red candle

One of the members of On Our Own brought me a candle.

He usually rushes in at 5:15, a regular with whom I worked on job applications. He was applying and filling out a tedious 14 page job application to be a seafood clerk. We usually completed 4 pages before he lost focus or told me a story or his ride came.

This particularly warm Thursday, everyone was sleeping as an old western came on TV. I smiled as the man heroically saved the woman from plunging 500 feet to her death in the rapids on television. The program ended and Makia talked about her adventures, in Spanish so we could practice fluency. I waited patiently to be a resource if anyone needed it, but this evening everyone just needed a place to sleep for a bit.

At 5:30, the door opened and my friend came in looking frazzled. He said he had rushed to be here and wanted to work more on his application. He then pulled two candles out of his backpack to give to us as thanks for helping him. I was touched he had remembered the time, because he had promised he would try hard to stick to his appointments, and that he had thought to bring us little trinkets. He insisted we keep the candles and sheepishly moved his eyes back to the computer screen.

That candle burns in my apartment this week to remind me how fortunate I am to be warm and inside my apartment. Keep the hope alive :)

When I walked in, I was greeted by the sweet smell of spaghetti wafting from the kitchen.  Each member emerged from the kitchen with a steaming plate of noodles; some getting two bowls of pasta for their family seated on the couch.  The sound of Judge Mathus comingles with members’ discussions of hair color, working and baseball. Makia and I spend much of our time enjoying the welcoming environment with the members.

One of the members rushed in from work and asked us to help him apply for a job on the computer. He got a bit frustrated as we dictated the long list of directions on how to reset his password, and I began to see how hard it was to apply for jobs online.  He got confused when “goolgr.com” did not take him to his e-mail and became impatient as the computer took a long time to load. After thirty minutes, his ride came to take him home, and all we had done was reset his password and open the application. The application was almost as unforgiving as the process! The original website redirected you to an external website where you had to once again create a username and password. None of the work could be saved, so I reassured him that we would continue next week. He shook our hands and apologized for being so frazzled. He told us his boss had taken him out for drinks and he shouldn’t have drank. We nodded forgivingly and promised we would see him later.

Makia and I ended our volunteering quietly with a Friends episode; a hilarious episode where Rachel finds out she is pregnant and wants to tell the father. One member piped up that he has a guy friend who just found out that his girl is pregnant and they have an appointment at the Charlottesville Free Clinic (the Pregnancy Center of Central Virginia offers free and confidential services to all members of the Charlottesville/ UVA community).

The members of On Our Own sat on the steps sunbathing and cheerfully discussing current events in the unusually warm weather that Thursday. After greeting them and signing in, we giggled our way upstairs to complete the assigned organization task.

The weather makes everyone cheery, and the windows of On Our Own let in lots of natural light. We enjoyed ourselves inventorying the oddest holiday and craft supplies on a legal pad. “3 Jumbo pencils without erasers, 4 small pinecones…” The task was fairly simple and we finished quickly as a team.

supplies

Afterwards, we sat outside On Our Own and talked to the man with the purple nail polish about violence in Charlottesville, but the mood was less somber in the sunlight. He discussed the 30 hours of raw footage he had of homeless men for a documentary expose and we discussed how he should go about cutting and creating his “docu-drama”. The faces at On Our Own were new faces from the week before, and I enjoyed the easy conversation. We tentatively arranged to meet some people next week, but it really seems to depend on the weather. Weatherman, weatherman: what will you forecast for next Thursday?

The members of On Our Own sat on the steps sunbathing and cheerfully discussing current events in the unusually warm weather that Thursday. After greeting them and signing in, we giggled our way upstairs to complete the assigned organization task.

The weather makes everyone cheery, and the windows of On Our Own let in lots of natural light. We enjoyed ourselves inventorying the oddest holiday and craft supplies on a legal pad. “3 Jumbo pencils without erasers, 4 small pinecones…” The task was fairly simple and we finished quickly as a team.

supplies

Afterwards, we sat outside On Our Own and talked to the man with the purple nail polish about violence in Charlottesville, but the mood was less somber in the sunlight. He discussed the 30 hours of raw footage he had of homeless men for a documentary expose and we discussed how he should go about cutting and creating his “docu-drama”. The faces at On Our Own were new faces from the week before, and I enjoyed the easy conversation. We tentatively arranged to meet some people next week, but it really seems to depend on the weather. Weatherman, weatherman: what will you forecast for next Thursday?

I have to admit, I stared at a blank word document for thirty minutes before beginning the slow clacking of the keys. Volunteering at On Our Own for the first time was an incredibly eye opening experience and I am not sure where to begin.

First, I have a cooking lesson look forward to! Makia, the super sweet second year whom I volunteer with, admitted to a member at the program that we had never learned how to cook. He proudly told us that he had a culinary background and urged us to cook with him next Thursday when he made dinner for himself. He excitedly shook our hands and we had a date….I hope!

On August 17th, a homeless man was beaten half to death in Charlottesville and remains in the hospital for severe injuries. A very vocal man in the program recounted this and the tale of how he was slammed onto the ground and had five teeth knocked out. In the light of all the incidents occurring around Charlottesville, he cautioned me to be careful at night and that he was so grateful to have moved out of his tent. As he told me about his plans to make a documentary on the life of homeless people, he bit his purple painted nails. He candidly told us he was recovering from addiction and the program leader reminded us that they accepted homeless men and women in any stage of their recoveries. For those of you who like numbers, the 2006 United States Conference of Mayors “Hunger and Homelessness Survey” reports that approximately 26% of the homeless population is dealing with issues of substance abuse.

