You know, I really hate to admit publicly how clueless I truly am, but it's true. There are times when I learn things that astonish me, but that seem pretty obvious if you stop to think about them. This happened again recently after the annual Syncrude Food Drive for the Fort McMurray Food Bank. I heard that tons of food had been donated, and it had been a successful year for the drive. And then on Twitter the call for volunteers to help sorting the food went out, and the light bulb in my head went on.
You see, collecting all that food is really only the very first step. Once all the food has been collected it is delivered to the food bank, and then it waits to be sorted. It waits in hundreds of boxes and bags. In enormous stacks and piles. It is a jumble of tuna cans and cereal boxes and canned peas and spaghetti and...it goes on and on. And it waits to be sorted, examined, and put in the proper spot. And to be honest, it's a pretty overwhelming sight.
How do I know this? Well, because this week I informed the Intrepid Junior Bloggers that we were going to spend their first day of Christmas break doing something for our community. Instead of staying at home wearing pyjamas all day (tempting in their case) and playing on the x-box and computer (tempting in my case) we were going to spend some time at the food bank helping them with their mountain of donated food. The Junior Bloggers were not quite sure what to think (they had been voluntold as opposed to volunteered, after all), but being good kids they agreed - and that's how we found ourselves at the food bank on Monday afternoon.
When we arrived I was amazed. I'd been to the food bank before, but on Monday the stacks of boxes and piles of bags was unbelievable. There was a ton of food to be sorted, and a ton of work to be done. It's the kind of job where you don't actually know quite where to start, so the only solution is to just dig in and get going - and we did.
First we were asked to sort and stock the toiletries, shampoos and toothpastes and toothbrushes and the like. The girls did this quickly and efficiently, and then it was on to re-stocking the diapers. The girls enjoyed this as it meant they got to take a peek into the upstairs catwalk area where the food bank stores many items, and my girls are much like me in their innate curiousity.
And then it was time to get down and dirty, and start sorting some food. We decided to focus on cans, so we surrounded ourselves with several small boxes, determined what type of food should go in which box, and started grabbing bags. Our conversation became "I have beans! Beans! Which box is beans again?" and "Um, what are bamboo shoots? Animal, vegetable, mineral?". There was some singing, some YouTube re-enactments (don't ask, I've learned to block those out to keep my sanity as they can be done dozens of times in a row), and for some reason the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger decided to start clucking like a chicken (again, don't ask, I have no idea - she's a kid, and she's mine, no further explanation seems necessary). We sorted bags and bags of cans, and it was hard work, too - down on your knees kind of work, lifting heavy boxes and bags kind of work.
And then we were asked if we would like to make a hamper for a family. I could see the girls' eyes light up, and I think mine did, too. You see, I saw this as showing them what this is really all about, and showing them why that food needed to be sorted and stocked. The warehouse manager of the Food Bank handed us a "shopping list" and a cart with three bins - and off we went. I stood by the cart, calling out the items, and off the girls would go to fetch them. And you know what? It was amazing.
I would say "1 box cereal" - and remind them that this was for a couple with a baby, so perhaps a cereal adults would like. Then they would go and stand in front of the cereals, debating which kind was best, and what made the most sense. Then the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger would return triumphant, and say "this one looks good", and drop it in the bin. On and on they went, with pasta and soups and cookies and toiletries. I would call out "4 cream soups" and back they would come with a variety, explaining that no one wants to eat the exact same soup for a month. I could see the light bulbs going on in their heads, too, as they thought this through, as they considered the needs of someone they had never met.
When they finished the cart was full, and they looked both tired and very, very pleased. I think that was the turning point in the experience for them. They had been given an opportunity to use those clever little brains, and they had done well. And they had noticed some things, too.
When they picked out a cake mix my daughter noticed there was no frosting - and no birthday candles. I could see the wheels turning, and she asked if next time we went to volunteer if we could bring some tins of frosting and candles. This caught my heart for two reasons - it showed she had noticed something missing, something that she could help with - and she had said "next time". She didn't view this as a one-shot deal - she saw a next time. And a time after that. And after that. And that, people, is how a volunteer is born.
When it was time to leave we said our good-byes, and headed out to my favourite coffee shop where we washed our filthy hands, and sat down for a drink and snack. When we drove home they told me that they had fun at the food bank, and that their favourite part was making the hamper. They were tired, but they were also, without a doubt, satisfied. I think they had caught a glimpse of what I feel when I volunteer - that inexplicable, indescribable feeling you get in your chest. They had seen what it takes to run the food bank, they understood more of the process, and, in the final analysis, they had seen the value of volunteering - not just the value for those you serve, but the value for yourself.
For most of my years in this community I limited my volunteering to my daughter's school, but as she grows older I think it's time to expand a bit, both for me and for the Junior Bloggers. I know we will be back at the food bank to sort food and pack hampers - but I think we will look into other things, too. And we will do it for our community, but we will also be doing it for ourselves - for that feeling you get, that pride and satisfaction in doing good. I think it's opportune that we did this the week before Christmas because I think this was perhaps the best Christmas gift the Intrepid Junior Bloggers could have ever received, even if they don't know it quite yet. They learned the value of contributing to their community, and I think it is a lesson that we will build and expand on - and one they will never forget. Other Christmas gifts can break or get thrown out eventually - but that belief in your community, and that feeling you get from volunteering - well, that never goes away. That is forever. And that makes it perhaps the most precious Christmas gift of all.
My sincere thanks to the
Fort McMurray Food Bank
for allowing the Intrepid Junior
Bloggers and I to come in, sort food,
pack a hamper, and cluck like a chicken!