Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Losing the True Meaning

You know the feeling of warm, fuzzy, proud sense of accomplishment you're supposed to get from volunteering your time?

Well, it doesn't always work that way.

Say you're working at the foodbank of the small town where you grew up.

Pretend you've just spent 20 minutes replenishing the shelf of canned corn before opening the door of the pretend-grocery-store where non-perishable items normally costing a dollar or more per item are now priced at a nickel each, and that's just for show, because if the woman in line doesn't have enough nickels to feed her kids mac and cheese this week, you let her take it anyway.

Imagine that the town's main industry has laid off a good portion of employees just 5 weeks before Christmas, and a good many of these people, seemingly comfortably middle class last week, are now perusing the pretend-grocery-store aisle of the foodbank, trying to make their nickels stretch as far as they'll go.

Look the other way when the woman who is tearfully insisting that she has enough coin to feed her children lunch or dinner, but not both, is the exact same woman who cashed her government cheque in front of you in line at the liquor store last night.

Fake some cheerfulness as another woman counts out what she owes from a very small change purse, mumbling about the "extravagance" of some tinned ham flakes, "but it's the holidays after all."

And when your supervisor asks if you might like to take over a different assignment, you try not to seem too desperate when you shout "God yes!" because the prospect of trying to coax these shoppers into making what the foodbank deems "responsible purchases" is too depressing to even contemplate for much longer.

But don't think you're getting away with anything, or from anything.

Because your new assignment is in some ways much worse.

On this day, there is a long line snaking around the building of the foodbank, stretching past the small soup kitchen (where, perversely, the thing that bothers me most is that the patrons rarely wash their hands before digging in), and even past the thrift store selling old toques and scarred furniture.

Today is Christmas Hamper day.

Today the needy will line up to prove they are worthy of charity. If they are desperate enough, hungry enough, they will leave their dignity at home. They all look at the ground, they don't want to notice or be noticed. The amount of people lined up will break your heart. It broke mine.

Imagine how, without looking you in the eye, they tell you their secrets.

"My family hasn't had meat in 3 months."

"I don't normally like to ask for help, but..."

"I cannot afford to give my children a Christmas."

"I don't want my kids to know how poor we are."

They tell you about their situations, how they live, how they eat, how they get by.

Some are the newly poor, dying of embarrassment, almost angry at you, at the world.

Some are the chronic poor, complacent, destitute.

Many are the working poor, teetering on the outskirts of poverty, scraping by week after week, but undone by the holidays.

And every single one of them swallows their pride and asks you for help, for a Christmas Hamper that will include the fixings for a very modest meal, and maybe a couple of cheap presents for the kids. This is the best they can do, and the best you can do.

The day is dismal, and you know your shift will end before the line runs out. But not before a young woman walks in, whom you instantly recognize.

She was the very good friend of your younger sister. She spent days swimming in your pool, nights eating at your table. At birthday parties, she'd throw her fishing pole over the staircase banister chanting "Here, fishie, fishie" while you sneakily attached a prize and gave the line a tug to let her know that she'd caught a big one.

She recognizes you too, and you can see in her eyes that she is wrestling between her pride and her need, and you know that she can tell by your hot cheeks that you are wrestling too.

How can you keep it professional when you've seen her dancing around the toadstool at Brownies? What is there to say?

Well, I'll tell you.

I said hello.

She said hello.

Then she cried.

And then I cried. Because this is how I help people, by crying with them. Because I couldn't take away her poverty, I didn't know how. And I couldn't take away her embarrassment, because I shared it, and I was ashamed that I did. And I was frustrated. And I kept remembering the little girl in the party dress, and how it'd only been a few years, and would she ever get out of this way of life, and who was looking out for her, and did my sister know, and would she ever forget that I was the one, I was the one who had to hear her plea?

I marked her name on the list, so that a day or two before Christmas she received a basket that wasn't really a basket, really it was just a cardboard box, and in it was off-brand crackers, dented tins of spaghetti sauce, and maybe a turkey but maybe not a turkey. And she ate that food knowing that I know. And across town, I ate my food, knowing what I knew, and it was one of the worst meals of my life.

I'd like to say otherwise, I'd like to say that it made me grateful for what I had, that it made me appreciate the food in my belly and the gifts under the tree, and the love in the room, but it didn't, not particularly. Instead I thought of the hundreds of families who were making do with paltry baskets, of the kids who Santa didn't visit, and I felt a loss that I had never felt before.

It's different when hunger has a face.

Jason and I are not wealthy people, but we contribute to Toy Mountain, and the Adopt-A-Family program. And every time we do groceries, I buy a few extra items for the foodbank bin, but I make these donations knowing the truth: that I have taken the coward's way out. I donate food now instead of time, because the food costs us money, but the time cost me a debt that I am still figuring out how to repay.

I still think of her, I still cry for her, and though it's not usually my thing, around this time of year, I might even say a prayer for her.

No comments: