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Giving Thanks by Giving Back

In any given year, but especially this year, food pantries and soup kitchens are essential support systems for people and families in need. This Thanksgiving, create a meaningful experience with your kids about how good it feels to give thanks through sharing and giving back.

New York City is a rough place. Even rougher if you’re unemployed. And a downright jungle if you are homeless.

Every Tuesday night for a couple of years (pre-kids!), I’d leave work and head to a volunteer shift I picked up at the New York Rescue Mission. On the third floor was the women’s shelter -- a large room with a few dozen bunk beds in the center of the room, and plastic chairs around the perimeter. My job was to coordinate and time the showers so that all women could have their turn before the lights went out. Any person could have done this job -- you call names from a clipboard for next up, and shout into the showers a two-minute warning when a bather’s six-minute turn is almost over. This work required no special skill on paper, no Ivy League degree, and no work experience, but I quickly realized I was just the woman for the job.

The key was listening. Occasionally, chatting. And eventually, eating.

It was talking with women who had nowhere else to go -- talking to them as if they were long-lost friends. It was editing resumes for job applications as housekeepers and baristas. It was helping setup FaceTime calls to reach out to some of these women’s children in other shelters. It was mending thrift store wedding dresses in anticipation of a ceremony that may or may not ever happen. It was looking at photos on someone’s phone of family members lost to distance, drugs, or death. It was connecting those in need with attorney friends willing to work pro bono to help them change names or seek divorces from incarcerated or abusive spouses. And, it was sharing meals.

Believe it or not, the meal was the hardest part.

You see, the homeless population doesn’t look like you might expect it to. These women are well-dressed, they have iPhones, they have friends and family, they have part-time gigs as nannies or sales clerks. Thanks to the Rescue Mission, they have warm showers and clean beds. But without the Rescue Mission, they wouldn’t have food.

To sit with them and eat from the same buffet filled me with sorrow and shame. It was as if I was taking food out of someone else’s mouth. I couldn’t do it.

The first several months I didn’t eat. I just sat there chitchatting at the table with them. And then a resident named Monica asked me point-blank: “Are you too good for what we eat?” I responded, “No, I just want there to be more food for everyone else.” What she said next changed my life:

“This food sure would taste a lot better if we could share it with our friend.”

Isn’t that so true? Food is always better when shared. Of course, we’re grateful for the big corporate partners that the Rescue Mission had arranged to secure not-yet-expired produce or donations of canned goods; however, nothing felt better than the personal act of bringing the cookies to pass around, or stocking the shelf with favorite soups for sharing with my friends.

What made Monica feel different from me was not my resume, my home, or my family. Despite having just been paroled from prison on solicitation charges, she saw no real divide between us -- except that I wouldn’t partake in a meal with her and the other residents.

Based on this experience, I want my life always to be about setting the table for one more. Even if it can’t be in person in the basement of the Rescue Mission, it is our responsibility (not the government’s) to care for our neighbors. And now that I have children, it’s about demonstrating to them how to do the same.

Need exists in all our communities, and we have so many ways we can show up to share:

  • Give your child a budget (or a $5, $10, or $20 bill) and encourage them at the grocery store to shop for the local food bank. They’ll learn about math and philanthropy at the same time!

  • Help prepare food at your local shelter or soup kitchen. Many have programs that allow families to volunteer together.

  • Clean out your pantry and have the kids load the car to go to the local food bank for drop-off. Check out Feeding America to find a food bank in your area.

  • If you live far from an organization with need, try sending a PeaPod or Costco order to the organization’s address. We love doing this for Pivot Ministries in Bridgeport, CT -- too far for us to drive regularly, but Costco delivers!

  • Volunteer to deliver groceries to underprivileged families this Thanksgiving. Add a personal touch, such as a card from your kids or a homemade treat.

  • Ask a teacher in an underserved school district if they have any food insecurity concerns in their classroom. Stock the classroom cabinets so that every child can have something for breakfast or to bring home -- a granola bar or snack bag -- if the teachers are ever concerned or unsure about a student’s family situation.

  • Partner with your kid’s teacher or school administrator to start a food drive at school, and bring your kid into this team effort. Again, check Feeding America for a collection station in your area.

Most of what our hungry neighbors crave most is the dignity of being treated normally and loved authentically. So most of all -- show up.
When invited to sit for the meal, sit for the meal. Bring your kids to share in the experience, too.

Remember, the first Thanksgiving was not simply about giving thanks and celebrating the harvest. The first Thanksgiving was giving thanks and celebrating over a shared meal.

Food really does taste better when shared with friends.


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