THE RECIPE BOX - Stepping outside my comfort zone

THE RECIPE BOX - Stepping outside my comfort zone

CUMBERLAND – An opportunity knocked at my door, really at my heart, and I timidly opened it.

An announcement at my church stated a real desperate need for volunteers, and it was not the first time I had heard it. But this time felt different to me. I offered to help (committed) and the details followed from Steve and Christy Hill who have been quite involved in a project called Mobile Loaves and Fishes for a long time. Mobile Loaves and Fishes is named based on the story of a miracle Jesus performed, feeding the multitude of people with just five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

“Meet up at Emmanuel Church, on Nate Whipple Highway in Cumberland at 10:30 a.m. next Saturday,” Steve said. The Mobile Loaves and Fishes truck delivers food to the homeless in Woonsocket every third Saturday of the month through Emmanuel Church whose volunteers host the preparation and work really hard.

An email came around and a small list of grocery items were suggested: hotdogs, up to six packages, 60 bananas, chips, bottled water and some other items if you were able you could donate. I chose to buy 60 bananas, a very strange shopping trip indeed.

When I arrived at Emmanuel, there were already people busy making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stuffing baggies with chips, sorting and filling bags with toiletries, hats, gloves, and a clean new pair of men’s or women’s underwear.

I was drawn to the PB & J table, and quickly some ladies with the know-how instructed us with the best way to do it. You see, making 150 sandwiches requires a system, and they had one. Some other people I knew from my church had come and we formed an alliance of sorts, since we’d never done this before.

Next, we moved into the kitchen area where we watched a huge pot of water try to boil in order to cook the many hotdogs. “We always try to have something hot for them,” said a woman in the kitchen. We fluffed open 125 foil-lined hot food bags, prepped the buns and once the dogs were ready they were assembled into place. The hot food is the last prepared in order to keep it warm for delivery.

While people were busy packing the foods inside, another crew had begun to fill the catering truck outside.

There was a brief how-to in the parking lot before we left. Our names were taken, carpools were arranged and Steve led the caravan driving the truck. Christy rode in the front seat and Judy, Deb and I rode in the back which was helpful because I had a lot of questions about what we’d be doing.

“Try not to give more than one of everything,” we were told. “They might tell you they need a bag (of food) for a family member who is sick.” So we were advised to say you can have another bag but you’ll have to go through the line first, then get back in line in order to be fair to everyone. “Use your best judgment,” Christy said.

But then came the scary part. “This is a food ministry, introduce yourself, ask the person what his or her name is and guide that person through the line to the truck. Once you do that and get to the actual serving station, offer choices and help fill the bag.” Well this brought a new challenge to me. I am able to donate money, buy canned goods and leave at drop-offs, but I never had to actually talk to someone in need. “What will I say?” I wondered.

“Don’t assume everyone likes yogurt, or peanut butter. Make sure to offer choices. Just because they are homeless does not mean they will want to eat everything,” we were told. We are offering humanity, hope and kindness. I wondered if I had that ability? I’ll be honest, I was a little bit out of my comfort zone.

The first stop was a parking lot under the train trestle in downtown Woonsocket behind Social Square. There was a group of at least 100 people (mostly adults) and they knew we were coming. A line was forming as the truck arrived. There were a good amount of volunteers too. Our carpool pulled up behind the truck and people jumped out ready to serve. There were teens and tweens from youth groups and the rest of us.

Hot coffee and hot chocolate at the back of the vehicle was served up with a smile. Feeling like a fish out of water I followed instructions from the church parking lot, rolled up my sleeves and began passing out bags to folks standing in the line.

Then, I found the first person who seemed to need a go-to person to help them through the line. “Hi I’m Rhonda,” I said to a woman in line. She smiled a grin that was missing a few teeth and we began to talk. She was pleasant but a bit distracted by someone else in line behind us. After raising her voice to argue with the other woman, she quickly regrouped, looked at me shaking her fist and said, “Ooooh I almost said something I shouldn’t say.”

I took the opportunity to tell her “good job” for regaining her composure. I also shared that when my granddaughter gets upset, I tell her to take deep breaths. “You can’t continue to be angry if you keep breathing,” I said. We went through the line, somewhat bonded now, we filled her bag and she was gone.

The next person I connected with was a lovely young girl. What struck me most was her beautiful complexion. She was maybe 16, and very shy and quiet. I introduced myself and she only answered direct questions. Her mother came back into the line and offered that this girl was her daughter.

Mom was quite animated, but very spiritual in her own way. Her frizzy hair blew in the steady cold wind and her face was weathered like someone who’d lived outdoors for a very long time. She wore gloves – the kind with no fingertips – and she had a great smile with kind eyes, but a streetwise toughness as well.

“I met your daughter, she is so quiet,” I said. The mom then proceeded to tell me about her daughter. “She is a quiet one, she makes up for my son who is autistic. He never stops making noise,” she said. “She (referring to the girl) almost died when she was born, could have fit in your hand,” mom added. “They left her for dead, but she did not die.”

Next what she offered up was profound. Out of the blue she said to me, “People should help each other out like the animals do. Animals huddle together to keep each other warm, they share food too. On the planet I came from, people are nice to one another.” And her last comment made me laugh out loud, “Oh yeah, the planet I came from didn’t have kids with green and purple hair either!” I wondered to myself, what happened in her life that here she was in a food truck line on a cold Saturday in March.

The last person that really struck me was a very young man, to me more like a boy, with a big bandage on his thumb. “What happened to you?” I asked. “I cut it on a saw. I’m a contractor and I had an accident,” he shared. His clothes were littered with dry pieces of grass and leaves like he’d been lying on the ground. His face was very handsome and innocent looking, he was very well spoken, but not so believable to me.

As we approached the line he said, “Do you think I could get a little more food, my wife is sick and I have three little boys?” I gave it to him. I figured whether he was bluffing or not the peanut butter and jelly was not living large and he really seemed to need it. I used my best judgment.

The next two stops had a lot more children running toward the truck than adults. I was so struck by the appreciation and good manners. Here are kids with no shoes or coats on during a very cold afternoon, and they all said please and thank you.

I met a 5-year-old from the low-income housing unit, he had a beautiful complexion and dimples to break your heart. He was so sweet, polite and beautiful – no different than any of my grandchildren, except he wore no coat.

I took this all home with me, my lessons on this day, and I am changed and so humbled since I volunteered to work on a Mobile Loaves and Fishes truck in Woonsocket. It’s something I think about on a frigid night when I’m warm and cozy. I think about it when I eat my filet mignon on a Saturday night.

Where will they sleep tonight, how will they not freeze? Is his finger getting better or is it infected? Is she fighting with that other woman in her quest to survive? Is he back at school in warm clothing?

You see, for me when these “homeless” became people with names, faces and stories, well I just can’t ignore it, or judge. I cannot unsee or un-feel for them. I am changed. A step outside of my comfort zone has caused me to grow. People who stand on corners with a hand out, sometimes just need a hand to reach back.

The Mobile Loaves & Fishes Rhode Island truck is the vehicle volunteers use to help distribute meals to people without a place to call home and those in affordable housing communities. Volunteers stock the truck with hot meals, sandwiches, snacks, fruit and beverages before traveling to Woonsocket to deliver them.