I volunteer at our local food pantry. Need is great in my rural community. Every person who needs food has a story. Their stories are different, but the need is the same. Many of the people I serve have been coming for years. There are also many new faces each month.
There is Jack and his partner, Sally. The ravages of alcohol show on the outside. Jack carries a flask in his pocket. His fingers are yellowed by tobacco and he smells unwashed. Sally’s mental illness doesn’t show on the outside. She has a sweet smile and soft demeanor that hides the depression that is always there.
Dorothy is a large woman who hugs me when she sees me. Dressed in a bright orange track suit and immaculate chartreuse sneakers, Dorothy tells me she’s just come back from visiting her family in the South. They want her to move back but she says she never will.
When I first met her, she looked angry – rarely smiled or spoke. But one day as she stood at the miscellaneous table loaded with cans of food with names we never heard of, I dared her to “live dangerously,” to try something different. “If you’re here next month I’ll know it didn’t kill you and you can tell me what it was.” That made her smile and she has smiled ever since. Dorothy loves to cook and often invites people on the street in for a meal. She stocks up when we offer unlimited quantities of items that have recently expired.
The tall lady named Jan with the broken teeth and haggard face comes with two young grandchildren in tow. Although she has serious health problems, she is raising these two boys because her daughter is in prison for drug possession. “Say thank you when someone gives you something,” she tells the kids when I give them a cookie. “I want them to have manners,” she says.
The Food Pantry is always busy on distribution day. I recently did intakes on six new families who had never been there before. One was a young mom carrying a chubby, smiling 5-month-old girl. The woman took a bag of bruised pears to make homemade pear sauce for the baby. “She’ll just love it,” she told me.
A grandmother with oxygen tubes in her nose and a portable tank at her side came with her grandson and his fiancee, a young girl with purple hair who looked down most of the time. “They just moved in with me because they had no place to go.”
And yet another was a polite young man whose arm was in a sling. His speech was slow and deliberate, as if there was a time lapse between his brain and his ability to express himself.
Some of the people work at low-paying jobs. Others have disabilities or health issues that prevent them from working. Some are elderly and just can’t make ends meet – will it be food or medicine? Many are mentally ill with little education and limited support. And yes, there may be a few who are scamming the system.
But they all go home with food: pasta, rice, peanut butter, fresh apples, canned vegetables, bread, chicken and hot dogs.
And I remember an old Buddhist meditation and say it on their behalf: May you be well; may you be safe; may you be healthy; may you be happy; may you be free.
I remind myself how blessed I am. They give me so much more than I give them.