One year, mulitiple programs, hundreds of people

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Twelve months ago I graduated from the University of Waterloo, and embarked upon a journey into a rich world of cultural, social, and economic diversity. During this time I was introduced to delicious foods I had never even heard of before, like lychees or star fruit, and I was able to share this food with others. I met people who were living, or had lived through, circumstances unimaginable to many. I communicated with individuals who spoke languages different from my own. I held babies, I organized and attended parties, I planted seeds, I drove thousands of kilometers, and now, my year-long adventure has come to a close. Friday, April 30th was the last day of my House of Friendship Social Service Internship!

I enjoyed my experience as the intern, and although I wasn’t actually traveling the world, it sure felt like it sometimes. The majority of my time was divided between three programs each week– Emergency Food Hamper Program, Live and Learn Program, and Eby Village. However, I also assisted with the Sunnydale Community Centre Summer Playground Program during the summer of 2009, the Christmas Hamper Program in December 2009, and various other programs and events over the course of the year. I am sure that the insights and understanding that I gained during this time period will continue to guide me for years to come, and can not be easily summarized. What follows is just a small slice of everything I would like to say, without crashing this blog site with too much content!

To me, my involvement with food assistance was about much more than food. It was, and always will be, first and foremost, about people. The people in need of help and the people who offered that help to them: the patrons, the volunteers, donors, and staff members who astounded me with their resilience, resourcefulness, generosity, and humility.

It seems that sometimes, when life hits you with a pile of bricks, it hits you with a whole house worth. Your husband loses his job, your car starts making a funny noise, your kid complains of a tooth ache, and next thing you know you’re paying for two fillings and a new fan belt on top of everything else. What do you do? Well, if you’re anything like the people who access any of our programs, you keep going. You move forward, and you do the best you can with what you have.

A man came in to the Food Hamper Program last week. He wore a large knapsack on his back, with a rolled sleeping bag attached. He was homeless, and living out of a tent. He needed food, but the items he could take with him were limited – he didn’t have a fridge, or cooking tools. After he received his hamper, he asked if I could open his can of tuna for him. He was starving and needed something to eat right then, but did not have a can opener of his own. It broke my heart to see this man’s eyes light up when I offered him a simple fork to accompany what may have been the first thing he would eat all day.

We couldn’t provide the food we do if it weren’t for our generous donors and volunteers. Having the chance to work side by side with people who give so much of their time and resources has been a heartening experience. Being able to work in a place where I witness extreme generosity on a daily basis has been a huge blessing. Whether it may be 10,000 ripe mangoes, 33,000 lbs of corn, 1,000 lbs of canned food, or one can of baby formula, it is amazing to know that there are so many farmers, supermarkets, community members, companies, schools, and church groups out there who remember and choose to help other people in need.

Many months ago, I met a single mother in need of food assistance. She seemed  ashamed to be in such a position. It was apparent that she felt she needed to justify her need by explaining to me her current situation. Her eyes were full of tears, but she choked them back as she explained how her son was sick, and she was missing a lot of work because of it. She told me there was a time she never would have imagined having to ask for food. She’d gotten a Philosophy Degree, but then she got pregnant and became a single mother. Finding a job in her field was extremely difficult, so she took whatever she could get, minimum wage, part-time, etc, to raise her son.

Recently, I met this woman again, but it was now me standing on the other side of the counter asking for food. I was at a local fast food restaurant. She didn’t remember me, but her service was excellent and we ended up having an interesting conversation. I couldn’t help thinking after saying good-bye that we all sit at the same table, just  sometimes in different chairs.

This woman’s situation, like many others, really stuck with me. I too have a university degree, and like her, I might one day find myself in a situation I would never perceive possible. Like so many patrons that come in to the Food Hamper Program I might go from food bank donor, to food bank recipient in the blink of an eye. No one foresees a future in which they will need to ask for help from complete strangers. No one wants to do this, but for over 20,000 people in our community, this is their reality.

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