Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Some people cross your path and change your whole direction." -Unknown

I was leaning against a table full of crates of food when he was ushered into the room.

Unlike the others that had come before him, he wasn't pushing an abandoned shopping cart; instead, he had a bag and an old, gray backpack that had long-since seen better days slung across his shoulders.  His clothes and hair could be described as nothing other than disheveled, and he had to have only been in his twenties.  I tore that room apart looking for the right things to give him: enough to last for a month; only as much as would fit in the backpack and bag; things that could be eaten straight out of the package, without being frozen, heated, or prepared in any way.  Eventually, with a backpack stuffed to the brim with water bottles, snacks, cereal packets, and everything else I could cram in there, there was a quick, "Have a good day!", "Thanks.", and thud of the door behind him. I watched him out the window as he walked past the lucky few who were loading groceries into their beat-up cars, past the others who lined the sidewalk waiting for a ride from a friend, and into the heart of town to wherever the sidewalks carried him.

For years I have volunteered at the Union Food Pantry in some way or another.  I've been hugged over a jug of milk, become a toddler's best friend because of peanut butter crackers and pudding, and made multiple people cry by simply slipping a frozen pizza or box of ice cream or school supplies into their cart, but the day this man came through the door was one of the most inspiring ones for me.  This was the first time that I realized that there are homeless in our hometown--that some people's lives are contained to the streets we travel. Then, I began to understand what had been in front of me the whole time: most of the people who I saw there every day were on the edge of homelessness themselves.

Sitting on a desk in the Union Food Pantry is a binder of papers for those who have come into the Food Pantry in the last 6 months.  Five inches worth of paper contain the names of hundreds of people in the Union RXI School District who have received aid in the last 6 months.  The Food Pantry tries to be as temporary as possible, requiring strict guidelines for who can or cannot receive aid (based on their location and gross income) to ensure that those who truly need help have access to it, and can use the money they save on groceries for things such as medical or utility bills.  People across every spectrum of age and situation have turned towards the Pantry to help them get back on their feet.  For the past 25 years, the Food Pantry has relied on the generosity of the community, and the community has relied on the generosity of the Food Pantry.

With over 160 clients a month, the Union Food Pantry has touched the lives of many over the years.  And it is clear: in the people who return years later to donate, the people who volunteer or donate to make a difference in their community, the clients who come bearing news of a new job, the people we work with or go to school with or stand behind in the gas station line who have a place to go home to tonight and a meal to eat when they get there.

What is also clear, however, is the need.  Individuals and families who do not have enough income or resources to purchase food flock to the shelves once a month.  Senior citizens, disabled, parents just trying to provide for their children--all walks of life are represented in those 160 people each month, broken down to 20+ people helped each day the Food Pantry is open (two days a week, two hours a day).  While most clients have shelter of some kind--no matter how poor of condition it may be in--many do not.  Families and individuals travel from their abandoned buildings and bridges, makeshift tents and vacant lots to wait on the sidewalk until the Union Food Pantry opens its doors and arms and hearts to ensure that, at least for today, they have something to eat. And that is what volunteering at the Union Food Pantry has taught me: that a meal is never just food.  It is a lifeline.  It is the hope that today I will survive, tomorrow I will have to chance to rebuild my life, and one day, I will have enough to give back and pay it forward.

More importantly, my work there has taught me that people's lives are not contained to the streets.  They are shaped by that single second in time when they decided to be brave; their tragic memories skip across their dreams; they struggle to keep their heads above water when things go wrong; in a word, they are us.  They are human.  They are flawed, generous, creatures of habit, people who are just trying to help each other out and find their place in this crazy, ugly, beautiful world that we share...

...Which is our ultimate journey, our next step: to keep bringing light to the people who have dedicated themselves to helping those in need, to find a way to do this in our own personal lives, to share our knowledge of this need to the rest of the world, and to build something better where the sidewalk ends.

1 comment:

  1. Josie, after reading this, I feel so completely inspired. Thank you for your good work and for bringing light to these issues in our own community. What a great reminder to look for ways to pay our blessings forward.
    Jenny Stahlman