She was barely five feet tall, making it a challenge for her to reach inside the containers of food along the counter. Speaking only Korean, she conveyed her needs by pointing. I responded to each gesture, handing her a stalk of celery, a half dozen jalapeños, a few apples, some lettuce. We filled her bag at the Karsh Family Social Service Center food pantry that Sunday morning, and wordlessly, she bowed to thank me as she headed for the door. But then she stopped and turned around. “Shalom,” she said with a big smile.
And there it was: one word, a heartwarming Hebrew word at that, reminding me that the chief beneficiaries of volunteering are not just the people we serve.
Let me say this straight-out. I was never much of a volunteer kind of guy. Maybe once in a while. But for the most part, that was for others. I’d do my part writing checks to help a cause. Getting involved in the Karsh Center food pantry or the other Wilshire Boulevard Temple volunteer programs? Nah, not for me.
My wife’s birthday was approaching. It was a Sunday, and she had a non-traditional idea for celebrating. She decided to invite a bunch of our friends to volunteer at the food pantry on her birthday. Then we’d take everyone out for breakfast.
“Really?” I said. “Is that what you want to do?”
Reluctantly, I went along.
It was clearly not what I expected. Our group of 10 quickly blended into the beehive of activity—volunteers of all ages putting cans of food into big bags and bread into smaller bags, moving potatoes and other produce from the freezers to stations along the counters, greeting and assisting clients who had waited patiently for the doors to open.
My first job was cabbage duty, removing any spoiled leaves, then stacking the heads on the counter for distribution. I had no idea what my wife, Joan Harrison, and our friends were doing. I was too engaged with my cabbage.
As clients moved through the lines, I took on a second job, standing near the exit to help with filling up bags, making sure they weren’t too heavy to carry out. As clients finished their shopping, many thanked me in their Korean- or Spanish-flavored English. Some even said, “God bless you.”
As mundane as this may seem, stacking cabbage and handing out apples and potatoes, the more I did, the more I realized how much the pantry meant to these people caught at the short end of life’s serendipity. We weren’t just handing out food; we were handing out survival.
And that’s when it really hit me: while the food was a gift to them, their thank-yous were gifts to me. It gave me something that writing a check never did—a warm, spiritual uplift that comes from one-on-one interaction, however brief. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you have it.
I’m sure any longtime volunteer may be thinking, Duh, why do you think I do this. Now I get it: it’s one thing to contemplate food distribution in the abstract, even help pay for it; it’s quite another to experience it yourself. The Karsh Center pantry is open every Sunday morning. There’s plenty of food and plenty of opportunity to help. I encourage you to try it. A gift is waiting.