When I found out that my global hunger class requires students to volunteer at an offsite nonprofit, I was not too happy about it. When would I find the time to volunteer? Do the hours include the travel time? Maybe I’ll go to the closest organization in the area with the most glamorous work? These thoughts flooded my mind and it ended up being a burden just to pick a location. Initially, my heart was closed to the idea of spending the little energy that I have on others, when sometimes I don’t even have enough for myself. Luckily, my experience at Martha’s Table changed my mentality and opened my eyes toward the importance of volunteering as well as understanding the homeless issues in the city.
When I was a freshman, I knew I wanted to give back to the community in some shape or form. I volunteered with Meals on Wheels, a food delivery program to senior citizenships, but I was looking for a volunteer opportunity that catered to different individuals. Shortly after that, I signed up for a shift at Martha’s Table, and participated in McKenna’s Wagon, a program that offers meals from a truck. I slowly became busier but returned to this site because of this class. To be honest, I’m glad I did.
Early last month, I walked onto 14th street and instantly noticed the gentrification. When one looks to the left, there are upscale restaurants and condominiums, but on the right, there are shaggy apartments and small businesses. Martha’s table is located on the less glamorous side of the street, and many low-income individuals stood around the place; almost as a place of food safety and a community space. When I first entered Martha’s table, I expected to interact with the homeless during meal times and spend the majority of the time with other volunteers in the kitchen. Luckily, my supervisor equally divided my time between interacting with clients and serving behind-the-scenes. I had the freedom to choose what task I wanted to work on and whether I wanted to continue in the kitchen or dining area. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to speak to the clients about their personal experiences due to the amount of people who came to eat a meal. While I could get a sense of the organization’s role and the work Martha’s Table is doing, I was exposed to some of the issues surrounding homeless residents themselves.
During my second shift at Martha’s Table, I volunteered with my classmate Nancy. I thought we were just going to help clean up like last time, but in this Food Wrap-Up Program, we were able to serve dinner from 4:00pm to 4:45pm. As we set up our serving station, many people were lined up around the back of the building. The staff gave the volunteers advice on how to talk to the clients and urged us to see them as regular human beings in a difficult situation, not victims. I thought about how those who have the power to dictate how the marginalized are treated or represented often treat others as “less than.” The marginalized were portrayed and treated like people who just needed to be helped, but there isn’t any focus on the complexities, depth, or nuances of the individual.
I decided I did not want to treat the homeless as inferior at all, and I could tell they didn’t know whether I would act awkwardly around them. After reflecting on this, I made the effort to smile, make eye contact, and say “How are you?” I wanted to treat them like human beings and they noticed it too. It was important not to just serve their food and rush them out of the line, but I could tell they wanted to have a conversation with the new volunteers. The staff would say things like, “I haven’t seen you in a while, are you doing okay?” or “are you going to get the turkeys in Southeast for thanksgiving?” Everyone was glad to hear genuine, friendly conversations. The responses ranged from “good, can’t complain” to “not so good, I’m looking for a job.” Through their responses, I realized that the issues of homelessness are not limited to not having money for a meal, but lack of employment or housing as well. I even snuck a few extra treats for those that asked for them, because, at that moment, I could see not just another homeless person, but a friend who needed a late night snack. During that moment, I noticed that I had lost my heart for the homeless while being in the city, because I see homeless on almost every corner; these interactions reminded me that each individual was complex and important. In the future, I will definitely stop in my journey to say a greetings and ask how their day is going.
Throughout dinner, I was in charge of distributing lemonade, but I noticed how we ask the clients, “what would you like?” rather than stuff food into a bag or just direct people to take it. The clients also didn’t touch any of the food, but we serve them. This volunteer-client dynamic allowed the homeless person to feel respected, especially when they may not receive respect on a daily basis.
When we offered the homeless the food choices during dinner, some clients would ask “what is in there?” or “who cooked it?” or “Can you leave that out?” These requests were not due to food allergies, but personal preference. They also have many nonprofit organizations in DC that they could go to for dinner, so the access to this food allows them to be more selective. Martha’s Table always strives to serve nutritional meals to the homeless. For instance, they used whole-wheat bread for the sandwiches, chicken with brown rice for the Cuban chicken, rice and beans, semi-sweetened lemonade, and lots of water. After everyone was served, most individuals would sit and eat together in the parking lot. I also thought about my personal experiences, of how people are more likely to gather when food is present.
Overall, my volunteer experience was memorable and pleasant. I learned that one cannot assume that homeless people look a certain way or live a certain lifestyle. People from all walks of life used the nonprofit’s food service, and these individuals may just need a helping hand in a temporary and difficult situation. I also noticed the complexities of each individual; one cannot just see one as homeless and neglect their likes, dislikes, and environment. Originally, I thought I’d just be making some sandwiches and checking off hours for a class, but I ended up reflecting on myself and how I see the homeless in a new perspective.