Children are possibly the most self-centered creatures on earth- and I mean that in mostly a good way. Although their only thoughts may be of “me me me,” very rarely is it malicious or with evil intent. It’s just the way their little minds are programmed and they are so stinking cute, they can get away with it. While this sort of self-absorption may be acceptable with children 4 feet and under, it is certainly not becoming in an adult (witness all of the “Real Housewives of…” series on Bravo…or any series on Bravo for that matter).
In the interest of sparing the world another set of Hilton sisters, I look for ways for Sarah and Katie to either volunteer their resources or time to help others in need. I use the term “volunteer” in the most liberal sense of the word. Our efforts usually involve the girls picking out a bunch of things (such as toys), me purchasing them, the girls whining about why they can’t have the toys themselves, me telling me they have no choice, the girls crying at the check-out line, me dropping the items off in a huff while screaming to the girls about what a nice thing we are doing. This is usually the M.O. with food drives as well. And although I try to explain to the girls about how lucky we are, how some people are not as fortunate, and how wonderful it is that we can help people, I am sure all the can think is “Why doesn’t anyone drop off a bag of toys at my house?!”
Of course I understand: Kate is only 2 years old and on most days, I can barely get her to share a bite of her cheese stick with her starving mother much less give away bags of goodies to people she doesn’t even know. But Sarah at six years old is at an age where she can begin to understand about concepts like generosity, charity, and compassion. With this in mind, I wanted to find a way for Sarah to help people firsthand rather than through donations. Opportunities, however, for children to volunteer are pretty scarce. Luckily, my friend Wendy told me about a program at her church called Community Meals where children are welcome to help out. I signed myself and Sarah up with hopes that it would open Sarah’s eyes to people who were struggling to make ends meet and in need of some help.
The program is unique in that rather than a typical soup kitchen, the church sets up a restaurant-like atmosphere. Tables are set with silverware, coffee mugs, etc. and volunteers not only prepare the meals but also serve the meals and drinks and clear the table for the guests. It gives the patrons a chance to sit, enjoy a meal, and have someone serve them. They even have a musician playing live music for the crowd. In addition to the meals, the church also provides free non-perishable food items, toiletries, and fresh bread.
I signed the two of us up as table servers. When I told Sarah about it, her eyes lit up with anticipation at the chance to play “restaurant” in real life. Hmm..not the take-away I wanted for her but at least she was excited.
Prior to getting to the church, I explained to Sarah about who would be coming to dinner and why they were there. Honestly, I don’t know how much of it she understood. I know she was trying to process it in her mind and would ask questions like, “Why don’t they just get help from their mom and dad?” But then, she’d also say things like, “Mom, I can’t wait to be a real waitress!” Of course I wanted her to enjoy her volunteer experience but I also didn’t want her to think of it as one massive play date either. I was hopeful that my message of charity and helping others would settle in after her experience. And that she wouldn’t ask anyone for a tip. Or tell anyone to “Kiss my grits.”
When we arrived, Sarah and I chose a table to be ours for the evening. We helped to set all the tables with drinks, silverware, coffee cups, salt and pepper shakers, and the like. Since it was “Taco Night,” we also laid out bowls of tomatoes and lettuce. Before the dining room opened, the program leader warned us that at a free veterinarian clinic earlier that day, someone had pulled a knife out of anger and frustration. I began to wonder whether this was the best idea but before I could have any second thoughts, the doors opened and people came flooding in.
My reservations were unwarranted. Almost everyone we encountered was courteous, friendly, patient, and most of all: hungry. Most would ask for seconds, thirds, and even fourths after polishing off their first plate. It had been a very long time since I myself had volunteered my time in such a way and it made me realize how insular my life had become. I spend most of my waking hours taking care of my own small family; I had forgotten that there was a larger world out there with needs much, much greater than our own. Most heartbreaking to me were the families who came in together. Mothers, fathers, and children all sat down together to receive what must have been their only real meal that day. I said a quick prayer of gratitude for our own good fortune and that the people at the tables would find better days soon.
As for Sarah- she loved it. It was her imaginary playtime come to life with real “customers,” orders to be taken, food to be served, and dishes to be cleared. I don’t know how much thought she gave to why the patrons were receiving these meals in a church basement but she too seemed affected by the sight of families at the table. I think in her world, adults may need help because their parents are not there to take care of them but all children should be provided for by their parents. If only that were the case.
I hope that Sarah and I (and eventually Katie and Chris) can make volunteering together a part of our regular routine. I’ve signed Sarah and myself up again for Community Meals and I’d urge any parents in the Twin Cities looking for volunteer opportunities with their children to look at the Community Meal program at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. It’s a wonderful (and fun!) way for our little people to help others firsthand and begin to learn some valuable life lessons about service to others, compassion, empathy, gratitude, and love.
For more information and to sign up online for an upcoming Community Meals night, click here.