By Jennifer S. Wilkov
Survivor – Author – Collaborator
Celebrating Humanity Gracefully
“Fanning the Flames of the Human Spirit”
Every year at Thanksgiving I participate in the Anthony Robbins’ Basket Brigade effort here in the New York City metro area to feed those in need with a festive feast during the holiday. This past year my mother’s 70th birthday celebration fell on the same weekend so I couldn’t participate in both. (You know who won that one!)
So I told my sweetheart, Eliot, that I was sad that I couldn’t contribute to the community in this way this year and that I felt like I was missing out. He said he would like to work at a soup kitchen for Christmas so we set our sites on participating in and giving back to the community in late December. In his search for a soup kitchen, he learned that most of them were not open on Christmas Day, as it was a Sunday. So once again, I was sad about not being able to enjoy the experience of helping others eat on a special day.
As a result, we committed that we would find a soup kitchen we could contribute our efforts to (not money but our actual time, energy and effort) in January. There was no special holiday or heightened reason to want to chip in; we just wanted to do it.
Eliot found the St. Joseph’s Soup Kitchen in Greenwich Village along with a few others when he was looking in December. Steve Fanto, the volunteer coordinator at St. Joseph’s, was the only person who got back to Eliot. Although their soup kitchen wasn’t open on Christmas (which was a Sunday), Steve encouraged Eliot to come by any Saturday to help. He also explained that St. Joseph’s was only open on Saturday.
After the New Year, Eliot and I finally chose yesterday to go and volunteer. We didn’t know what to expect but we felt good about what we were doing – and that we were doing it together. Probably not most people’s idea of a great day out together, but it really meant a lot to both of us to do it together.
We arrived a little after 10am. We were greeted by Steve who was happy we had come to pitch in. He helped us lock away our things, get a hat, apron and gloves so we could be compliant with the health inspector regulations, and then he introduced us to those in the kitchen who gave us a job.
First, we set up pans for roasting vegetables. Then we cut up fresh mushrooms. We had a good time chatting with our fellow mushroom cutter, Mogan, who told us that he had been coming pretty regularly for about 3 months to help out in the mornings to prepare the food there. He was a young software developer, mostly for banks, and he was exploring social media and apps to expand his capabilities.
Once we were finished with the mushrooms, we were off to the grocery store with Steve. As we walked out the door, a gentleman had jumped out of a cab at the corner of Washington Place and 6th Avenue, right adjacent to the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church where we were. This man had collected sandwiches and other foods from some local stores and had brought them to the soup kitchen to distribute. He had no obligation or reason to do it. Like us, he just wanted to pitch in and help. Steve explained that the man from the cab took 45 minutes to an hour each week to collect the food and bring it down to the church prior to carrying on with his other weekend activities. He also said the entire soup kitchen happened as a result of donations: from the church providing the basement to the food being given to them to the people who prepared it and the people who served it and cleaned up.
Once we moved the boxes of food inside from the cab, we headed out to the grocery store. Along with us came three boys from The Buckley School who told us that they were there at the soup kitchen for a school project with their teacher. Being a writer, I asked them if they were going to write about it. They said they weren’t sure.
We picked up a bunch of bags of bread, some butter, bags of ice and a small container of buttermilk. Steve did a great job of directing us and herding us all back together at the cash register so we could all grab something to carry back.
During our walk back, Steve explained that he had been a financial analyst for several years before working in a paid job coordinating volunteers and running another soup kitchen. He said that soup kitchen recently closed so he has continued to work at the St. Joseph’s soup kitchen as a volunteer, coordinating other volunteers so he could continue to do what he loved and help others to find fulfillment in helping others. I asked him what he wanted to do next for work and he said that he’d like to keep working in a government type program that helped others where he could be paid. He enjoyed helping in the community and the collaboration of others to make a difference. I told him I wanted to help him connect to anyone I know who could help him find what he was looking for.
