The soup cupboard at the mission, is filled with cans and cans of soup, and other non-perishable goods the public has donated during food drives. And even though its sorted on a regular basis there are hundreds of cans of food that have expired. On the day I volunteered I asked the team leader if I could organize it.
“Eileen, can help you.” She pointed to a tall, awkward woman, about 40, who looked like her body went through a growth spurt while she slept. Her sleeves hit way above her wrist and her pants show the tops of her socks. She has on a white sweater that looks like she stole it from a child’s doll. I smile at her and Eileen smiles back at me, a big toothy grin.
The two of us squeeze into the cupboard and begin the cull. As Eileen grabs a big garbage bag to fill, I mutter on about how I don’t know why people bring such out-dated food. Eileen bows her head and watches each soup can being dropped into the garbage bag.
I ask her what she’s been up to lately, and she says she just got out of Quinte Detention Centre.
“Oh, good for you. That’s nice.”
Nice? Damn it. Why don’t I just shut up!
Two questions come to mind: One, “I wonder what she was doing time for.” And two “I am glad she and I are isolated from everyone else and crammed in a small area together.”
“So these are your community hours?” She nods and begins adding bombing sound effects for each can that is launched into the bag. This cracks me up.
We fill one bag after another. Each time she opens the top of the next green bag pulling it open with her teeth. I reach up to her mouth and help her pull it apart and she says,
“I am hungry.”
“Me too. But I think lunch will be ready soon.”
“I meant I need food. I need to take some of this.” She points to the cans we are throwing out. ” I have nothing in the cupboard till Friday.”
“Oh. Oh well then. Let’s get you some things. Pick what you want.”
She looks down at the garbage bag she is holding,
“I will take the expired stuff.”
“You will not take the expired stuff,” I sound cross. Using my mother voice like I would when the kids used to want to go out without their coats on.“Let’s get you some food that is safe. Grab that box over there.”
I pointed to a pile of flattened boxes tossed in the corner which she grabs and as she taped it up I thought how simply she asked.
I am hungry. I need food. It was simple. Unapologetic.
Like a Home Ec teacher, I look for foods that might offer a degree of sustenance. I drop the bean soup and Chili in. At least they would have some protein in it, but she pulls them out. The tomato soup is the only one she wants. I look for canned vegetables. Better canned vegetable than no greens at all. I put three cans of beans and peas in the box and she takes them out, trading them for canned creamed corn.
When we have her box full she asks,
“Do you mind if I have some cake mixes, too?”
“My gosh, take whatever you like.” I am very generous with the other people’s rations.
She takes two cake mixes and a container of pre-made icing.
“I want to make cupcakes for everyone as a surprise for the Thursday lunch.”
“Oh, you do. People will appreciate it.” I tear up. So I turn back to the soup.
She comes up behind me and wraps her arms tight around my waist. I stiffen.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I didn’t do anything.” I didn’t turn to face her. At the best of times, I don’t feel comfortable when people who I’ve just met hug me, but this felt too intimate. She laid her head on my back.
“I am so happy,” she burbled.
“Lunch is going to be served soon. We better get a move on.”
After a minute more she loosens her grip and goes to put her stash next to her coat.
“I don’t want the buggers out there to steal it.” She is wise, as people take anything that isn’t nailed down.
I pile up the bags of expired food and think to myself how ridiculous this helping game is.
It’s like we are all playing our parts in a high school play.
I have the role of the volunteer. And she is cast of the one I help.
But she helped me far more than I helped her.
She taught me how to ask.
At one point in our lives we will all be the one who needs to ask. There is no shame in it.
Its a simple four letter word: Help.
Do you have a conference coming up? Let me speak to your group. ( and make them laugh) Topics include volunteerism, uncertainty and dealing with change with humour.