One day in early January, I was interrupted from some of the daily cleaning duties at the pantry when the phone rang. It was one of our participants, speaking at a cheerful near-yell. “HEY! It’s me! It’s Bobbie!”
I instantly recognized the man who belonged to the voice at the other end of the phone as a pleasant and cheerful elderly man who is a regular visitor to the food pantry. As he chatted away, I realized that far from calling to ask about when he could pick up food, he was just calling to inform us that he planned to bring us a bag of black walnuts that he had harvested from his yard, and to bring me up to date on recent events of his life. As my expectations of a brief and businesslike phone call were challenged and I stood there talking to him for several minutes, my initial reaction was to feel slightly uneasy, like a leisurely chat was an irresponsible use of my time as a volunteer when there was cleaning to be done.
Afterwards, I began to wonder why I sometimes feel like having conversations with participants while on the job is a sign of laziness, or a lack of commitment to my volunteer position. For starters, I think it has something to do with a type of college “mindset” which has remained strong in my life despite graduating from college this past spring. After the high-stress atmosphere of college, it is easy to concern myself with efficiency and effectiveness and getting things done, to the point where I need to feel like I am making a tangible and visible contribution at each moment. When I see things that way, a long and meaningful conversation with a participant can seem inefficient, because it stops me from being that “good volunteer” who is always running around doing something. It becomes hard to imagine the new possibilities for service that come when I really know the participants and they really know me.
As this year continues, my eyes are being opened to my own self-centeredness as a volunteer, and it hasn’t always been a feel-good lesson. I’ve realized that I have a tendency to focus just on getting food to the participants without letting go of control enough to really be present to them. However, I am slowly becoming aware that true service is built not just on the transfer of physical goods but on relationships and community. It takes patience and a willingness to tolerate a little bit of disorganization. This deeper kind of service isn’t just a one-way flow of me giving and the participants receiving; it is more reciprocal than that. It is being present to each other in such a way that we are able to constantly regenerate each other’s strength and hopefulness like a true, Christian community.
One of the hard things about this realization is that it means admitting that I am not all that significant—admitting that I am not uniquely suited to make a difference in this disadvantaged Appalachian town because I happen to have a college education. In fact, my background may be more of a hindrance than anything else because I have to learn how to see things through the eyes of the participants, to walk a little in their shoes. I continue to be amazed by the big and little gestures of friendship on the part of my participants—whether it’s a story about their childhood, or a recipe for salmon soup, or a beautiful quilt to wrap up in when I come home and curl up on the couch. It turns out, I had to come to Appalachia—and CAP—to learn a lesson about what community really means.
Janet Mostrom is a long-term CAP Volunteer serving as an AmeriCorps Food Pantry Caseworker at CAP’s Grateful Bread Food Pantry. She is a member of Rockcastle Community and is a 2013 graduate of the University of Notre Dame.