Once we got back, we briefly met CJ, a lovely lady who, like Steve, coordinated the volunteers that morning. The other volunteers were doing everything from cooking in the kitchen to rolling up napkins and forks to buttering bread and slicing it in half and much more. We were asked to go through bags of clothes and organize them into a proverbial store for the homeless to go through and take when they arrived. We sorted the shirts, sweaters, pants, underwear and other items into piles to make it easier to sift through.
Steve then formerly introduced us to CJ, who as it turns out runs a speakers bureau that represents a select group of public speakers, each with a unique story to tell. Her speakers explore the work of activists, advocates, and agents of change and provide moving accounts of the resilience of the human spirit and contribute to an understanding of the world’s challenges today. How fortuitous that we met since her speakers bureau and my story and work have so many synergies! In addition to me and my story, Eliot and his story fit nicely into her bucket too. Very serendipitous! We agreed to exchange information at the end of the day’s efforts.
Once we finished the clothing, Steve asked if we would be willing to stay for the afternoon shift to help serve the food to those who came to eat at the soup kitchen. Our original plan had been to only work the morning shift and then go on with our day. We conferred and decided to stay for the second shift. So Steve suggested that we take a break for an hour, go out in the neighborhood and relax, walk around or get a quick bite to eat, and then come back in time to help with the second shift.
When we got back, we met Connie, the director of the soup kitchen, and Gil, who had been chosen to lead the effort that afternoon. Unfortunately, CJ had left and we didn’t get her contact information. Now here’s the interesting part about this: when we explained that we had met CJ and that we had intended to exchange our contact information, both Connie and Steve made special efforts to make sure we got it. It was so nice of them to make sure we could follow up with CJ!
The afternoon was a lot of activity and a lot of people. We were on the food service line, making trays of food filled with chicken jambalaya, fresh salad, fruit cup, bread and butter, a donut and lemonade, coffee or milk. 512 meals were served. It was amazing!
Gil explained that they count meals, not people. The soup kitchen opens at 1:30pm and closes at 3pm. During that time, the people who come in are able to get in line as many times as they’d like and eat as much as they wish. They are also given a bag of food to take with them.
When 3 o’clock came around, Eliot and I were pooped – but happy. We had such a good feeling and we smiled at one another without saying a word. We found Steve and thanked him for a great experience. He asked us to come back and we said we would. He also handed me CJ’s business card and gave us his card too.
We had such a great experience doing this – I had to write about it today. It wasn’t Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Passover or any particular holiday; it was Saturday and a day Eliot and I carved out of our lives to give back to those who were having a hard time getting something to eat. Regardless of why they came, we participated in building a great experience for others while having a great experience of our own.
We met some great people, made some wonderful new connections, and learned a lot about what 5 hours can do to change people’s lives for that day. Because of our efforts and the generosity of others—from those who showed up like us to those who donated food, clothing and money—to make the soup kitchen’s efforts happen that day, many lives were touched…many that had faces with no names we knew but a smile on them following a satisfying healthy meal.
I encourage you to find a way to give back to your community either by finding a soup kitchen to help out at or another activity that feels great for you. You never know who you’re going to meet and you never know who you’re going to help…even you.
You have the right to remain fabulous!
© 2012 Jennifer S. Wilkov. All Rights Reserved.
Jennifer S. Wilkov
Jennifer’s passion for communication has led to her being a # 1 radio show host, a best-selling award-winning author, a dynamic speaker, an award-winning freelance writer, a successful book business consultant and an enthusiastic entrepreneur. She survived being incarcerated in one of New York’s most violent prisons after inappropriately being told to plead guilty to a crime she didn’t commit by an attorney who mishandled her case. Jennifer continued to succeed as an author, entrepreneur and speaker after enduring this devastating, unimaginable experience. She knows what it takes to live the life you love in the face of any challenge. She loves to inspire audiences everywhere with the insights, knowledge and wisdom she has gained so participants take action. Jennifer fans the flames of the Human Spirit in each audience member and empowers them to tell their story, express it transparently, leap powerfully into their lives and at last live the life they’ve imagined. For more information, www.jenniferswilkov.com.