Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Service Break

About three years ago I noticed what a long break the college kids get at Christmas. They end up with almost a month and that's just AFTER Christmas. “What on earth do they do with all that time?” is what I wanted to know. I decided they needed something to keep them busy and thus was born the idea of Service Break.

We would take the week between Christmas and New Years and run around town doing service projects. We would visit a few well established service opportunities as well as some odd jobs for folks in our church. I pictured our college kids painting or repairing stuff for the elderly and patted myself on the back at what a great match of talents and needs I had discovered.

It turned out I was wrong but only slightly.

The college kids were all either taking a Jan-term class, visiting out of town relatives or didn't want to do a damned thing but sleep and let their brains regenerate. The elderly didn't need any help, either, they said, Thank You Very Much.  I started thinking I had discovered neither talent nor needs. So I cleaned off my glasses and went with what we did have—an assortment of restless retired folks and a handful of  enthusiastic elementary and junior high school kids.  Then I matched us up with a couple of well-organized volunteer organizations. We pared the week down to three days of mostly half-day work. And told people they were free to come for just one day or all three if they wanted.

All three days our first order of business was to serve coffee to the Day Labor Center. This is a street corner where the City of Garland built a pavilion with bench seats where the guys looking for work can assemble out of the rain and offer themselves for odd jobs. Until the city intervened these guys were standing in the parking lots of various businesses wearing down the grass and it was not organized in any way to help anyone, laborers or employers alike.

Most of the guys are Mexicans and only a few are either black or white. I’m not sure if the Mexicans are legal or not. I don't like to get all wadded up with a lot of questions. I also don't know why they are predominantly Mexican but the city employs a couple of guys to manage the center and they are fluent in Spanish.

Please let me interject here and clarify that I use the word "Mexican" in a respectful way as in "someone born in Mexico or who has roots in that country." I'm afraid the majority of our culture today has fallen into sloppy thinking and assumes the word is a pejorative when it really isn't. Most people from Mexico are proud to have their roots in that country and be called Mexican. It’s the WASPs who think it's an insult, possibly inventing an insult where none existed before. We're clever that way sometimes.

Anyway, this is the easiest of our projects. We set up the church's biggest coffeemaker the night before with a timer to have the coffee ready for 8 a.m. We really should start at 6 or 7 because I’m sure most of the men are looking for work then. But the idea of asking a volunteer to start work at 6 a.m. kind of takes the fun out of it. Eight a.m. is a good compromise and I tell myself that if a guy has found work before we get there with the coffee then he is lucky and doesn't really need it. The ones who need it are the ones still waiting at 8 a.m. because they're facing a long, dry day.

With the coffee ready all we have to do is pour it all into a five-gallon cooler and take it to the center. The kids have done this job long enough that they know the drill and fall out of the car ready to serve up steaming styrofoams of coffee with a smile. "Gracias", the guys say. "De Nada," our kids say.

Tuesday, after coffee we did a once- a-year deep cleaning of the church sanctuary. We wiped down the pews, vacuumed between the cushions and replaced all the pencils with freshly sharpened ones. We are the only group in our congregation who know exactly how many pencil-holders we have--306.  It’s amazing how much dirt can accumulate in a room that is basically used only 52 times a year by people who have just taken a bath. Because Presbyterians tend to sit in the exact same spot every single week we know who the messy people are, who hasn’t washed their hands and who steals the pencils.

After cleaning the sanctuary we went to the North Texas Food Bank to box up food. The previous years we had assembled bags of food for a program known as Food 4 Kids. These bags go into a backpack on Friday afternoon for the kids in the free breakfast and lunch program. Some of them might not have any food over the weekend otherwise. It’s easy to pack these bags because you have one person by each box and if you’re a juice person when the bag is passed to you your only job is to put two boxes of juice into the bag, passing the bag along to the milk person. It’s an easy breezy assembly line.

But this year we did what they call “salvage.” This is where we had massive crates of an assortment of food—sometimes from canned food drives and sometimes from grocery stores who might empty an entire shelf of overstocked items. This was a much tougher job than the Food 4 Kids packing because you had to make decisions. There were about four different things you could do with a can once you picked it up: was it water or a drink? (water went into one crate while there was another crate for anything else you can drink) was it mostly sugar? Sugar went into a box of its own, vegetables or meat went into Family boxes. But, first, you had to check to see if it was out of date and needed to go into still another crate for trash. There was another box for non-food items and one for pet food.

We found this packing a lot harder because there were so many variables. However, at the end of our shift, Chris, the NTFB guy helping us, told us we had boxed up 4 pallets of food providing over 4,000 meals for people facing food insecurity. Not bad for three hour’s work.

After we had been there about an hour I looked over at one of the other areas and saw a bunch of big guys in Dallas Cowboys shirts packing up food. We started out thinking it was just a bunch of really devoted fans doing a good deed spurred by leftover Christmas spirit. But then we saw the television cameras and we knew these guys had to be the real thing. One of the kids asked Chris if this was the REAL Cowboys and he said they come about three or four times a year and stay only as long as the photo op lasted. Sure enough, fifteen minutes later the cameras disappeared and so did the football players. We stayed for the balance of our three hour shift and took some pictures ourselves.



Wednesday we went to one of the most unique projects we’ve ever done--a project the volunteer coordinator always warns us “not everyone understands.” The largest homeless shelter in Dallas is run by the First Presbyterian Church.  At the start of the Christmas season they put out a general request for shoe boxes filled with toiletries for the homeless and include a general suggestion list. And they ask that these be wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper. Over the years the response has grown via forwarded emails and they get more and more boxes. After distributing 2,000 of these boxes to the homeless this year they still had another couple of thousand boxes left over. It amounts to almost their entire need for the rest of the year and they are grateful for the boxes; it saves them from having to buy these goods themselves and relieves a huge cash drain on their budget. But here is the challenge: They don’t have storage space for 2,000 shoe boxes wrapped in Christmas paper.

Our job was to take the wrapped boxes apart and re-package the contents into big tubs of like items. One for Chapsticks One for toothbrushes one for hand sanitizers.


They told us it was painful for them to order the dismantling of these beautifully wrapped boxes and the volunteer coordinator begged for an alternative idea if we had one. About the only consolation was that the shoe boxes and paper would be recycled. We had to take the boxes apart so they could be squished flat and more would fit into the recycling bin. I worked at this job until my hands wore out and I switched to sorting. It turns out that taking apart a shoe box is a tough job. I became a connoisseur of shoe boxes, partial to the ones that were assembled without glue and could be taken apart easily.

Thursday was our last day and we baked several dozen cookies for a nursing home where one of our congregation lives then took the cookies to the residents and visited a while with Sherrie.



You may remember that I have written of Sherrie before. Her condition has progressed to where she needs round the clock care now. But she retains her sense of humor, especially when we told her we found out her real age. She still has remnants of her bright smile and the little wink she gives to show she knows what’s going on and we’re not fooling her. A good time was had by all.

Thank you, God, for willing hands and for busy hands and for work to put in them. Next year we might add Meals on Wheels.

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