During our week of service in Seattle this year, we went and worked at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle. I have worked at other soup kitchens before but my day at this mission was truly a moving experience. When we first went through the doors, we had to check in and receive a volunteer patch. After that, we were lead back into the kitchen area where many men were hard at work preparing breakfast. They were busy cooking pancakes, grits and bacon. Each person had their special job and their total attention was devoted to their task. The whole kitchen area was run like a fine oiled machine. We were asked to split up. Leo and I went out front to serve bagels, yogurt, and milk. The other four, Jill, Amy, Katie, and Walt, were asked to serve the pancakes, bacon and grits. It was 5 minutes till 7:00am. The person in charge said the doors open at 7:00am. The first group of people that came in were the ones that spent the night up above in their rooms, which the center operated above the mess hall. After that the other 3 groups would come and these were the homeless people living out on the streets.
When the clock struck 7:00 we were all at our stations ready for to serve the meal. As the door was unlocked, the line quickly formed. I noticed how polite all the people were as they came through the line inquiring about the flavors of yogurt I was handing out. Many of the guest’s eyes quickly brightened up when they saw the cartons of milk. But then when they saw the expiration date was a few days expired, they started putting the milk back into the iced pail where they had taken it from. After the line had formed, one of the workers brought me a large box of peppermint candy to hand out. As I was standing there handing out the assigned food, a woman came up to me and asked me if the milk was okay to drink since it was passed the expiration date. I replied it had been kept cold. She was concerned because she was pregnant and did not want to get sick. She thought for a minute, then picked up a carton and sat down and ate her breakfast.
As the morning went by and the line of guests continued, I thought of how it is in the morning at home, when I wake up and open up the cabinet for the boxed cereal and the refrigerator for milk every morning knowing I can always expect it to be there. As the line for the first group came to an end and all the guests had finished breakfast and had left, the door was again locked and all the workers picked up and prepared for the next group of guests to arrive.
As the door was unlocked the second time, people of all ages and sizes came in. Many of them looked tired and cold. Some needed a shave and a bath. But what I noticed they all looked hungry. These are the people who have slept out on the streets night after night and were homeless. But I also noticed there were others who were well dressed and had a neat appearance. As the line formed we all handed out the food that had been prepared for them. The slightly expired milk quickly disappeared and they were not concerned about the date on the carton. Everyone appeared happy to just being able to receive milk to drink. I observed how the peppermint candy disappeared. Some were taking one piece and others contemplating on filling their back packs.
The majority of guests were men, with just a few women. As I was watching I noticed that as they ate and slowly left the dining hall there was one man sitting at one table and a woman at another. Soon they started yelling at each other very loudly and then started to get in each other’s faces and vulgar things were being said. Leo and I really didn’t know what we should do, but then three workers quickly stepped in and broke up the argument. The woman quickly left and had also left behind her personal items on the table along with her half eaten breakfast. I was thinking to myself, of how this woman came to eat breakfast and rest her tired body and all she got was hatred and anger. As the room emptied, there was a man sitting by himself slowly eating his pancakes. One of the local staff asked him if he could hurry up and eat because everyone had to be out so the staff could pick up and be ready for the next group. When the gentleman was asked again, he got up and left half of his food. As you see, everything had to be run on time, because we served over 300 people in a very short time. When the morning came to an end, everything had to be washed down and cleaned for lunch lines that would be starting soon.
After things were cleaned, we were asked to help with the preparations for the lunch. We diced celery, shallots and peppers. The staff person who showed us how to properly dice all the food had gone to culinary school. He was a graduate of the mission program. He stated that 80% of all the staff had graduated from the program as well. We were also informed that 100% of the food was donated and how some of the food just shows up every day.
I had such a great experience in helping at this soup kitchen, that if you are given an opportunity to serve at one, don’t pass up on this rewarding experience to help with serving food to the hungry. It will change your life as it has given me a whole new perception of homeless people and how they live .
By: Dan Schletzbaum