by Nicki Gilmour (New York City)
As a Brit with 5 years under my belt as a New Yorker, I am still getting used to the Thanksgiving extravaganza here in US, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a bit like Christmas in the UK but a month early with no gifts, and less talk about “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.
So when my best gay boyfriend invited me to join him to volunteer on Thanksgiving to feed the homeless their turkey dinner rather than go to a fancy dinner party replete with the food coma that generally follows, I was happy to sign up.
When we arrived at the church the room was full of 200 people; it seemed like there was going to be no space for the “participants”, as we were told to call them. It was great to see New Yorkers of all religions and colors there, giving up their time and working together to feed all the people waiting in line outside in the cold. A man called Hakim in a well tailored suit and a colorful traditional Islamic hat was in charge (which surprised me as it was a Presbyterian church after all).
I was assigned to help one participant, a Mexican man named Juan, who couldn’t speak English. Luckily, my Spanish is somewhat fluent so I could not only help him pick from a list of foods on the menu (although, to be fair, it took me 5 minutes to remember the word ‘beet’ in Spanish) but I could also have a proper chat with him about his life. Juan had been working in a bar but had been laid off a few months before and told me he was now sleeping in the doorway of another church. I managed to do some translating for him as Hakim told him of some indoor sleeping options (none of which sounded great, but definitely better than the street). I gave Juan enough food to take with him for 2 days as well as my woolly ski hat as its cold out there and his baseball cap with the letters “Magnum PI “ on it didn’t look that warm.
Another woman at my table, probably in her thirties (i.e., around my age), had her young son with her. He wanted to wear a plastic apron like the volunteers and was chatting to the some of the kids who were volunteering with their parents. (What a cool idea!) I didn’t ask the woman about her circumstances, but I could tell that she felt slightly ashamed to be there. Seeing her made me realize just how many people are teetering on the poverty line here in the US, the richest country in the world.
Some people were lonely and wanted to talk and linger; others felt awkward and just wanted to have their food to go. Whatever the case, everyone got as much food as they needed. It was lovely to see those participants so inclined to open up a little after some warm soup and some hearty turkey. (I can only imagine how guarded one becomes living on the streets.)
Throughout the day, I felt an overwhelming love of New York City as I witnessed the kindness of strangers while meeting some cool people at the soup kitchen. The experience drove home for me the fact that giving people dignity and a place to go is just one small thing we can do for people everyday in our lives. And I’m definitely inspired to volunteer more regularly, especially now that I realize that my Spanish skills can be useful for more than just ordering tapas.