Here it comes again. It's that time of year when the spirit of volunteerism begins its slow creep out of the deepest reaches of the cerebral cortex and sends well meaning people in search of a gratifying service outlet. For the greater good, please resist that impulse.
Here's the hard truth: soup kitchens don't need you on Thanksgiving. They don't need you on Christmas. They've got those days covered. They need you those other 363 days of the year. They need a dedicated corps of volunteers to spread out that spirit of service through the entire calendar and for a true culture of volunteerism to take hold.
I was 8 year old or so when I first stepped foot into the kitchen at So Others Might Eat just a long stone's throw up North Capitol Street from the National Mall in Washington D.C. It was a Tuesday morning in September and it was still dark out. It was the early eighties and the Reagan administration was doing everything it seemingly could to send more and more marginalized and mentally ill homeless people out into the freezing streets to their deaths. Mitch Snyder and a group of activists had recently occupied a derelict federal building on nearby 2nd Street, turned it into a ad hoc shelter and resource center, and gone on hunger strike to demand renovations to the building. Homelessness was suddenly becoming an issue of national interest.
That dining room filled up with a parade of humanity: from families with kids my own age to old folks all alone. Over the next three hours, my parents, my three brothers, and my sister—along with a handful of other volunteers and Smitty—SOME's garrulous and toothless kitchen boss—cooked a stack of french toast big enough to feed one thousand people, brewed huge pots of black coffee, mixed massive pitchers of powdered milk, and we set each place at the table with as much respect as would a white table cloth waiter. We would do the same, every month on a Tuesday morning until I moved away from my parents' house a decade later.
Homelessness is on the rise in most U.S. cities, and in my hometown of Washington D.C., the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, and the need has never been greater. It won't be hard for you to find the need in your town too.
Find your local soup kitchen and commit to serving one day in the year ahead after the holiday season has passed. It just may become a habit.
We're urging our community to resist the urge to volunteer around the holidays—the time of year when food banks and soup kitchens have more helping hands than they need. Join us in volunteering smarter and commit to serving on a day when the need is far greater.
Illustration by Corinna Loo