That number seemed quite large when various members began to jump in and tell us their stories of addiction. One man sitting in the corner caught my attention by not jumping in with his story. He asked my major and then smiled widely when I said I was an English major. He told me that he had always wanted to get his GED, but didn’t know how to read. With 99% of the population defined as literate, how had this man only been taught the basics? He shyly told me he hid a baby book at his place of residence and would love it if I would read with him since I was an English major. I smiled and fiddled with the small ring on my finger.

Each vignette I have told has an unsatisfying conclusion. You, like me, might wonder if the man will show up to teach me how to fry chicken, if the man with the purple painted nails will bring his raw documentary footage for me to look over because he thought I had an “open mind,” or even if the man in army fatigue will bring his book for us to read. I guess, my dear readers, we will find out next week! In the meantime, keep those who live in tents or on the streets in your warmest thoughts as it gets cold. On Our Own offers food and shelter during the day, but it is up to these men and women to secure a job to keep them off the streets during the evenings.

Sunday morning cooking for Campus Kitchen is perhaps not what you’d think. They don’t actually cook all of the food during the cooking session; most of it is pre-cooked by dining and donated in the form of leftovers. This is a positive thing though – it means that leftover food, instead of being wasted, is given to people who are hungry. Sometimes they need to cook a little more food to round out the nutritional value of the meal (this week they had to make an extra tray of rice to include more carbs) but overall, the food they donate is food that would otherwise be thrown away. During the week they store it in coolers in Runk’s kitchen, and check the temperature daily to make sure it stays within safe ranges. Then on Sunday the cooking shift comes in – bright and early at 9:30 am – and puts it in the steamer to freshen it up.

When I walked in to talk to this week’s shift, I found two girls and two guys, the girls in hairnets and everyone in aprons. “Hey!” they exclaimed, grinning and friendly. Aubrey and Ariel, the shift leaders, then proceeded to show me around the kitchen, a gleaming metal maze that clanked and hummed with the sounds of ovens, freezers, and slamming metal doors. Around us Runk’s kitchen staff worked diligently to prepare Sunday brunch.

“175 for the vegetables!” called out Aubrey, who had her head in the steamer, checking their temperature. Ariel explained how they have to be really careful with their paperwork, making sure to record the temperature of everything they served, to ensure that the food was safe to eat. “Potatoes are 170!” called Aubrey again. There are also a lot of logistical issues to working in the kitchen – simply forgetting to switch the steamer from “manual” to “timer” can cause problems.

There were some humorous moments during the shift, too, like when one of the vegetable trays got stuck in the steamer. After the food is steamed, it’s placed in a heater, which is then placed in a warmer box to trap the heat. These big boxes are finally loaded into volunteers’ cars and driven to the Salvation Army, where the same volunteers serve the food to Charlottesville community members.

The enthusiastic CK staff, with all the food loaded into warmers, has a reason to be proud. The group is starting a new initiative that helps the environment, U.Va. dining, and the poor community of Charlottesville. Leaving the morning shift, I felt glad that I’d gotten up early on a Sunday to be a part of this experience. Campus Kitchen can only be described as a strong new group with a lot of momentum and even more potential.

Editor’s Note: Campus Kitchen is a new student volunteer opportunity collaborating with Madison House, if you’re a student interested in volunteering with Campus Kitchen email Aubrey Mignone at aem6n@virginia.edu or Katie Pollard at kmp6u@virginia.edu.

Today I got my first taste of Campus Kitchen, the new organization at U.Va. that donates extra dining hall food to the local Salvation Army. CK, which was initiated last year by two students in the Class of 2009 who received a grant from the Seven Society, kicked off this semester. It served its first meal at the Salvation Army on Valentine’s Day.

Last semester a small group of students worked on planning and paperwork to get the program going, ironing out all of the details. It’s exciting to become involved in a group that’s such a new initiative here.

Most of CK’s work occurs on Sundays, when students prepare, transport and serve the extra food. During the week, they check the temperature of stored food on a daily basis. Wednesdays are the big drop-off days, when all three U.Va. dining halls bring their leftovers to Runk, where CK stores their stash of food. The local bakery that supplies our dining halls also brings in a shipment of its extra food on Wednesday. CK is working to move meal-planning, a vital part of their program, to Sunday evenings. They always make sure to serve a balanced meal: on the list for this Sunday were beef, pork tenderloin, confetti pilaf, black beans, rice, and potatoes! I was impressed that meat and veggies were included, really rounding out the menu.

The organization’s goal is to serve a meal every week, regardless of whether school is in session. They want to stress that Charlottesville doesn’t shut down, and people’s needs don’t go away, just because U.Va. is not in session. So far they’ve been successful with this – they served on both Sundays during our spring break.

“We’re trying to find our stride,” explained Ariel, one of today’s shift leaders. She continued that CK is thinking about expanding its donor base to other sites, and maybe even gleaning the Farmer’s Market for unwanted produce. They also are trying to figure out how to work in tandem with SEED, another student organization that receives food donations from community restaurants such as Bodo’s, and serves them to the needy.

I’m excited to start volunteering with CK this semester – if they’ve accomplished so much in so little time, there’s no telling what they’ll do once they hit their stride!

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