My friend and I buzz ourselves in, hand our paperwork to the secretary, and sign in to the volunteer log she points us to. We are quickly ushered into the cafeteria, inspirational quote books plopped into our empty hands.
The volunteers, one after another, stood up at the front of the cafeteria and read a quote from their book. The next reader would come up, hug the previous reader, and introduce themselves. My friend was called up, and read a quote about how each individual is a very small unique piece of the world, and how we never know what someone else’s story could be. It really stuck with me, as I sat among so many strangers who welcomed me with warm smiles, as we all stood in this humble building in Baltimore.
Paul’s Place is a non-profit organization in southwest Baltimore. It originally started out as a soup kitchen, and soon grew to provide many services to the community, such as a Nurse’s Clinic, a children’s summer camp, as well as a Clothing Bank, which we volunteered for.
The Clothing Bank’s goal is to give people the clothing they need for two weeks. The volunteers either help sort out the donations and label sizes, or help the clients find what they need as “Personal Shoppers”. The Personal Shoppers also make help with sizing, and making sure the clients know the restrictions (only a certain number of shirts and pants, only a certain amount of time depending on need, etc).
It was sometimes difficult for the clients to find the clothes they were looking for, either because they weren’t donated or because the bins and racks were too disorganized. This was even more stressful for them, since the clients are given a limited amount of time to shop.
Overall, though, people found what they needed, and were grateful for our help. One of my clients was concerned, because it happened to be chilly that day, however the organization only put out summer clothes because of the changing season. She said she had to go to work right after, and had no jacket. Thankfully, there was one lone rain jacket that another client found for her. I’m glad that Paul’s Place could help her, even with something so small as a jacket.
Watching the women make quick decisions about what to take and what to leave reminded me a lot of my childhood. Most of my clothes growing up came from hand-me-downs. I remember the frustration at the lack of choice. The joy of finding something that fit your style, when everything else felt like just a utilitarian piece of cloth. However, that’s not to say I know exactly what my clients experienced. Sizing was hard, but at least I could try my new clothes on! These women were decisive and focused, and I admired them for enduring something I hated so much as a kid.
I would have to say that my project was not technically successful, since my original goal was to help out with food donations or in a soup kitchen. I was unable to work at Paul’s Place’s soup kitchen because of schedule conflicts. However, personally, my project was very satisfying. The reason I originally focused on helping alleviate food scarcity was because my family had gone through a time when we needed similar resources, so I knew the importance of those organizations. Even though I didn’t help out in the area that I wanted, I still felt I was giving back to an organization that would have helped my family.
In terms of what worked and didn’t work, I would say persistence and flexibility were my most important resources. Since transportation was my biggest obstacle to volunteering, I originally reached out to the Shriver Center at UMBC for help. However, they didn’t have any carpools to the Maryland Food Bank, my ideal place to volunteer. So I reached out to friends, researched the public transportation system, and contacted the Food Bank directly. Another obstacle came my way when I lost contact with the Food Bank, and had to find another organization altogether. Shout-out to my professor, Dr. Kate, who directed me to Paul’s Place! Without her help, I probably would have had to scrap my entire project. Overall, I just used all of my resources to the best of my ability, and that allowed me to volunteer like I wanted.
I think I could have been more creative so that I could stick to my original goal. I could have found another food bank or soup kitchen. I could have even created a food drive, or supported an existing one (the Asian Studies Program has one year-round) in order to keep to my goal of addressing food scarcity. I suppose I’ve learned how difficult activism can be, which is kind of disappointing. But I guess I did contribute in some small way, so I’ll say I’ve also learned how powerful small projects can be. I think as an activist, I need to play more towards my strengths and resources the next time I have a project in mind. I also never realized how rewarding activism can be! In three hours, I chopped away at a small, small branch of a big issue, and I like to think I made a dent. Even though I didn’t accomplish my original goal, I’m happy with my project.
If I could do it again, the only thing I would change would be to volunteer at Paul’s Place multiple times during the semester in each of the areas. The people there were friendly and helpful, and I don’t regret the winding path that lead me to their door.