I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into in last June when I decided to jump in as a volunteer for Mama’s Kitchen, a local non-profit that provides food assistance for San Diego residents who are living with HIV/AIDS or cancer. I went through the training to become a driver, someone who would have a selected route that I would cover one day a week and from about 3:30-5:30 PM would get bags of food out to my list of clients.
By the time I show up, a whole lot of people have done a whole lot of work preparing the meals that I will deliver to my clients.
I did know that I was going to work for a first-class organization filled with compassionate, dedicated people. Since 1990, Mama’s Kitchen has served over 8 million meals to needy San Diegans. Their mission is to provide three nutritional meals a day, for no charge, to their clients with AIDS or cancer and to their clients’ dependents. That means getting over 400 bags of food delivered every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 52 weeks out of the year.
That’s where people like me come in. I show up every Wednesday at around 3:15, load up my bags of food (my client list has ranged from 7 to 17 on any given day) along with a hot bag that contains a freshly prepared hot meal for each client to have for dinner that night.
Packed up and ready to go!
Then I’m on the road for the next 1-2 hours making deliveries. To be honest, there was a lot that I did not like about the work in the beginning. The route changed every time a client was added or deleted as the routing computer tries to give me the most efficient order of delivery. Initially, that made it hard to relax as I was often in unfamiliar territory and had to pay close attention to Siri’s sometimes imperious directions.
What makes her think I know my east from my west, anyway?
Needless, to say, at the beginning, I missed a lot of turns and sometimes was unsure if I was at the right house even though Siri reassured me I had “arrived at my destination.” I had to do a lot of checking and double-checking until streets and houses became more familiar. The transactions with client seemed strangely impersonal, and I just felt like the rewards of this particular volunteer gig were going to be limited.
Seven months in, I’m enjoying it tremendously. I now am covering the route on both Wednesdays and Fridays and some Mondays as needed. Now that my clients know I’m committed to the work, that I’m not a student who is looking to do some volunteer work to be able to listed on a college application or someone on probation who has been sentenced to community service, they have begun to treat me more as a real person and not just “the food guy.”
And my clients are no longer just strangers which makes the work both harder and easier. It’s hard to see them when they are having a bad day because all of them are on a rollercoaster when it comes to their strength and vitality. I often have to pound on the door and ring the doorbell repeatedly, and shout that, “It’s me, Tom, the good looking-looking food delivery guy!” because they sometimes sleep heavily in the afternoon, and it pains me to think that they might not get their food for the next two or three days. We are expressly forbidden from leaving food on the porch with the hope that they’ll get it before it begins to spoil.
The longer I do the route, the more of a sense of ownership I have and the more the positives pile up. I have a standing invitation to join one of my clients for bingo night (Wednesdays at 6 PM) at the senior apartment complex where she lives. At Christmas, one of my clients insisted I come in while she bagged up some tamales for me to take home. I get a lot of good wishes and “God bless you”s since I’m the final contact for Mama’s Kitchen and represent all the work done by so many people. The son of one of my clients has offered to detail my SUV for me assuring me that he’ll “take good care” of me.
My favorite moment on the route is delivering to a family with two school-aged daughters, maybe 7 and 10 years of age. They seem to love being “my favorite helpers!” which I announce loudly whenever I see them. The older daughter’s bright eyes and ready smile kill me every time as she takes one or two of the three bags I need to tote up to the house. I haven’t been able to resist treating them by slipping a pack of gel pens or drawing pads into their bags on Fridays and claiming that it “must have been the elves at Mama’s Kitchen. They must have heard you are taking good care of your mom!” –two children managing to thrive in the most precarious of situations.
As the fifth pillar of my guide to “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” (soon to be revisited and revised), volunteering is a solid investment of my time. It takes me out of the whirlwind of bad news that #notmypresident Trump inspires and makes a small contribution to a vulnerable population, one that will receive no help soon from the federal government.