Thursday, February 27, 2014

Day 291 - Volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank

I have never volunteered at the Second Harvest Food Bank. When I decided volunteering for a new organization each month would be a part of my “I have never...” journey, volunteering at the food bank was high on my list of potential locations to donate some of my time. Although that was the case, other volunteer opportunities seemed to fall into place during the first nine months of my year. As a result, I pushed back my intention to volunteer at Second Harvest as the months passed, thinking I could volunteer at the location when I encountered any sort of snag in locating a one-time volunteer experience. Fortunately, I never found it challenging to find volunteer opportunities up to this point, which ultimately made me decide to finally act on my intent of volunteering at the food bank by offering my assistance this month. In turn, I booked a volunteer shift at Second Harvest this afternoon and headed to the location to follow through on my tenth volunteer experience of my “I have never...” year.

The facility

When I arrived at the food bank this afternoon, I was greeted by a gathering group of people in the lobby of the building. A mix of food bank employees and volunteers from the local Lions club, each them promptly offered an introduction as I took my position among the crowd. With that, one of the volunteer coordinators took the opportunity to provide some background on the food bank for each of us volunteers. Explaining the food bank served as the central location for food pantries within a 16 county radius, the woman detailed how our work this evening would help in the food bank’s effort to distribute nearly one million pounds of food each month. As the facts settled in, I was struck by the enormity of the tasks Second Harvest take on each day. Knowing I could help contribute to that effort in the slightest way mad me glad I had finally acted on my intentions to volunteer at the food bank, and it made me excited to start our volunteer shift for the evening.


My sorting station

After our introduction to the organization, one of the food bank’s warehouse employees guided us to the back of the facility and explained our shift would focus on packaging bulk chocolate treats for distribution. The task was straightforward enough that our group began the process of organizing, weighing, and packing the candies at our independent stations shortly after arriving in the room. Within minutes, each of us was finding a groove in the process and setting marks for our progress by the end of the night. The interaction and common goal gave us all a lift as we worked through our first bags of the chocolates and stared down the work before us. With nearly a palette and a half of cased candies to work through, it was clear we had a big task before us.

Over the next three hours our group worked steadily as we chatted about the process and our independent reasons for donating our time. As I listened to the stories of others, including a fellow volunteer who was literally days away from giving birth, I couldn’t help but recognize the caliber of the individuals surrounding me. Each of them had busy lives filled with more than enough events and obligations to occupy their time, but they saw the need to help the local food bank as important enough to set aside all of those things for several hours this evening. Their collective perspective was admirable and humbling, which made me want to give my all during the rest of my shift at the food bank.

I don't mean to brag, but... I'm pretty much a sorting expert.

As the late afternoon crept into the night, members of our volunteer group slowly peeled away from the group to head home for the evening. Eventually, that left only me and one other volunteer, an older gentleman named Jeff, who quickly made a pact with me to work through to the food bank’s closing hour. Together, we carried on in conversation as we worked alongside some of the food bank employees, doing our best to whittle away at the remaining half of a palette of chocolates waiting to be processed.

In time, our effort resulted in a full palette of stacked boxes filled with goods ready for distribution, which gave both Jeff and I a sense of accomplishment as we pressed forward in our efforts. Equally committed to the idea of leaving as little work behind as possible by the time the food bank closed, we refocused and heightened our pace as the clock crept toward our finishing time. Although that effort didn’t result in Jeff and I getting through all of the candies that required sorting and packing by the time our shift drew to a close, we stood before a waist high pile of unworked boxes that paled in comparison to the work we had found when we arrived.


Looking over the remaining work along with me, Jeff offered a simple comment about our effort. “Well, I’d say we made some pretty good progress,” he said turning to me with a smile. I shook my head in agreement and looked back at the stack of boxes we had packed over the hours we were at the food bank. “Yeah, that’s a good night’s work if you ask me,” I said as I gestured toward the boxes of food ready for distribution. In response, Jeff smiled and stuck out his hand. I promptly grabbed it for a shake as Jeff continued, “It was good working with you, Caleb. Thanks for sticking this one out with me.” The kindness and sincerity in his words were impossible to ignore, but the thanks he offered threw me a bit off guard. “No thanks necessary, Jeff,” I said wondering where the comment was taking me, “This is what we came here to do, and I wasn’t about to leave until they told us it was closing time.”

Understanding my perspective, Jeff gave me a nod as we headed toward the front of the building. There, one of the employees gave us our final send off and thanked us for our time before guiding us to the door. Slinging my coat over my torso, I walked out into the bitter cold of another winter night. With the night silence of a city grown still around me, I reflected on what I had learned this evening and on the time I had put in at Second Harvest today. In the broad scope of the food bank’s enormous undertakings my effort seemed incredibly small, but I knew the significance of today’s experience rested in knowing that the work I did will help people in need find a brief moment of joy in the candy treats I had helped prepare this evening. Although those moments are incredibly fleeting, the knowledge my work might help deliver that outcome makes every part of this experience worth it. There’s something to be said for helping people, even when their names and faces are unknown. In an odd way it makes me feel more complete and, in some ways, more alive. Considering my goal is to figure out what it means to truly live, that’s a conclusion that carries weight. I just might be starting to figure this whole thing out.

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