Thursday, February 11, 2010

Soup Kitchens, Photo-Ops and Fulfillment

Last winter I was watching the evening news. For the record I reside in the greater New York area and around these parts we love us our NY Yankees. Perennial winners and God knows everybody like a winner. It was close to Thanksgiving and the local news was doing a story on several members of the team, I don’t remember which ones. But these gentleman were doing their duty as role-models and good citizens, which is to say that just because they now have multi-million dollar contracts to play baseball they like to show the world at large that they haven’t forgotten their roots, they haven’t forgotten the little people who aren’t blessed with a 90 mph fastball or the ability to hit a baseball 450 feet over a fence.

And so there they are at a downtown New York City soup-kitchen, chef hats on, standing behind the counter ladling out soup, turkey, stuffing, the works while photographers from every local newspaper snapped pictures and sportswriters were jockeying for position, sticking microphones in their faces trying to get a word or two about how it feels to be here on Thanksgiving doing their part to feed the unidentified homeless people. It was a great photo-op, a great five minute story and we all walked away feeling good about ourselves.

I wonder how the nameless and faceless people who take their meals in a soup-kitchen feel about these photo-ops. I wonder if anyone ever bothered to ask them. Do they feel blessed to have a big, baseball star ladling soup into their bowls? Is this something they’ll tell their grandchildren someday? Do they even know their grandchildren? Does their family even know they’re out there taking their meals in a soup-kitchen because they have nowhere else to go?

I just finished reading a blog entry posted on my local town’s blog. It was written by a woman who has a few times volunteered at the local soup kitchen in the next town over. And she talked about all the wonderful people that were volunteering their time, she spoke of the great conversations she had and how blessed she felt to have met her new volunteer friends and she talked about how downright fulfilling an experience it was for she and her fellow volunteers.

And it got me thinking the same thing… I wonder if anyone ever thought to ask the people who actually take their meals at this soup kitchen if they feel fulfilled by having her there ladling soup into their bowls. I wonder if they feel blessed to have the opportunity to meet their newfound homeless friends who are also taking their meals at a soup kitchen.

Is that why we do this? Volunteer our time? So we can feel fulfilled? And does she then go home at night feeling fulfilled because she had dumped a couple of baked potatoes on a couple of plates for some guy who hasn’t showered in probably a week. No money, no job, mental illness and lice and sleeping on a subway grate with a box for a blanket.

I probably sound incredibly holier-than-thou right now and I honestly don’t mean to. My question is sincere and I don’t know how to express my point of view another way. My goal is not to blast this woman, I guess I just wonder why we always only think about our own fulfillment and leave the dirty part out of the story.


  1. So true. But I think that for every person who is there out of a sense of duty or to feel good about themselves there is another, quieter volunteer in the shadows who was having a great conversation in the corner with a drunk and missed the photo op!

  2. Excellent point and no doubt true. However my question points to why nobody ever bothers to talk about how they missed the photo-op because of their conversation with the drunk.

    This is very funny. I think I must compose a post entitled 'Conversations with the Drunk Who Missed the Photo-Op'. Ah the blessings of first-hand experience.

  3. Hi jss,
    I liked this post because it's genuine and searching and honest and all those things that people don't normally dare to think about... you do...
    I can't answer your question at all...
    I think that people do feel a sense of fulfillment in asmuchas they are actually DOING something (which is more than about 95% of the population, let's face it...
    I used to work with the homeless fulltime.
    I worked in a hostel for young homeless people and also worked part time in a health centre for the street homeless where we fed them, washed their clothes, provided new clothes and had access to a nurse, dentist, chiropodist and osteopath.
    I can't ever remember feelng particularly fulfilled. In fact, a whole part of the reason I left that job and went into teaching was because I couldn't cope with the fact that what I could do was SO INCREDIBLY limited. At the end of the day, all those guys still went out to sleep on the streets in temperatures which were, at times, sub zero.
    Some feel fulfilled and I think that's ok.
    It's not going to make a whole lot of difference to street people.
    I'm rambling and just realised that there is absolutely no point to what I am saying!
    I guess that I think that whilst the woman you speak of does sound a little self righteous and up herself, I don't think that at the end of the day, it matters either way.

    Thanks for making me think A LOT.
    Sorry not to have made more sense here!!


  4. Hi WS – on the contrary I think you’ve made a lot of sense – your responses are always very thoughtful. I am interested by your comment of which you say that you left because you felt so limited in what you could do for these people in need. It’s an interesting and cogent point.

    Fulfillment comes I think when we actually DO feel as though we’re making a difference. If we feel as though we’re just beating our head against a wall and getting nothing but a bloody gash then we’re not likely to find the energy and commitment to continue in the endeavor.

    I suppose it also depends on our definition of what ‘making a difference’ is. There are those who expect that they’re going to turn the world on its ear, start a global movement, end world hunger, etc., and so they set out with high aspirations only to be met with reality, which is to say lack of funds, mental illness that doesn’t respond to rationality, or just your basic human passivity, apathy and resistance to change. We don’t expect this but rather we have a tendency to assume that since we believe we’re in it for the good well then everyone should embrace our noble intentions, see the light and voila, instantaneous change.

    Hmm… doesn’t usually work that way does it?

    I wonder if it is not necessarily our inability to change the economic outlook for a homeless person but perhaps our success (if we can call it that) comes from merely interacting, engaging, or rather in the simple act of simple human contact. Two people meeting as simple human beings in a difficult world. Who can say – I’m just tossing out ideas.

    I do still wish however that somebody might remember, whilst they’re extolling the virtues of fulfillment that comes from feeding the hungry to actually bother to personally acknowledge those same people. The thing that grates about these two incidents is the complete lack of acknowledgement as part of the equation the very people that they are purporting to serve.