I Used to Volunteer at the Food Pantry, Now We Eat There

by Eden Strong
Originally Published: 
A volunteer pouring soup in a brown bowl with a metal ladle at the Food Pantry

“Can the kids have some candy?”

“Can the kids have this?”

“Excuse me, is it ok for the kids to have a sucker?”

I snap back to reality, realizing that someone has been talking to me and even though I heard him, my mind was a million miles away.

“Oh gosh,” I forcefully laugh. “I’m sorry, I was totally spacing out. What did you say?”

“Is it ok if I give the kids a sucker?” the volunteer at the food pantry repeats to me again. I look down to see two sets of brown eyes gleaming up at me, the anticipation clearly showing on both of my kids faces.

After a quick read through of the ingredient list to make sure it doesn’t contain gluten or dairy I manage to mutter out “Um, yeah sure, that’s fine, thanks,” in a voice that I’m hoping sounds not only appreciative, but masks the embarrassment that I’m feeling inside.

It’s Saturday morning, the day is just beginning, the sun is shining, and we are standing in line at the food pantry; the very same food pantry that I volunteered at years ago. Yet now, after the disappearance of my husband, I’m no longer here to volunteer. Now I am here desperately praying that they don’t run out of diapers before I get to the front of the line. I’m not the volunteer anymore, I’m different now.

Three years ago, I could have never imagined this. I’d been the volunteer all my life; the food pantry, the animal shelter, Sunday School teacher, special education summer camp, and multiple missions trips. I had made every effort to give back to the people around me because it felt like the right thing to do.

Now, after years of a bad marriage and the abandonment of a husband, I am the recipient of someone else’s volunteer work.

Now, I’m different. Some days, I’m not even sure I recognize myself anymore.

If I ever thought that volunteer work was hard, this was a whole new ballgame. That feeling that you get when you help someone, that feeling that makes you feel like a worthwhile human being, it is sucked completely out of you when you are the recipient.

Today, I don’t feel worthwhile. Today I feel worthless and burdensome. Today, I feel like a failure.

I know this is temporary. I know that I am fighting tooth and nail to achieve a better life for me and my kids. I know that learning to swallow your pride and receive the help that is being offered to you are all valuable life lessons, but today, today I just feel defeated.

I feel defeated, I feel humiliated, and I am ashamed that I can’t provide better for the two sets of brown eyes that look up to me with all the anticipation in the world; the two sets of brown eyes that I am supposed to be able to provide for.

Standing in line at the food pantry, unfortunately, is the best that I can provide today. Today, the best thing that I can do is to drag two sets of sleep weary brown eyes out of their beds just as the sun is starting to break over the horizon. The best that I can do today is to show up at the food pantry and ask for help.

I used to work at this food pantry. I used to be one of “them,” one of the volunteers that was helping so many people. Today, I’m not that person anymore. Today, I’m just a mom who is doing my best to help only two people; the two that are the most important to me.

We make it to the front of the line and thankfully, they are not out of diapers. We collect our box of food, bag of toiletries, package of diapers, and slowly we walk back to the car. As I buckle the kids into their car seats I see the joy on two little faces, brown eyes all lit up with glee.

“Thanks mommy! Thanks for letting us have a sucker!”

They have no idea and it breaks my heart. I used to be one of them, the volunteer, but now, I’m not.

Now, I’m different.

I don’t know what I’ll do next. I don’t know how to move forward from where we are. The only thing that I know is that I need the help. I need the help in order to be able to give back to the two sets of brown eyes that are looking at me with all the love and admiration in the world.

As I look into their eyes, I realize that volunteer work is taking on a whole new meaning for me. Volunteers are people who selflessly give in order to help someone else.

Yes, my two sweet sets of brown eyes, I will selflessly give what I can to help you. I will give up my pride, set down my defenses, and I will do whatever it takes to make sure that you are taken care of.

Maybe I’m not so different after all.

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