A few nights ago my family and I went to distribute dinner to folks who could use a helping hand. Each month one of us picks a community organization to support, and we roll up our sleeves to serve. My wife, my son and two daughters all go together. It is one of the ways we give back, but we always receive more than we give through the experiences. This night was no exception.
We met at a place called the Dream Center. It was sweltering hot outside. As we waited in the parking lot for the building to be opened, we met our co-workers for the evening. We didn't know what to expect; how the food was to be prepared or whom we would serve it to. We just knew people needed help, and we wanted to use our hands to serve others.
Soon the organizer, Al, and team leader showed up to let us in the kitchen. Once inside, we stood uncomfortably for a few minutes while others began to get the food set up. It was one of those moments where you know absolutely nothing about what you are supposed to do, but you act like you are helping. Sort of like the first day of practice of little league football or baseball. A few people know what is happening, the rest just stand around uncomfortably.
As the pattern emerged, we began to participate. Styrofoam food containers were passed around, someone started heating up the baked beans in a huge black pot and an even larger kettle of macaroni and ham was already prepared. My wife and kids pitched in. I handed the meal holders to them as they scooped in the chow. Someone else added a piece of bread. I then grabbed the finished product and closed the lid. I saw someone else begin to stack the completed meals on top of each other, so I followed the pattern. The awkwardness turned to teamwork and we picked up speed. Before I knew it, we had a stack of dinners ready to go.
Outside in the heat again we wonder what comes next. A fifteen-passenger van pulls up. We load the meals into big Rubbermaid tubs and load them into the van. Someone brought some donuts and pastries so they also get piled on top. A box of plastic forks is loaded, and we are ready. The van is full of food and people so we follow behind in our SUV. It is Friday night.
We drive for a few miles to a local parking lot where folks gather. Six men are huddled around a folding table playing dominos. Some people are sitting on the window ledge of a stand-alone building. As we pile out of our vehicles, Al greets the people with a huge smile. They talk and laugh, and we hand out the meals. Not knowing what my role is, I grab the big red box of plastic forks. I stand behind our team as they hand out the Styrofoam-protected dinner. Everyone is smiling, thankful and eager to talk. I hand each person a fork. Some more people begin to come from across the street. It is hot and we are sweating, but there is a genuine sense of love in the air.
Back in the van we head to a Veteran’s home for our next stop. I was wondering in my mind what it would look like since we heard about it at the center. As we pull up, I see a ten-foot high metal fence with barbed wire surrounding the property. The main building is a two story converted old hotel. It looks like one of those 1970’s hotels made out of concrete blocks. There are about 10 rooms on each floor and an office. A few people are sitting outside in folding chairs. We begin to hand out the meals. I go for the box of forks again - I have found my niche. My son gives out the boxed meals, my daughter offers pastries and my wife keeps track of our youngest daughter as she runs around with a new friend.
We knock on the doors and veterans emerge from dark rooms. It is hot outside, must be 100 degrees. It seems hotter inside. Some ask for two meals. We look to our leader not knowing what the protocol is. We are given a signal to give more than one meal so we gladly pile a few up. Once we have made the rounds on both floors we stand in the parking lot for a bit while several of the volunteers chat with the residents. We are the newbies. The other team members have been here before and have made friendships, and it is amazing to watch them hug, laugh and share. It is hot; there are flies buzzing around my head. We count up the remaining meals and handpick some pastries to go with them to the next stop. The rest of the pastries stay here with the vets.
While I wait for the signal to get back in the vehicle, I stand and study the building. It is broken. It has temporary steel reinforcement holding up parts of the roof. There is an air conditioning unit on the floor with plywood ductwork running overhead of the walkway and into each room. I doubt it runs. There are signs posted all over about this being under surveillance by the local police. It is a bit much for me to process.
On to a few more stops. The team leader knows the spots where people in need gather. At each stop he jumps out with a big smile and we follow. People are kind. They are thankful. It is 8:00 p.m. as we pull back into the center's parking lot. We thank them for allowing us to participate, and we shake hands and hug. As I lay my head down that evening, I reflect on the experience. At 3:30 that afternoon I was in a beautiful office building of a rising technology company. A few hours later, I was totally out of my comfort zone and wondering how to stack meals before spending a few hours serving dinner to some people having a much tougher day than I had. Once again I have received much more than I gave.
It is helpful to stop every now and then and serve folks who need a smile and maybe a meal. There are as many ways to serve as there are people. The venue and the format are not as important as the basic act of lending a helping hand. You may feel uncomfortable, you may interrupt your schedule, but you may just make a new friend and find a sense of your purpose along the way.