Like most Americans, I'm strapped for cash. When I hear the cries from places like the Gulf and Haiti, I feel puny and impotent. That, coupled with a feeling that I need my own personal bailout, has sucked some of my generosity from me. We all know that if you give money, you get a tax break. And we know that if you give goods away, you can clean out your clutter and get that yummy tax break again. But did you know that if you volunteer, you can improve your health wile raising the standard of living in your community?
A number of studies have now shown that volunteering can lower depression and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – common after events such as Katrina and the Exxon Valdez oil spill), can reduce your chances of having heart disease and
even increase your lifespan. Besides, it feels good and it's free. That's why I will be spending a few days each month volunteering with some of the top Good-doing organizations in this city, and reporting back to you.
First Organization: Second Harvest
I recently volunteered for a half day at Second Harvest, a food bank that distributes tens of millions of pounds of food in our area every year to over 260,000 individuals. 1 in 8 people in the state of Louisiana, and 1 in 4 children under the age of 5, deal with hunger every day and with more people out of work and fewer people able to catch their own food, the need for food from Second Harvest has already increased 25% since the BP gusher began.
I was able to choose from two shifts at the warehouse in Elmwood, 9 am to noon and 1 to 4 pm. Though I'm no morning person, I chose the early shift to beat the heat. The morning started in a conference room where I met my fellow volunteers for the day, Catholic high school students working off their service hours. Other days, ARC (the Association for Retarded Citizens) sends volunteers or local corporations send a group. Even children are welcome. One volunteer would receive food through the program then take the bus to volunteer at the warehouse, proving even the needy have something to give.
We were briefed on what would be expected of us, then shown part of a video where we learned how to "salvage" food. Salvaging is done before sorting. Sorting is boxing cereal with cereal, juice with juice, etc. Salvaging consists of going through boxes of food, banana boxes to be exact, and checking expiration dates, taping ripped can labels and other outer packaging, and throwing out anything unusable. At some point, this included a mouse that was making its way through some cereal. Thank goodness teenage boys love rodents almost as much as they love freaking out squeamish girls, so a quick-handed kid grabbed it and threw it outside. Salvaging became a matter of rhythm and focus, pulling me out of my own problems and into a world of packing and stacking. It was relaxing and with all the lifting and carrying boxes, I got a decent work-out to boot.
When I first entered the salvage area, I was dumbstruck by how many boxes needed our attention. Since the organization has recently moved to its new "green" facility, there's a slight log jam in getting everything to the volunteers who distribute the food and actually get to meet the people they're helping. I thought I might not enjoy our task without that satisfaction, but as we stacked pallet after pallet with salvaged goods, I felt great; useful and productive.
I asked some of the students if their families had ever needed food, "been on the other end of the box," as they say around the office. Sure, these are private school kids, children of means, but several had needed help after Katrina. As an elementary student, I'd trick-or-treated for Unicef. By the time I entered junior high and high school, I was on the hot lunch program, a government subsidized program to assist kids buying lunches at public school. It made me realize that anyone could find themselves having trouble making ends meet.
Second Harvest distributes food to over 240 non-profit, faith-based agencies such as soup kitchens, homeless shelters and church pantries including Bridge House and the New Orleans Mission right here in town. Food comes in from Walmart and Target, among other corporate grocers, as well as the USDA, church groups and food drives. Melanie Stevens, volunteer coordinator for Second Harvest, offered that, "The letter carriers' food drive is our the biggest food drive we have every year and this year I think it brought in close to 190,000 pounds of food." Good to know, as I've always enjoyed the postal carrier food drive the laziest way I could give food I wasn't eating anyway. Next up, Second Harvest would like to plant a garden to provide much needed fresh produce.
I've been giving small cash donations to Second Harvest for years. They've always been my favorite food bank because they use food that would have ended up as part of America's colossal $75 billion annual food loss and turn it into groceries that feed families. That's some serious recycling.
Volunteering got me out of my routine and into someone else's life for a moment. Rather than watching abysmal news on the spill and feeling useless to help, I got to get my hands dirty and make a dent in the workload. I, for one, am hooked. With no money and minimal effort, I fed hungry Louisianans. And with the added mental and physical health benefits, I actually made my heart stronger.
To volunteer at Second Harvest