At the end of my shift last week at Southampton City Mission’s food bank, I joked with a couple of the other volunteers about needing to claim ‘expenses’ (the cost of my travel to the church), because I was the only person in the room not in possession of a free over 60s bus pass. This week, however, I wasn’t the youngest volunteer by a long way. Soon after I’d arrived, Jaz – a teenager on her Summer holidays – also turned up to help out. Students get a bad press. Working at a university, I know for a fact that not all students booze away their time and money, only occasionally turning up to lectures (never at nine o’clock). I’ve met plenty of students who completely embrace university life, working hard, playing hard and making the most of the opportunities available to them. It’s a delight to see.
I had a particularly fun time volunteering with Jaz there to chat to. There are inevitably lulls in the day where no clients come in, and speaking to Jaz in these gaps I was impressed by how mature and articulate she was for her age, as well as how keen she was to get stuck in and use her initiative. I returned from my lunch break to find her and another volunteer on their hands and knees beside the store cupboards going through piles of tins to check none were out of date. Jaz seemed to share my love of organisation and slight OCD tendencies. After I’d joined her on the floor, we spent a happy hour or so ordering the dry goods in the cupboards by date (necessary) and by brand (totally unnecessary, but rather satisfying).
The hands on nature of volunteering at a food bank is something I’m really enjoying. Whether it be sorting food, moving crates, making up the food parcels, tidying the store cupboards, washing up or even helping to fix a shelf (more time on my hands and knees on the floor), everything is very practical and time whizzes by. Practical stuff is satisfying. It’s easy to see what you’ve achieved and so you feel like your time was well spent and the effort you put in made a difference.
What’s interesting, though, is when I talk to the clients who come in, I wind up with very similar feelings of satisfaction, despite having nothing tangible to show for the time I’ve invested. I’ve fairly recently turned into what I call a ‘random chatter’; you know, the kind of person who strikes up conversations in supermarket queues or with dog owners in the park. As I was more sure of what my role as a volunteer entails this week, I made an effort to approach clients when I saw them waiting for their food parcels. From their perspective, I guess sitting alone on a big sofa in the corner of a room full of volunteers and a lot of hustle and bustle might make them feel a bit anxious, especially if it’s their first visit. Some of the clients don’t have to wait long, but even just a brief chat about the weather or where in Southampton they live seems to put them at ease a bit and they are often surprisingly frank about the circumstances that have led them to be at the food bank in the first place.
I’m not sure why it is exactly, but knowing you have made a connection with somebody, even a very fleeting one, does make you feel like you’ve done something positive.