Hands to help on a Monday night


As a writer, I’m used to asking the questions.

I inquire. Follow up. Probe, maybe — just a little! — to get to the core of a story in a way I hope will do the subject justice.

After seven years of writing a column, I’m still getting used to being “in the field” writing features — but am enjoying the heck out of it. I rarely get nervous these days because stories are stories, and that’s my job: to tell stories. Mine. Yours. His. Hers. Theirs.

I’ve started spending Monday evenings at a local soup kitchen. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, other than I felt an extreme pull — a need, really — to go. I heard about the need for volunteers at work and, before I knew it, I’d signed up for the next shift. The spiritual part of me thinks that was God, and maybe it was. After sitting behind a desk most of the day, I guess I wanted to get my hands a little dirty.

I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. In fact, it feels strange to write about it at all — but in a short time, these Monday dinners have become an important part of my life. They matter to me. These people, my neighbors, matter to me.

When I interviewed Angela Mitchell last month, she inspired me so much with her dedication to the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants. We talked about how some folks would love to get involved in volunteer work, but it seems daunting.

“Many people say, ‘I don’t know where to start, but I have these two hands and a Saturday morning,’” Mitchell said.

Two hands and a Saturday morning.

Two hands . . . and a Monday night.

And so I’ve started signing up to help at dinners, using an office restroom to change into faded jeans after work. The first time I came to serve anyone who needed a hot meal, at least 20 volunteers crowded the church hall. Everyone was bubbly, eager to help; so many people were there to cook and clean that I wasn’t really needed.

But I stayed. Tried to make myself useful. And at a dinner designed to unite the community and feed the hungry — older people; younger people; homeless people; people coming straight from work in faded uniforms — I looked into faces and listened to stories.

A young girl took a shine to me, lingering around the table of donated goods I was periodically manning. It was her sixth birthday, and she looked eagerly through stacks of school supplies. In her hands was a birthday card, and she asked me to read it aloud several times. “It had $10 in it,” she said.

“Are you going to save your money or spend it?” I asked.

“Spend it!” she said eagerly, as any child would.

I asked her if she had something in mind, and the look she gave me nearly burned.

“Food,” she said. “Duh.”

Eating in America

I have never wanted for food. Never had to fall asleep hungry or go to school hungry or watch others eat with nothing for lunch. My biggest food-related challenge has been to eat less of it — and the idea of a 6-year-old wanting (needing?) to spend birthday money not on toys or clothes, but lunch? Well.

I was not there to pity anyone, and they don’t want our pity. I wasn’t looking for a “thank you.” This was not for a story.

At least . . . not that kind of story.

In sharp contrast to my first time volunteering, when the hall was bursting with eager assistants, I walked in Monday to find two women struggling to pull down chairs and set up tables with just 30 minutes before guests would start arriving. Nothing was cooked, and the room was quiet. There were five of us to feed 40-plus people: serving, assisting, seating, helping, cleaning.

I panicked.

I assumed every night at the soup kitchen would be like my first: all hustle-and-bustle, laughter and ease, many people gathered to help many other people. Someone else in charge. Someone else with authority.

But this wasn’t the other volunteers’ first rodeo. As guests filtered in, I was amazed at the speed with which meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rolls sprang from the kitchen. The women in charge were quick, kind and completely in control. After the room was set up for diners, I helped greet everyone and got them situated before we began serving. Many were lined up outside in the sun.

As we rushed to fill drink orders, bring out full plates and track down pats of butter, a young man reached out a hand. “Hi,” he said. “What’s your name?”

If I’m being honest, honest to the bone, well . . . I expected a leer. A come-on. A flirtation. Being asked my name has almost always preceded an unwelcome remark — though at 30, I rarely deal with that sort of thing anymore.

But I told him.

“Nice to meet you, Megan,” he said, and the two men with him also looked up with tired eyes. I smiled before grabbing plates and moving on.

A few minutes later, I passed by again — and the man put out a hand to catch my attention. “I’m sorry — what’s your name again?”

I told him, stifling a snap of impatience. A family was waiting on sweet tea.

“Megan,” he said, “can I ask you something?”

Here it comes, I thought. But I said, “Sure.”

“Megan . . . why do you . . .” He paused to take a slug of his water. Then he glanced at his friends, seemingly for help to pull the words he wanted from the meaty-scented air between us. Finally he asked, “Why do you do what you do?”

And I stood there, rooted to the sticky floor, used cups in my hands and sweaty hair in my face.

What I do?


I was not the one who built this nonprofit from the ground up. I hadn’t cooked or organized this dinner. I had not donated meals, goodies or much-needed funds. I was just a worker bee: running plates, scrubbing gravy bowls, crafting Arnold Palmers from the iced tea and lemonade dispensers for delighted children.

