Supplementing My Education with Soup

Chad Petschek, Sports Editor

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This summer, I was “encouraged” by my parents to volunteer at a community soup kitchen in White Plains. I did not know what it would entail, but I was definitely reluctant to participate and skeptical that I would enjoy any aspect of it. I mean, come on – a soup kitchen? A place where you just stand there and dole out the same scoop of mashed potatoes onto 200 paper plates for 5 hours? I was supposed to volunteer every Wednesday, and before even going for the first time, Wednesday became my least favorite day of the week. Quickly though, I began to realize how interesting and rewarding this experience would be. While cooking the food, serving it, and washing dishes are not exactly the most riveting jobs, my service at the Grace Church soup kitchen opened my eyes to the poverty and need in Westchester, and the relationships I formed with the people there made it one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

The soup kitchen is more than just a place where the hungry can get food. It is a place where needy people from all over the city congregate to socialize and receive some of the attention that they are denied elsewhere. As was evident immediately, hunger and poverty do not discriminate. The soup kitchen was frequented by people of all walks of life standing in line waiting for what was often their only meal of the day. As I learned during my interactions with them, unfortunate circumstances, bad choices or just plain bad luck can affect anyone’s life, regardless of his or her race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

Serving food is not a brainless task at the soup kitchen, as I formerly thought. Every plate served comes with a conversation between the volunteer and the soup kitchen “diner”; each person provides insight on their past or present lives. Each story told by the diners gave me insight into who they were and what obstacles they had overcome or were still struggling to overcome. Over the course of the summer and these Wednesday morning stories, I came to know these people. As I learned who they were, they ceased being random hungry people and became unique individuals who simply needed a helping hand. From the young men recently released from jail who joked about their “CO” (corrections officer) each time a friend said something obnoxious to a woman who frequently told me about her dog and pleaded for extra food for him. From a man who wore shirts with handwritten political statements on them, many of which made no sense and which he himself could not explain; to two older twin brothers who often requested extra food for fictitious relatives that they claimed were sitting in the back of the church cafeteria; to a former attorney who came to the kitchen dressed in a blazer and tie and sweatpants and flip flops; to a prostitute and her young child who would energetically describe the meals he loved to eat; to the day laborers who were scrambling to get some food and make it back to their job site without being noticed absent. Each person was unique and had a story to tell. Some did so with long conversations, others with a simple word or two.

Almost universally, the diners at the soup kitchen were friendly and just wanted to talk to someone and share their opinions, as they probably do not get the chance otherwise. Even the cantankerous ones softened their tone and demeanor after a few kind words from the volunteers. It was the human interaction between the diners and the volunteers that made the soup kitchen so intriguing.
My experience this summer was eye-opening. I had the opportunity to view a part of the Westchester community that I had never been exposed to before, and I could see first-hand the need that exists and is often ignored. I strongly encourage anyone who is reading this article to take part in a community service activity. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life and I look forward to volunteering again in the future.