I got a great assignment from this noble publication to write a first-hand story about how rewarding it is to volunteer in some of Omaha’s food pantries and soup kitchens around the holidays. There’s much to be gained from volunteering. You can meet new people, give your time to something not focused on the self and you can change the world just a little. But even in a few short volunteering sessions, I learned it’s not as simple as that. I should have known better. Right after college, I worked in Thailand teaching English in what was supposed to be my change-the-world experience. What I ended up discovering was that it wasn’t so much the world that needed changing, as it was me who needed transformation. What I wanted from a few volunteer experiences was a human connection. I wanted to understand what it might be like to not be able to afford food, and to appreciate how lucky I have been. I thought maybe someone like a homeless person or an addict could show me. Places like the Siena Francis House and the Omaha Food Bank and other such organizations across the city do fantastic work providing a basic necessity to people who find themselves on a rough run with life. And they (unlike me) do it without judging. “Are there people who scam the system? Absolutely,” says Omaha Food Bank Director of Development and Public Relations Bryan Barks. “That’s not for us to police. There are a vast majority of people who do need our food. People think ‘Why don’t they just get a job?’ — but some people can’t.” “We did a mobile food pantry at All Saints Episcopal Church (on 90th and Blondo),” Barks continues. “I talked to more than 20 people who showed up and about three-fourths of them had been downsized and just needed food to get through the month. We’re not here to sustain people from cradle to grave but to provide temporary assistance.” When I volunteered on a Thursday night at the Siena Francis House, 17th and Nicholas, I looked out from the kitchen where I was serving fruit salad into the dining room and saw people who looked down on their luck; but I also saw people who had nicer cell phones than I. Now I know that Siena Francis has a drug and alcohol rehab program, which helps people who may be quite affluent. And additionally, who am I to judge how someone spends his or her money? All the same, it struck me as strange. The interaction with the guests in the Siena Francis dining room was limited, another thing I was hoping wouldn’t happen, but could understand. Siena Francis serves four dinners to 80-some patrons every night. Its guests are in and out in less than 30 minutes. There’s no time for chitchat when people need food. The volunteers I worked with were pleasant. They included a group from a local Methodist church which sends volunteers every week, a few kids from Boys Town, a graduate from Siena Francis’ rehab program and a Creighton student fulfilling his volunteer hours for a scholarship. The Siena Francis House has a great bank of volunteers from which to pool resources. Youth groups, companies and students completing community service hours make up the majority of its volunteers. In fact, Siena Francis is so booked with volunteers I had to pull my journalist card to even get in the schedule between now and Christmas, and that was several weeks ago. The Omaha Food Bank, 68th and J, also gets companies doing team-building exercises, students, youth groups and, when I was there, begrudging 18-year-olds finishing community service as part of a misdemeanor sentencing. When I asked why they chose to volunteer at the Food Bank, the response was “I didn’t choose it. They chose it for me,” as if “the man” had come down hard on these teens sorting green beans from creamed corn in a warehouse. In the warehouse packed with food, I couldn’t see the face of the people I was serving by sorting canned food into proper piles. I knew what I was doing was to help the Omaha Food Bank offset more than $200,000 in its budget by volunteering my time. I know people are having a rough go in this economy. The Omaha Food Bank provides food to soup kitchens, schools and day cares across the state and in Eastern Iowa to children, the unemployed and the homeless. More than half of the clients served by the Food Bank are forced to choose between paying utility bills and buying food, more than one-third have to choose between food and paying medical bills or their rent. So there I was, just as begrudging as the “forced labor” of the 18-year-olds about not getting what I’d expected out of my volunteer experience. It wasn’t that much fun. I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy inside at all, but that’s not to say I didn’t do some good in the long run, even with my bad attitude. Life doesn’t just hand you a happy ending like a movie, not when you’re changing the world and especially not when you’re changing yourself. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Learn more about these organizations at sienafrancis.org and omahafoodbank.org.

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