I’m not doing much of anything, I thought. I’m just here. I showed up.

“I . . . don’t know,” I said. “I just heard about it and . . . felt like I needed to come.”

And that was the truth. The plain truth.

I don’t like to think about others being hungry — especially children. There are so many causes to care about, so much that can leave us inspired and heartbroken and eager to help. The more I volunteer to serve dinners, the more I feel the need to serve dinners.

I don’t want to talk about helping or plan to help. I just want to do it.

Maybe your cause, like Angela, is to work to preserve your home for future generations. Maybe it’s to encourage others to vote or help rebuild communities or encourage sustainable living or raise funds for cancer research.

Whatever it is, you can start small. Wade in. Commit to a few hours, then a few hours more. Get others involved. Give the gift of your attention.

Sometimes the simplest questions have the hardest answers. And even if we can’t do much, we can do something.

We can show up.

The self-proclaimed book elf

Books at Christmas Connection

When I was a freshman in college, my speech professor was very community-oriented. Our class was required to deliver a talk on a worthy local charity — and that assignment was a chance to flex our persuasive muscles. The goal? Convincing our classmates to help in whatever way they could. And inspiring us to lend a hand, too.

Helping others is close to my heart, and I chose an organization easily. That Christmas in 2003, I volunteered to help distribute toys to needy families in Southern Maryland. The gratitude, spirit of giving and generosity were so inspiring — and it was an unforgettable experience.

I’ve always wanted to go back and help again, but . . . well, in the past nine years, life has just happened. Every fall I get a letter from Christmas Connection asking if I can help by donating toys or time. Though I always chip in with merchandise, thinking that’s the fun part (shopping!), I decided it was high time to get back into the nitty-gritty of the program. A few months back, I signed up to help distribute toys on Dec. 18. My sister joined in, too.

It’s been a crazy few days, obviously, and the holidays are definitely sneaking up on me. Despite being in the Christmas spirit since October and having this event on my calendar for months, I’m struggling to get myself together since the presentation of my sparkly new accessory! But Kate and I donned our Santa hats Tuesday night and rolled over to the church to help.

A volunteer addressed the group soon after we arrived. “Thank you all for coming!” she called. “Okay — I need some volunteers to distribute books.”

Books? Say what? I hadn’t realized there were books. Recalling last time I helped, I figured there would be toys, toiletries, stockings. But books?

I was on the book table in no time. You’re shocked, I know.

While Kate shopped with individual clients, helping choose gifts for 2- and 3- and 15-year-olds, I manned the books with a teacher. It was easy to channel my bookselling days: who are you shopping for today? What types of stories do they like? Can they read on their own? Are they into chapter books? Do they like princesses or animals or history?

I felt like a self-proclaimed book elf, my jingle-bell necklace bobbing with every step I took.

We tore through some books on Tuesday, let me tell you. Two hours passed in the blink of an eye. Most of the books on our massive table, pictured at top, were donated by individuals or businesses. But even the used ones were in good shape — and plenty of gems could be found. I delighted in finding perfect reads for youngsters, thinking about how the right story can unlock the imagination of a child. In the overflowing stacks were books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, R.L. Stine. I found Goosebumps, Ramona and Beezus, Black Beauty.

“Did you read this when you were little?” I asked, over and over again. The parents’ delighted smiles were the constant response.

Many smiled widely, gently taking my offerings. Four books per child — and some moms and dads could barely narrow down their stacks. While just a few people bypassed the books completely, nearly everyone devoted time to choosing just the right reads. And they took my recommendations seriously.

“My son loves history. He reads so well — really well. Do you have anything on American history?”

“Do you have any dictionaries?”

“Have you seen an atlas? Or anything on the presidents?”

“What would you recommend for a 13-year-old boy who loves adventure?”

The boys were the toughest — but I love a challenge. I’m happy to say no one left empty-handed — and I know every novel will land with the right person.

Any stereotype regarding parents who turn to charity to supply their kids with Christmas gifts could be dismissed after spending just ten minutes at a program like this. While there will always be folks taking advantage of the system, that’s never been my personal experience. Everyone I met was happy, grateful and warm. The mood was festive. When we left, we felt uplifted.

And I wasn’t thinking about it as charity work. I wasn’t there because I had to be. Nothing buffs the spirit to a shine like helping others — and I was thinking about matching a child with the perfect book for him or her. So many parents delighted in telling me how much their kids love books, which surprised me — especially in this era. But there we were.

And I hope there are plenty of happy kids with the Wimpy Kid and Berenstain Bears on Christmas morning. I’m thinking about them all.