In the fall of my sophomore year, I began volunteering at the North Helpline Food Bank as part of a sociology course. The first Saturday of October, I was awake (kind of) at 6:50am to allow myself enough time to throw on clothes, run a brush through my hair, grab a coffee, and catch the 372 bus to North Seattle at a quarter past seven in the uncharacteristically icy weather. I spent the four hour shift shivering in the cold while handing out numbers to clients (so they would know when it was their turn to choose food) and immediately knew that this was a place that was going to bring me a lot of joy. It was one of the first times since being at UW that I was able to feel productive, but not rushed or stressed and to learn by directly engaging with others in my community. I spent most of the following Saturdays passing out food while getting to know those who came through on a regular basis. By the end of the quarter, I knew who liked Como bread and who always wanted rye, who would stop to chat about the weekend and who needed a quiet space to make their selection. Volunteering taught me that I could incorporate more than schoolwork into my life, and I stayed with the North Helpline Food Bank through the entirety of my sophomore year. When I parted ways with this organization, it was not because I had grown tired of the work or lost the sense of community that I felt, but because it was time to pursue a new set of opportunities.
The reflection below (which I completed as a part of experiential learning) details some of my experiences volunteering and addresses the sociological lens through which I observed the environment as a part of the course it was linked to.
Over the past eleven weeks I have been working as a helper at the North Helpline Food Bank, which serves clients in much of the North Seattle Community. I have sorted and passed out food, stuffed envelopes to be mailed to potential donors, and helped maintain the cleanliness of the facility. Additionally, I think that I have begun to make connections with other volunteers and many of those who frequently patronize food bank services on Saturdays when I volunteer. As the quarter has progressed, I have found myself looking forward more and more to the weekend, not because of the break from regular classes, but because it brings another opportunity to engage with the wonderful individuals I’ve met as an active member in my community. Although autumn courses have come to an end, I have loved this experience and intend to continue volunteering at North Helpline on a weekly basis. In addition to developing connections with members involved in this organization, it has been a pleasure to observe the relationships between long-time clients and volunteers. While selecting or handing out food from the supply line, many catch up with one another. If somebody who regularly serves is absent from their post, countless clients inquire about their health and send them well-wishes. Additionally, it is painful to think about how those who rely on these services are sometimes perceived by others to be “cheating the system” or given “unfair” access to free resources. Everybody who I have interacted with throughout the past three months has been vocally thankful and honest about how much food bank assistance means to them. Nobody takes more than they need, and often individuals or smaller families choose to take only some of the items, stating they want to leave other goods for a larger family, who really needs and will enjoy them. If there is a specific grocery item somebody is especially excited to find available one week, clients before and after them in the line will sometimes choose to pass along their portion of it to them. This generosity, especially when they themselves are also living with food insecurity, is wonderful to witness.
This experience, which I originally took part in as a service component of my Introduction to Sociology class with Professor Susan Pitchford, has also been enriching from an academic perspective. In the course we focused in on three aspects of modern society and how their current frameworks often serve to reinforce inequality between different populations. In the first unit we examined how race is a sociohistorical construct, which has real world consequences. Although North Helpline makes good on its non-discrimination policy, it is clear that this is not always the case in the surrounding community. For instance, while approximately seventy-five percent of North Seattle residents are Caucasian, I would estimate that upwards of sixty percent of those served at the food bank are people of color. This disparity highlights both the commitment that the food bank coordinators have to serving all equally and the issue of modern racism, which is often implicit or expressed in the form of racial microaggressions.
The final two units, which also influenced my thinking and experience volunteering, were centered around education and globalization. These lessons were focused on how differential access to and completion of education reproduces class stratification in societies and how globalization often benefits Western countries at the expense of developing nations, and specifically, their working class. One occurrence, which revealed the impact of these two phenomena, was a conversation I had with a young woman, whom I will call Amina. Amina, who is both a client and volunteer, explained that she and her mother had recently arrived in the United States with refugee status. Although she completed a degree in physical therapy in Dubai, where they emigrated from, the U.S. required that she receive education within the country before being permitted to work here. She had been looking, without success, for a temporary job in Seattle. She explained that she would be willing to work anywhere - - no matter the pay, hours, or lack of benefits offered. She wanted to apply to the least competitive college, which offers a physical therapy degree so that she could complete it and begin earning enough money to support she and her mother as quickly as possible. This plan, a plan to solidify survival rather than bountiful comfort, demonstrates how education is not transferable from country to country in a global system, disadvantaging those moving from less to more developed nations.
Another experience which made me think occurred when the mayor, Ed Murray, visited North Helpline. He arrived with a full camera crew approximately one hour after the three hour food distribution began and stayed for approximately twenty minutes. During this time, he shook hands with most of those present, took pictures with the young volunteers, and spent about five minutes handing out beverages to clients. On the one hand, I think his presence had an important, positive impact. Being on the local news and his facebook page helps spread awareness about the issue of food insecurity and how community members can become involved as donors and volunteers. A representative from North Helpline was also given the opportunity to give a more in-depth explanation of the services offered and the need for support. For instance, she shared that donations tend to dwindle during the summer months, probably because the spirit of giving is not emphasized as much as during winter holidays, and the strain this put on meeting clients’ needs. However, the effects of this visit were not universally positive. For example, although relying on services is nothing to be ashamed of, many patrons were uncomfortable and did not want to be caught on camera. While we tried to accommodate this reasonable wish by designating one side of the warehouse for the cameras and the other for those who wished to be unfilmed, there were times when the crew was taking video of both sides. Additionally, while I believe the mayor was well-intentioned, I cannot help but wonder why he did not arrive when the food bank opened and stay even after the media team left in order to complete the entire shift. To disrupt the flow of distribution for twenty minutes and then leave made his effort as an individual, to me, seem almost artificial. However, it is possible that I am unaware of the full scope of his contribution to this organization. Overall, this event made me contemplate how complex balancing the public awareness and financial needs of an organization with clients’ privacy and comfort must be.
On a more personal level, volunteering at North Helpline has greatly widened my perspective. Growing up in a middle class family and environment, I was always comfortable. Attending college was always a part of my future (now present), I was not expected to apply for a job to help support my family as soon as I was old enough, and I received support and advice from my parents, who both attended graduate school, when applying to university. I never considered what it might be like to have a limited selection of fruits and vegetables rather than exploring a breadth of organic produce in supermarkets. Having my basic needs met was a given, not an uncertainty.
I have been aware throughout the majority of my life, of course, that I have been dealt a financially privileged existence. From the moment I was old enough to understand that the circumstances I lived in were not the same as those of all other families, my mother explained why she gave to organizations, such as Heifer International, Home Step, etc. However, making donations and learning about poverty is not the same as interacting with those who are living with food insecurity and for some, through homelessness. It is not the same as meeting people, who struggle against hypothermia while sleeping on the streets in the middle of winter. Their perseverance through such rough times is admirable, but far too often unacknowledged or invalidated. One gentleman, who patronizes the food bank each Saturday enters with a smile to inquire how everyone is doing. When this question is reciprocated, his reply is always, “Every day I wake up is a wonderful day.” His cheerful mood always brightens my own, and I am thankful for this reminder.