Center

I have never volunteered at the Goodman Community Center. As an organization renowned for its impact and commitment in the local Madison community, I knew I wanted to make my first experience volunteering at the Goodman Community Center a part of my ongoing effort to volunteer for a new organization once each month during my “I have never...” journey. In fact, my planning for a volunteer shift at the Goodman Community Center was one of the earliest volunteer events I began to pursue at the beginning of my year of new experiences. Fortunately, an amazing employee at the Goodman center, Kristin, was quick to take me up on my offer in late spring and was kind enough to stick with me until the center had a volunteer event that worked with my schedule. In turn, I found myself preparing to gain my first experience volunteering at the Goodman Community Center this evening as the organization prepared for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in a very big way.

When Kristin and I spoke about volunteer opportunities over the months, she consistently made mention of the Goodman Community Center’s Thanksgiving holiday event, which involved receiving, sorting, and packing thousands of pounds of food donations into individual Thanksgiving meal bundles for families in need. Stating the event was one of the largest and most moving the Goodman Community Center puts on each year, Kristin told me a volunteer shift to take photos for the center during the event was still open. Realizing I had the equipment and the interest to fill such a role for the organization, I gladly offered my assistance taking photos during the event, which led Kristin to walk me through the process of volunteering my time to help the organization.

The center

As a result, I made my way down to the community center this evening to make good on my promise to Kristin and the Goodman Community Center. When I arrived, I was directed to an onsite gymnasium where volunteers were busy packing goods for the Thanksgiving event. While I expected to see a flurry of activity when I found my way to the gymnasium, the sight I encountered when I crossed through the entrance of the space was absolutely jaw dropping.

A quick chat with the volunteer group
Across the expanse of the wide open space, two groups of people circulated inside two separate rectangles that occupied one half of the gym a piece. The two distinct spaces were surrounded by walls of food from which the volunteers were pulling items to place in paper grocery bags, which, once full, found a place among growing rows of bags lining the gymnasium floor. Fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, canned fruits, gravies, boxes of stuffing, bread, and other components of a full Thanksgiving feast occupied the space of every bag to the point some of the bag handles ripped under the weight of the contents. I had only been in the building a few minutes and I was already in awe of what was happening around me. The scope of the work, and it impact it would have on local families in need, was flat out staggering.

Making progress
Shaking myself out of a stunned state of immobility, I dodged a line of volunteers as best I could and found my way to one of the event coordinators, who was handing out items to the constantly circulating volunteers. I quickly introduced myself and stated my purpose for being at the event, to which the coordinator responded with a statement confirming he was aware I would be helping out. Happy to be welcomed, I took a step back and made a passing comment about how impressed I was by the initial sight of the work going on around us. His reply to my comment was simple and impacting, “Just wait until you see the 1,250 bags we’ll end up with by the time we wrap things up tonight.” The smile on his face accompanying the remark was enough to give me some foresight at to how incredible the result would be, but seeing it all come together by the the end of the night would prove to be one of the best moments of the volunteer experiences I have had during my “I have never...” journey.

Line 'em up!
Over the next two and half hours I walked around the facility as the volunteer workers continued their circular movement collecting items in the operation's two stations. Although my primary function was to document the event, I found it hard not to help out where I could, reorganizing rows of bags and restacking cases of goods where I could as I moved about the space. The energy and drive of the volunteers made my goal of taking photos relatively easy, as many of them were happy to shoot me a smile or grab a few fellow volunteers for group shots as they continued their work. Collectively, it was obvious they all knew they were there for a good cause, and that was more than enough to keep out spirits high as the night pressed on.

As the clock rolled toward 8:00, the first phase of volunteers filling bags were replaced by a youth group from a local religious organization. As the volunteer event moved into its second half, the excitement and energy brought by the group of kids provided a boost to the already amazing amount of progress made by the previous group of volunteers. In little less than one hour after arriving, the youth group found themselves running low on certain items for each bundle of goods, which left the gym floor full of bags to the point it became difficult to traverse sections of the space.

Nearing the end of the night
The growing quantity of full bags gave me plenty to focus on as I continued snapping photos on either side of the gym. At one point I actually found myself struggling to find an angle that would permit me to fit all of the bags in a single shot, which made me step back and think about the quantity of food and the number of families that would affected by the ongoing effort. As the night drew to a close with the trickle of the final packs of food, the group took a step back and assessed their work. One of the volunteer coordinators on sight was quick to point out their work resulted in bags of food that would feed six to eight people a piece, which meant a few groups of volunteers made it possible for up to 10,000 people in and around Madison to receive a Thanksgiving meal. The number was absolutely mind blowing, and it left many in the crowd of volunteers moved to silence by the impact of their efforts. What had occurred in the space around us on a Friday night had real, direct impacts to families in need all around us, which made every second spent in that gymnasium worth it to everyone in attendance.

The last volunteer group of the night
standing among half of the bags
After the volunteer event came to a close, I took time to thank those coordinating the event and those that volunteered their time before heading back to my car. The striking, bitter cold made me think about those people that will be struggling through another Wisconsin winter, which made me feel good knowing there are organizations like the Goodman Community Center out there doing everything in their power to help those people in need. Although I was only there to take pictures for the organization tonight, the thought of their good deeds and commitment to the community made me feel happy I was able to lend a hand to such an amazing event. 

I know the impression left by my experience with the Goodman Community Center Thanksgiving event will linger for some time. The effort I witnessed and the impact the outcome will have will definitely give me perspective for some time. Hopefully, that will permit me identify other ways I can help leave a positive impact on my community in the months and years to come. While I’m aware it’s hard for one person or one group to affect the world, it doesn’t mean we can’t do everything in our power to affect the world around us. I’m just happy to know there is an organization like the Goodman Community Center out there to pursue that cause and to let people like me experience fleeting moments of the amazing work they do to improve so many lives. In a season we focus on giving thanks, I can honestly say my experience tonight will be one of the things I most thankful for this year. There’s no doubt the effort I was a part of will make a massive difference, and being able to contribute to that in the smallest way is an amazing experience to receive from such an incredible organization.