The team was set, the countdown had started. T-3 minutes, the doors would open, and approximately 250 people would be expecting us to be on our A game. My palms were sweaty, my heart rate was a bit elevated. Oh – and my hair net was NOT cute. I suddenly felt awkward in a way I had never felt awkward before – well not at least since I took my first Barre class. Like I was all left feet.
Performance anxiety. I have been plagued with it since I was a little kid. And here I am – at the ripe age of 37 – serving as a shift lead for the very first time at People Serving People. Am I some type of nut? Who gets nervous about volunteering to serve lunch at a shelter?
People Serving People (PSP) helps homeless and at risk children and their families manage crisis situations and build a strong foundation for their long-term success. PSP is the largest and most comprehensive family-focused homeless shelters in Minnesota. 60% of PSP guests are children averaging 6 years of age. The Helping Hands Committee has secured monthly volunteer sessions at PSP for this League year. The first half of the session is spent serving lunch, and the second half of the session is spent on a building beautification project (aka cleaning up the shelter).
So – back to my question. Why would I get nervous or anxious volunteering at PSP? Well – firstly – it is a lot of people to serve – with a lot of energy flowing around that little cafeteria. That day we served 238 meals in 32 minutes. You must keep people moving at a fast clip because lunch only lasts for so long. AND – I had the crucial job of serving meat and gravy OR the two pieces of chicken. May sound simple – but I was slopping all over the place and I had to find a fine balance between slapping the food quickly on the tray and attempting to be a bit respectful of the fact this is someone’s food – and trying to show respect to the individual by placing the food nicely on the tray.
Of course – being a perfectionist never helps. Also – the JLM lady that stood next to me and was responsible for scooping corn clearly felt I needed to hurry up. After her third offer of help, and the realization that I was not cut out for juggling meat AND gravy in a fast-paced setting – I switched and some anxiety left me as I realized just how easy it was to scoop corn. There are some skills they just don’t teach you in pursuit of an MBA.
When I switched with my teammate, I finally had a moment to look up and take it in. Tears came up rather abruptly as I looked at all of the people crammed into that space who were hungry, who needed to be there. I always feel overwhelmed when I think of the fact that I have the option of hiding my greatest struggles on the inside, under a façade of a nice outfit, makeup or a big smile – whilst others wear their struggles on the outside – and are often disrespected as a result. Why do I have SO much, and others have so little?
Then it hit me – these are FAMILIES sitting down to eat TOGETHER! They are the blessed ones. This is a blessing that many families don’t have, even if they do have a nice big home, a large grocery budget – or even a personal chef!
As we finished serving lunch and began to clean up, this adorable little girl – maybe one and a half or two – toddled over to me to hand me her booster chair. It was about as big as her – and she just looked at me with her big brown eyes and tried to lift it up. Instinctively I said, “Oh baby girl let me take that for you. That is too heavy for such a little girl like you. Thank you so much for being such a good helper.” The tears surfaced again, as I thought about all of the “heavy” stuff this kid has probably had to “carry” in her life. And yet – she still wanted to do her part to clean up. I felt humbled. I wondered where I could model a little more of her attitude in my life?
We then went on to the next phase of our volunteer shift – and I don’t think anyone was mentally prepared for the cleaning project we were about to embark on. The PSP volunteer coordinator staff said that we would be assisting with a “building beautification project” – of course when I signed us up I figured it was painting or decorating or something. Little did I know it was going to be hard core cleaning.
The group was less than enthusiastic and a bit apprehensive, so I volunteered to take the “messiest task”. I was handed a toilet bowl cleaner and plastic gloves. I was a little grossed out. The room we were cleaning was abandoned overnight, and the family had left lots of stuff behind. It was very shocking to see, and because of the state of the room, nothing was salvageable (toys, books, clothes, blankets). To be honest, it was shocking. And I didn’t think we were ever going to get out of there. But – JLM’ers are known for their ability to get things done quickly and efficiently – and the room was cleaned up in no time. Not to mention, the PSP staff person greatly appreciated our help – she gave me a huge hug when we left.
“Building Beautification” – it is relative. Sometimes that beautification comes in the form of cleaning out the garbage that can’t be recycled, perhaps the beautification came in the form of our conversation whilst we cleaned, perhaps it was the intention of blessings for the next family that would inhabit the sparkling clean room.
As I reflect back on my experience at PSP, I can truly say that it embodied “people serving people”. I, a person, was serving another person, and vice versa. The little girl that gave me her booster chair, SHE served ME. The smile and laughs I had with the PSP staff person while we cleaned that room, that served me. We are all people, and we need that sense of connection to feel alive and relevant.
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