There are many compelling reasons to decide to volunteer at a soup kitchen, but the bottom line is simple and sincere: You want to help. But what does it mean to be helpful in these circumstance? Sometimes that's a complicated question with an equally complicated set of answers.
Here are six things to keep in mind when volunteering at a soup kitchen.
If you arrive at the soup kitchen ready to work, ready to help, and ready to connect in a sincere way with the guests, then you'll be fine and truly of service. Many soup kitchens are well-run operations, helmed by people who have been doing this for quite a while and are very used to dealing with volunteers. So first and foremost, you'll likely be in good hands. Here are some additional details that are helpful to know before you show up.
1. Know that safety comes first.
There are a few health and safety precautions you should always take when volunteering at a soup kitchen. First, wear closed-toed shoes, preferably ones that are comfortable, as you will likely be on your feet a lot. Tie your hair back, wear a headscarf/bandana, or be prepared to wear a hairnet. Wash your hands before and after your shift and using the restroom. Be prepared to wear food-service gloves and to remove your rings (lest they fall into the food.) If you're allergic to latex, you may want to bring your own gloves. Most importantly, do not go if you're sick. Many clients are very vulnerable to germs and diseases — even your little sniffles could have a big impact on them.
2. Remember you are not in charge.
Show up wanting to know how you can help. You may head up your own company or have decades of experience in professional kitchens, but this is not your operation to run. Helping out could mean many things, so be open. You may be tasked with opening boxes, sorting produce, organizing, washing, or cleaning besides actually serving and cooking. Be humble and don't try to run the show.
A friend of mine tells me it helps to have a "no task is beneath me" attitude. Also, as in any food service, clean up your station when you're done with your task. Wash your cutting board/knife, wipe down the counter, put any food scraps/skins/etc. in the compost or trash. Don't leave a mess for the next person.
3. Consider the many ways to give.
Maybe you can't make it to volunteer in person. You can also donate money to the soup kitchen or organize a fund drive at your work or school. Or arrange for a donation of supplies (after being sure they need them). Are you a musician? Offer to play music or entertain the children. Not good in the kitchen? Offer to bring a stack of books and read stories to the kids for a few hours.
4. Go when you're really needed.
Soup kitchens and other food charities are overrun with help at the holidays, especially the feasting holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. It's great to help out then, but they often need your help the other 360-odd days of the year, too. So consider going at a less popular time. And while you're at it, consider going more than once. People who operate soup kitchens really appreciate folks who already know the ropes.
5. Leave your pity at the door.
Don't come with the attitude that you are a more privileged person bestowing your kindness on the huddled masses — you are there to be of service, which is a very different approach. Remember, pity is felt towards another person but compassion is felt with. If possible, go out into the dining room after your shift and sit down with the guests, eat with them. Share a smile and welcome words. Listen to their stories. And keep in mind, not everyone who uses a soup kitchen is homeless. Many are also working poor.
And don't expect to see outward signs of gratitude or even to be thanked. Remember that you're not there to make yourself feel better — you're there to assist people who are in very challenging circumstances. This may feel a little emotionally rough at times, but ultimately this kind of work is very rewarding. When faced with a compelling need, it's always better to roll up your sleeves and pitch in than to look away.
6. Consider going with a friend.
You may want to go with a friend — especially the first time and especially if coming to face to face with poverty is not something you're used to. The challenge with helping those in need is to be open to them without being overwhelmed by the suffering you might encounter while doing so. Having a friend to process your experience with will not only aid in sorting through everything, but it will also help you both to be more open, stronger, and of service whenever and wherever you encounter the need.
Do you have experience with volunteering in soup kitchens? What did you find helpful? What was your experience like? Do you run a soup kitchen? What would you like your volunteers to know or understand?