It was nice to be back amongst the beans at Southampton City Mission’s food bank this Monday, after having had a couple of weeks away. Many studies have identified a link between time spent volunteering and happiness levels, and my own experience definitely supports this. I might be a bit tired after volunteering, but I’m always in a good mood!
One reason I think the volunteering I do with SCM and Crisis is so rewarding is because of the people element. By this I mean things like coming into contact with complete strangers and finding ways to connect with them. Or putting somebody at ease with some small talk or a friendly smile. Perhaps just listening to somebody else’s concerns. Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve had – conversations that have stuck in my head for ages afterwards – have been with Crisis Christmas guests, or people using SCM’s food bank.
I had such a conversation with Jo (not her real name) on Monday. Another volunteer asked me if I could make up a food parcel for Jo and her seven year old daughter, and mentioned that as this was the first time she’d used a food bank, she was feeling a bit embarrassed and upset. The volunteer also said Jo enjoyed cooking, so was happy to eat anything we had going. Clients who come in and tell us they’re not fussy are great, as we inevitable have some fresh produce like sprouts or cabbage or melon to distribute that not everybody will want.
After I’d made up Jo’s food parcel, I took it over to her and said that I’d heard she liked cooking. I love the way the smallest of comments can open the door to a conversation. Jo was friendly and bubbly and started telling me how her daughter liked baking. It just so happened we had had a donation of marzipan and other baking products in recently, and Jo was delighted that she and her daughter could make some cakes. (We were delighted we’d freed up some space in our cupboard and the marzipan had found a good home!).
Jo explained she was at the food bank because her friend had come round to her house and when he went to make them both a cup of tea, had discovered her cupboards were virtually empty. Her friend insisted Jo went to the Citizens Advice Bureau, where she was given a food voucher. She said she felt terrible about having to rely on a food bank, and that she tried to protect her daughter from the truth about their financial circumstances. I was horrified to learn that as a result of wanting to make sure her daughter is properly fed and can concentrate at school, Jo only eats three meals a week.
Part of what I have come to hope is the result of blogging about my volunteering experiences is that more people realise how skewed the image the media portrays of those living on the breadline is. Jo didn’t come across as a ‘scrounger’. She didn’t come across as a bad parent. I’m pretty sure the reason she doesn’t have enough money to feed herself and her daughter isn’t because she’s spending it all on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Bad things can happen to good people. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But when bad things happen to good people, they are still good people.