Over the weekend, I volunteered at the Nome Food Bank.
I would love to say this idea sprung of some deep-rooted benevolence. But, me being me, I’m also uncomfortable with the stereotypical understandings of volunteering and charity—tending to over-think and complicate and preferring to frame these (usually long) conversations around the ideas of service and justice and the wholeness of life. (If at any point you would like to have one of those conversations with me, please! We will make tea and sit together. For now, I will say: This article is beautiful and thought-provoking. But that is a post for another day.) On to the more interesting part of the story…
By some way or another, as things tend to happen here in Nome, I said I would volunteer and strolled over to the Food Bank early Saturday afternoon. I had no real expectations for the day, but I knew people would be coming by to drop off donations, and I was to (wo)man the bank, sorting food as I was able to throughout the donation period. I packed three books, my journal, and some music just in case it was a slow day.
I got about halfway through a David Sedaris essay when the first donation was dropped off—a box and many grocery bags spilling over with cans of beans and boxes of mac-n-cheese, and sugar-free candies wedged in between packages of Ramen noodles. Cool, I thought. The other woman volunteering with me snapped pictures while I slowly sifted through the treasures (Hawaiian spices? The most interesting things end up in this town…); we discussed how best to organize the new additions, trailing off into conversations about work and faith and life in Nome.
That moment of contemplation lasted about five minutes. Pretty soon we were three cars deep outside the food bank, and families were bringing in totes of food. Volunteer Courtney showed up a few minutes into the initial, blissful madness—assuming I’d be hanging out for three hours without much to do. She, too, was assigned a job immediately—namely, indoctrinating the Girl Scouts who had just arrived into the collation system we devised on the spot.
The floor was covered to the point where you couldn’t really walk across it without squishing a bag of rice or accidentally stepping on the feet of one of the new helpers. Oh yes, there were plenty of helpers. As folks piled in with donations (and then left to collect more), most promised to return and help organize. At a certain point, there were probably between 15 and 20 volunteers between the ages of three and 60 years old taking charge of the situation in their own small way, efforts blending seamlessly together as we created an elaborate and surprisingly efficient system.
Those who couldn’t bend down for long or sit on the floor going through bags stood at tables sorting food between fresh and expired. The good stuff was handed off to shorter, faster volunteers (notably the troop of Girl Scouts who had the perfect combination of spunk and organizational savvy) for placement on shelves and in storage boxes.
At one point, Courtney announced that she stumbled upon a can of vegetables from 2003.
Disbelief in their eyes, one of the Girl Scouts stared at the antique corn. “That’s before me!” she exclaimed, echoing the sentiments of her decade-old friends.
We took a moment to appreciate the significance of this observation, then continued frantically sorting. One opened bag of Butterfinger candies was volunteered as tribute for the nourishment of the workers. Not a single soul made a peep about exhaustion. More work and confusion on our part could only mean benefit for more people as the donations continued pouring in.
And then, the treasured specimen was uncovered: a tin of nutmeg from 1981. Courtney tossed me the fragile seasoning. We looked at each other, and then at the Girl Scouts.
“That’s before us…”
Others in the room who might possibly have outdated the nutmeg looked with respect and something resembling disapproval at the faded red, white and blue container. We couldn’t throw it out, now, could we? I began to understand how the nutmeg had survived so long.
I guess it was over three hours when we finally finished up, shocked that, like magic, all the floors had been cleared and the community donation room was stocked and overflowing. Some of the hardworking younger folks were awarded with a trip next door to Bering Tea and a couple of chocolates for the road. It was only when we all stood around in a circle, congratulating each other on a good day’s work, that we realized no one had really been recruited to volunteer besides two of us.
I remain in awe of this town. Even when you don’t expect it, people show up—and they show up with a smile and hands ready to work. The sense of community—an understanding of the word that is new to me. The accountability. The work ethic. The guarantee that even if you’ve never done something before and really have no qualifications or assigned duty to it—if you just commit to it and work hard to do it the best you can, you’ll share in the reward of responsibility and the creation of something whole and alive and beautifully imperfect. And you’ll probably meet some fascinating people along the way with stories that could only come from living like this, always. Always on the pulse of life. The present, pressing immediacy of life that throws a new surprise at you every day.
I think that’s why we volunteers are given the advice to always say “yes.”