I’m not a morning person. At all. But I wasn’t getting up for myself. I was getting up to help someone else. So I prayed as I walked the three blocks to the soup kitchen at 71 O St. NW, thanking God for the resources and opportunities I had been blessed with.
When I got into the offices, they’d already started orientation. Dirk Whatley, the volunteer coordinator was telling the volunteers about the people they would be serving, and the services that S.O.M.E. offers. At this location, in addition to offering food, patrons are provided with a place to shower. At locations throughout the city, the organization provides education and health services, and even a shelter for the elderly.
The main dining room seats 160 people. During one shift, about 300 people will walk through the doors to receive a meal. There’s a system that keeps things moving along quickly. Two lines of volunteers flank the food and provide plates, assembly line style to the end of the line, where two volunteers are waiting to hand out the plates as people come into the door. The diners take their plates and any other belongings they come in with, to the tables, where forks, napkins, cups and water pitchers are placed. Everyone gets one plate. You can opt out of something we’re serving, but you can’t double up.
Another set of volunteers roams through the dining room, serving coffee. In the kitchen, yet another group of volunteers is cooking the food.
I got placed on the food line. My item? Bread. I kind of wished I had a more active role, but I just reminded myself that I was part of the whole that provided food to the visitors.
Some of the people spoke to us as they passed the line. Most didn’t. As one of the volunteers closest to the door, I got to see the people who were coming in. Some of them looked stereotypically homeless: layered unkempt clothes, scruffy faces, lots of bags. But others, I was surprised at. A few men, maybe 25 or so, came in wearing what I thought were nice leather jackets. One man walked through the door proclaiming “This is for all the women on the line who like men, homeless or not!” and then proceeded to play what I think was “It’s Raining Men” from the older model Mac laptop he was carrying. The employees made him turn it down (I think they bribed him with an additional piece of bacon).
I looked out at the people eating breakfast during one break in the line and realized what a difference a change of scenery makes. I walk by the corner where S.O.M.E. is located nearly every day. It’s along the route I take to go to school. I normally walk by quickly with either a neutral face, or a slight scowl, in hopes of deterring anyone from trying me. If I’d seen any of these people on the streets, I wouldn’t have looked at them, or I would have scurried quickly past. But here, as I served food, I was smiling at them. Saying ‘good morning.’ Inside, I was a little ashamed that my behavior wasn’t the same both inside and outside of the S.O.M.E. walls.
At the end of the shift, at 8:30 a.m., we wiped down all of the tables and chairs (as we had done midway through service) and replenished the napkins, cups and forks at each table. Someone ran a mop while others washed dishes. I busied myself in whatever way I could, wiping chairs, placing cups and packaging leftovers into large aluminum pans.
Truth be told, I loved it. I miss doing community service. And serving food is something I’m accustomed to since I was always on the food committee at my church back in Rhode Island. As I left, I realized this was an easy way for me to give back to the community. I got Dirk’s card as I left the building. I told him I live a few blocks from here and I’d like to volunteer more regularly. He said to shoot him an e-mail and we can talk availability. If anyone wants to come with me, let me know. We’ll set a date. They serve breakfast and lunch daily, so there are always opportunities.
First Street NW was bright when I stepped out of the doors of S.O.M.E. My fellow volunteers walked to the left toward their cars. I turned right to walk home. I noticed a man who had passed through the line standing off to the side of the sidewalk. I looked him in his eyes, flashed a smile and said “Have a nice day.”
He smiled and wished me one in return.