Not Your Average Summer Gig

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Hello! I’m Lianna, one of the Special Projects Assistants this summer.  I just graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with a double degree in Global Studies and English and a minor in History; needless to say, I love learning, and learning about everything! I’ve finally zeroed in on the goal to study poverty, insecurity and education in graduate school in the coming years, something my heart was drawn to only recently. After too many monotonous after-school and summer jobs (from a clothing salesperson to an overworked waitress in Ireland) I was fortunate to turn a few weeks of volunteering into a summer student position with Habitat for Humanity Waterloo Region in 2008. I soon became passionate about working with not only underprivileged individuals in my community, but with dedicated volunteers that share my enthusiasm. I find that these traits make a position less of a job and more of a positive daily learning experience, something I have already sensed in my first few days at House of Friendship.

My first impression of the program was of the remarkable focus each staff member and volunteer brings to the warehouse. One of my first tasks was to assist Raymond, our warehouse specialist, in unpacking the weekly Monday food shipment. Sounds simple. However after I had been directed to re-label (how do you spell broccoli again?) or re-stack most of the boxes assigned to me, I realized truly how much detail and effort staff put into each organizing the food for each hamper. As they gracefully navigate passed the towers of banana boxes, estimating daily quotas with an amazing mathematical ability I’ll never understand, they seem to always keep in mind the end goal of getting as much nutrition to each patron as they can with the food they receive. I can’t help but think of the similarity between packing food hampers and filling proper prescriptions: a pile of disorganized soup cans or misplaced gluten-free pasta means that a family or individual (perhaps a child) may not meet their health needs for the week.

Of course, it isn’t all about keeping sharp minds and neat piles. Staff and volunteers also recognize the importance of smiling, joking, and singing along to the 80s hits that blare through the warehouse. Such positive energy is the difference between an emergency food distribution centre and a place where community members are joyfully helping their fellow neighbours and friends. I try to maintain this positive energy as much as possible, but have to remember not to repeat familiar salutations from previous jobs. Saying “see you again!” as you hand over a food hamper does not go over too well for a patron hoping to leave food insecurity in the past.

Something I know I will struggle with in this position is encountering any patrons that are my neighbours or peers. As someone born, raised, schooled and employed all over KW, I’m bound to come across patrons I know (perhaps well), and already have. I tried to reverse our roles; what would I be thinking if I came for emergency food, and saw my neighbour behind the front desk, or handing me a food hamper? I’d hope they would refrain from judging me, blaming me, or acting differently toward me in the future. I soon discovered that this is the attitude I should hold toward all patrons, who may not be my neighbours or peers, but who are all my extended KW family. This scenario helped me zero in on the abovementioned principle of the program here: that fellow KW members should care and provide for one another when they have fallen into a trap of insecurity, allowing us all to live in a happier, healthier society.  Perhaps I will need these patrons’ help in the future, or they have already helped me in some way. I think that the level of concern I feel for helping my acquaintances should be the concern I feel for helping all patrons; they just happen to be a little bit closer to home.

Regardless of the many more days of awkward smiles or misplaced boxes ahead of me, I can already feel the impact this position is having on my understanding and attitude toward local poverty and hunger. Especially in encountering acquaintances, I’ve learned that food insecurity can be a somewhat invisible problem: even if someone is receiving assistance from the government, works part-time, or has a university education, they can find themselves in a place where they have to choose between paying rent or buying groceries. I hope to further explore what makes these difficult choices necessary, by both interviewing patrons and researching and writing about KW food insecurity throughout the summer.

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